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This is a story about extreme right-wing politics, and also a journey along the route of one of the longest rivers in the US. Both the river and the story start in the mountains, where the crystal-clear waters of the Rio Grande rise at nearly 4,000m in one of Colorado’s National Forests. It then travels 3,033km through three states and forms a natural but highly contentious border dividing Texas and Mexico.

Following its path, you travel through a landscape that reflects the deep-seated divides currently underpinning the US political landscape. By the time the water empties into the Gulf of Mexico, it is polluted, depleted and muddied, like the region’s politics.

When Barack Obama was sworn in as US president, gun sales increased dramatically in Colorado, as in many other states. Many of these new owners – joining the 80 million people in the US who already owned guns – said they felt insecure about America’s future and wanted to be prepared.

In Wheat Ridge, Colorado, north of the Rio Grande, Phil Wolf has erected a vast billboard in the forecourt of his used-car dealership, decrying President Obama. Towering above a fleet of four-wheel drive trucks, an image of Obama wearing a turban is accompanied by the slogan “President or Jihad?”, with the demand “Birth Certificate – Prove it!”

Supporters of the “Birther movement” claim Obama was not born in the US. “Obama is a fraud and a fake,” says Wolf. “To me the guy is a radical Muslim. A hundred years ago they would have hanged him. In my mindset this guy needs to be done away with. He is not an American. I think he is the enemy.”

This kind of statement is not limited to the fringes. A recent Harris poll suggested that a majority of Republican supporters believe Obama is a Muslim and a socialist who “wants to turn over the sovereignty of the United States to a one-world government”. Today, as my journey along the Rio Grande exposed, anti-Obama feeling is increasingly vehement.

These are volatile times for US politics. An expression of this is the anti-tax, anti-government Tea Party movement. Reckless, anarchic and strident, it is galvanising support around the country; at the same time, fear and rage seem to be driving out the facts.

In Texas, close to where the Rio Grande ends its journey, the McAllen Tea Party warns that “revolution is brewing in the Rio Grande Valley”. The group calls on members to join their “efforts to stop our country’s swift turn toward socialism and, yes, even Marxism”. It vows to fight “the injustices we are seeing emerge from this Obama government”, and urge that “we must protect our right to bear arms from the insanity of the Obama administration”. Along my route, these sentiments were echoed by many of the people I met.

In Texas, you are not legally required to obtain a permit to have a gun at home, or carry one in your car. In Arizona and New Mexico, it is legal to carry a handgun in public. But as gun owners campaign to loosen firearm laws, virulent anti-immigration sentiment along the US border with Mexico is also increasing. Speaking at a Tea Party tour in Arizona, one delegate recently spelled out his plan for dealing with illegal immigration: “Put a fence in and start shooting.” A patchy attempt by the government to build a barrier along the US-Mexico border has cost $2.4bn (€1.86bn) so far. Around 960km of fence have been erected, but the remaining 2,090km will cost an estimated $7bn (€5.42bn).

In Texas the fence hardly exists at all. The Rio Grande forms a natural barrier all along the border. But the once mighty river has lost much of its strength. The Rio Grande has been declared one of the 10 most at-risk rivers in the world. Its depleted water levels are also causing headaches for the US Border Patrol. Mexicans illegally trying to make it to Texas have traditionally swum across the river; now, at Boca Chica, they can sometimes walk across.

Despite tremendous economic growth in the last quarter of a century, roughly 40 per cent of Mexico’s population continues to live in poverty. With the proper credentials, thousands of day-workers are permitted to make the 10-minute journey through official entry points into the US every day. But for the poor without legal permits, the border represents a chance for a better life.

The illegal journey across the border, though, can be frightening. Mexican cartels control the routes, offering guides but demanding high fees. Stories of betrayal, abandonment and even kidnap are common – and then there is the risk of apprehension by the US Border Patrol.

The border is also a lucrative drugs route and Mexican drug cartels are locked in a bloody battle to control these corridors. Illegal migrants without money to pay for their passage can be used as mules, carrying 20kg backpacks of marijuana for as far as 130km.

A controversial law that was recently passed in Arizona gives police increased powers to arrest and investigate suspected illegal immigrants. The Obama administration contested the law in court as unconstitutional, and there has been protest from the Hispanic community, but Deputy Sheriff Ashton Shewey, of Arizona’s Pinal County police department, is matter-of-fact about what it means to him.

“Half of my daily contacts are with illegal immigrants or Mexican nationals. But we don’t ‘racial profile’ – we only stop people who are breaking the law,” he says. “With the new law we can arrest people who have no ID or won’t offer their name. We can detain them while we check them out. Before, we would have to call Border Patrol.”

Shewey describes the incomplete border fence as a joke. The recent shooting of one of Pinal County’s deputy sheriffs has further aggravated the situation. “One of our deputies apparently stumbled across a group of drug mules, and a gunman opened fire,” Shewey explains. “We had 100 deputies out that night, instead of the usual three. We swept the area and picked up 120 illegals.”

While this kind of incident is unusual, a US Border Patrol agent was shot and killed last year close to the border in Campo, California, while an Arizona rancher was also killed on his land near the border earlier this year. These incidents inflame an already heated debate on illegal immigration.

Rosie Huey has been a US Border Patrol agent for 10 years in the Rio Grande sector. Like so many agents that I met, she is Hispanic. “My mother was born in Mexico, my father in the US. But he is also of Mexican descent,” she tells me, aware of the irony. “Of course I feel compassion. Mexicans call us hypocrites and say, ‘How can you do this to us?’ But I’m doing a job I signed up to do.”

The Minutemen have less sympathy. Some call them vigilantes, others patriots, but they are basically armed, civilian volunteer activists who patrol the border in their spare time, reporting illegal immigrants to the Border Patrol.

Al Garza runs a group called the Patriot’s Coalition. “We’re being invaded. It’s an outright undeclared war against US sovereignty,” he says. “We need to secure the borders, it’s real simple. But they want a one-world order. The president is a puppet, a front.”

Garza tells me he was in the Marine Corps, and fought in Vietnam. “I’m a patriot. My country means a lot to me,” he tells me. “This idiot, Obama, I don’t consider him my president. Obama is not an American, and his loyalty is not to the US. This man is a usurper. Well, I’ve got news for him, he’s not going to be president much longer!”

The anger unleashed against Obama in response to his healthcare reforms has been startlingly bitter. In April, at a Republican conference, Sarah Palin repeated her slogan: “Don’t retreat. Reload.” She insisted it was not a call for violence, however the danger of this kind of rhetoric should not be underestimated. Last year, a Homeland Security report concluded: “The economic downturn and the election of the first African-American president present unique drivers for right-wing radicalisation and recruitment.”

Shortly before the passing of the healthcare vote, conservative blogger Solomon Forell tweeted: “We’ll surely get over a bullet 2 Barack Obama’s head!” He added: “The Next American with a Clear Shot should drop Obama like a bad habit. 4get Blacks or his claim to be Black. Turn on Barack Obama.”

Two and a half years after the official start of the worst economic downturn in nearly 80 years, and less than 18 months into the rule of America’s first black president, the mood along the Rio Grande is turning ugly.

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