De La Vina died Monday in the Balkan nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he worked as a private advisor, said Steve Cribby, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The El Paso Times reported that De La Vina died of natural causes.
De La Vina joined the Border Patrol in 1970 at the Eagle Pass, Texas, port of entry. He taught Spanish at the agency's training academy in Georgia and rose through the ranks to become deputy El Paso sector chief, San Diego sector chief and the Western regional director.
In December 1997, he was promoted to chief of the Border Patrol, the first of Mexican American descent, and remained in the post until he retired in 2004.
In San Diego, De La Vina implemented Operation Gatekeeper, a security operation that used improved border fencing, stadium-style lighting and automated processing of detained immigrants.
After his promotion to patrol chief, he created the Border Safety Initiative to warn would-be illegal immigrants of the dangers of border crossings and searches for illegal immigrants in distress in deserts and other often-deadly environments.
Born in 1939 in Edinburg, Texas, deep in the southern tip of the state, De La Vina and his brother Frank were raised by their mother, a schoolteacher, after their father died when De La Vina was an infant.
He graduated from what is now the University of Texas Pan American in 1963 and worked as an elementary school gym teacher before joining the Border Patrol.
Known for his deep voice and ever-present cowboy boots, De La Vina was credited by some for staunching the flow of illegal immigrants across the border near the urban center of San Diego in the 1990s.
But others criticized the consequent diversion of human trafficking to desert and mountain terrain to the east that was more difficult to cross and resulted in more deaths.
Keeping illegal immigrants from crossing the border was a daunting task, De La Vina conceded in a 1991 interview with The Times. "This has been going on for many years, and it'll probably keep going on for many years," he said. "I don't know if we'll ever be able to stop it. They're looking for jobs, and we're giving them jobs."