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Marta Ortiz
Gustavo De La Vina
Photograph, Gustavo De La Vina. Image courtesy of the University of Texas-Pan American (presently part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

DE LA VIÑA, GUSTAVO (1939–2009). Gustavo “Gus” de la Viña (Vina) was the first Mexican American to serve as chief of the United States Border Patrol. He worked to restrain the flow of illegal immigration into the U.S., initiated a proactive strategy in border protection, and worked to secure the safety of would-be undocumented immigrants. De la Viña was born on June 24, 1939, in Edinburg, Texas. His father died when he was just an infant, leaving his mother, a schoolteacher, to raise Gus and his brother Frank. Gus graduated from Edinburg High School in 1958 and in 1963 graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from what became the University of Texas Pan American (presently part of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). He worked for some time as an elementary school gym teacher but later joined the U. S. Border Patrol in 1970. He was assigned to the Eagle Pass, Texas, port of entry.

Through the years De la Viña occupied several supervisory positions at border patrol academies and ascended the ranks to deputy El Paso sector chief from 1984 to 1990. At a time when the San Diego sector was considered the busiest in the nation, De la Viña served for four years as chief patrol agent. While working in San Diego, De la Viña implemented Operation Gatekeeper. The program began in the early 1990s, and it consisted of adding infrastructure such as improved border fencing and enhanced technology (including stadium-style lighting and automated processing of detainees). The operation also significantly increased the number of agents along the border. The border patrol launched the operation in San Diego, then in El Paso, and finally along the entire Mexican border. Although the federal government deemed the operation successful, others criticized the human costs of its success. The new strategy diverted human trafficking to mountainous and arid regions to the east of San Diego, which proved more difficult for immigrants and resulted in more deaths. After his work in San Diego, in 1995 De la Viña became Western regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which at the time was the border patrol's parent agency. Finally in 1997 De la Viña became chief of the border patrol; he was the first Mexican American to hold the position.

Under his care, the border patrol was responsible for patrolling the Mexican and Canadian land borders and the coastal waters surrounding the Florida Peninsula and Puerto Rico. With maritime jurisdiction in U.S. ports, harbors, vessels, and waterfront facilities, the United States Coast Guard collaborated with the border patrol to help deter illegal immigration in the Gulf of Mexico, the Atlantic, and the Pacific coasts. In 1998, a year after assuming his post as border patrol chief, De la Viña created the Border Safety Initiative. The initiative was meant to warn unauthorized immigrants of the perils of border crossings and included the use of public service announcements on both sides of the border. It also consisted of proactive searches for immigrants that were abandoned and suffering in deserts and other potentially deadly environments. Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, De la Viña volunteered to send border patrol agents to provide additional visible security at many airports. He also oversaw the transition of the border patrol from the Department of Justice to the Customs and Border Protection Agency within the Department of Homeland Security. He remained chief of the border patrol until his retirement in 2004.

After retiring from the border patrol, De la Viña became an adviser to the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program within the Department of Justice. While on assignment in Bosnia-Herzegovina, “Chief” De la Viña died of natural causes on October 26, 2009. He was survived by his wife Donna O. de la Viña of Mesa, Arizona, and four children from a previous marriage—Gustavo Jr., Dina, Monica, and Monette. He was buried in Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona.

During his lifetime Gustavo De la Viña received a number of prestigious honors. In 1999 President William Clinton named Chief De la Viña a Distinguished Executive in the Senior Executive Service, and in 2002 President George W. Bush conferred upon him the rank of Meritorious Executive in the Senior Executive Service. He was also recipient of the United States Attorney General’s Distinguished Service Award (twice granted) and the Presidential Rank Award, the highest honor granted to career senior civil servants. Not only was Gustavo de la Viña the first Mexican American to serve as chief of the border patrol, his strategic vision is credited with providing the foundation of the border enforcement strategy for the 2010s and beyond.


El Paso Times, October 27, 2009. “Gustavo De La Viña (BS ’63),” 2010 Pillars of Success, University of Texas Pan American, (http://portal.utpa.edu/utpa_main/dua_2011/alumni_home/awards/pillars_of_success/2010/), accessed March 20, 2015. McAllen Monitor, November 02, 2009. Doris Meissner and James Ziglar, "Statement by Former INS Commissioners Meissner and Ziglar on the Life of Retired Border Patrol Chief Gus De La Viña," Migration Policy Institute, October 29, 2009 (http://www.migrationpolicy.org/news/statement-former-ins-commissioners-meissner-and-ziglar-life-retired-border-patrol-chief-gus-de), accessed March 20, 2015. “Missions-Maritime Security,” United States Coast Guard, U. S. Department of Homeland Security (http://www.uscg.mil/top/missions/MaritimeSecurity.asp), accessed March 11, 2016. “Passing of Retired Chief of U.S. Border Patrol Gustavo De La Viña,” October 30, 2009, U. S. Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security (http://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/local-media-release/2009-10-30-040000/passing-retired-chief-us-border-patrol-gustavo-de-la), accessed March 20, 2015. Loretta Sanchez, "Honoring The Service Of Former Border Patrol Chief Gustavo De La Vina," Capital Words, Sunlight Foundation, October 29, 2009 (http://capitolwords.org/date/2009/10/29/H12048-2_honoring-the-service-of-former-border-patrol-chief/), accessed March 20, 2015. Washington Post, June 25, 1999. Washington Times, May 04, 2004. 

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Marta Ortiz, "DE LA VIÑA, GUSTAVO," accessed June 07, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fdeap.

Uploaded on March 15, 2016. Modified on July 5, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
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