The pistol the boy is holding is a plastic toy. He and two other kids from Honduras are playing on the pedestal of a statue of an Aztec eagle in Reynosa, a Mexican city just south of the tail end of Texas. The three of them are wearing face masks, as are most of the Central American migrants packed together, sleeping rough, in this city square, Plaza de la República. It is May 14th, 2021, and cases of Covid-19 are common among the multitudes of deportees being turned back from the United States in record numbers.
Never have so many undocumented migrants arrived at the same time to the Rio Grande Valley. Many of the plazas in Reynosa have turned into open-air camps like this one. I count 50 to 100 tents, sheltering four or five people apiece. Most are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Many come from within Mexico, too. The bandstand in the center of the square has been draped in so many tarpaulins that it looks like a big patchwork yurt. People line up to charge their cellphones from an extension cord run in from a light post. Lines of laundry hang from the trees.
In five days’ time, a thunderstorm will flood this encampment and turn the beaten-down grass into mud. Today, it’s warm and muggy, and the air is motionless, typical weather for humid Reynosa, 50 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. For the most part, these deportees did not choose to come to this city, which is perennially ranked among the world’s most homicidal. They have been dropped off here by U.S. immigration authorities after failed attempts to cross the border, mostly at more rural points upstream. This plaza, one block from the international bridge to McAllen, Texas, is essentially a collection point, where migrants await their next attempt to cross into the United States. The deals they have struck with smugglers, known as coyotes or polleros, allow them to try several times. That’s only fair, when most of them have paid between $7,000 and $15,000, depending on their country of origin. It’s a huge sum — $7,000 is more than the average annual income in Honduras — and it typically has to be raised by relatives already in the U.S., or by the sale of land, with many forms of repayment amounting to indentured servitude. But the price promises passage not just over the Texas border, but all the way to Houston, in most cases including housing, food, and transportation.
“Nos agarraron,” says a man coming down from the McAllen bridge with muddy shoes and jeans: “They grabbed us.” He’s with five others, all muddy to the knees, who have been turned back by Border Patrol. But he grins and gives a thumbs-up. “We’re going to try again later. We’re fighting for a good life.”
The legacy of Spanish colonialism, U.S. coups in the Cold War, the pan-Latin American war on drugs, and the expropriation of natural resources by multinational companies are among the factors that have driven Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to the brink of failed-state status. Deforestation, overfishing, unregulated pollution, and especially soil erosion have made environmental conditions dire. Most of all, the people suffer from poverty and lack of opportunity. Those who can afford the smuggler’s fee are considered fortunate. It’s a big investment to make, and the price keeps going up as the U.S. border grows harder to penetrate. The dangers of the journey have also intensified, as the main route increasingly converges with one of the most fractious battlegrounds of the long-running cartel wars in Mexico.
A couple of young guys in camouflage cargo shorts go around visiting with various groups of migrants. Their yellow traffic vests identify them as coyotitos, or smugglers’ assistants: gofers for the network of coyotes that operates from here all the way to Miguel Alemán, 60 miles farther inland, a notorious cartel redoubt scarred by 20 years of gangland warfare that has been the epicenter of mass migration in 2021. In March, an Associated Press reporter standing on the riverbank on the American side, in Roma, Texas, saw people coming across at the rate of 100 an hour. Photographers at the scene captured a veritable flotilla of inflatable boats, and scuffles between coyotes and Border Patrol agents as well as Texas state police, who in some cases tried to puncture the rubber rafts with knives, to keep them from being reused.
I’ll soon have the chance to speak to one of the most prolific coyotes around, a 36-year-old who goes by the name El Comandante, and claims to oversee much of the human smuggling in this corridor. He confirms what U.S. law-enforcement sources and university researchers have already told me: Along the 250-mile stretch of border from Miguel Alemán to the coast, all the migrant smuggling is carried out under the aegis of the Gulf Cartel, Mexico’s original crime syndicate.
The Cartel del Golfo, also known as the CDG, the Company, or the Hand, was founded in the Prohibition era by the legendary bootlegger Juan Nepomuceno Guerra. Nearly a century later, it holds a brutal monopoly on all forms of organized crime in the Rio Grande Valley, including human smuggling.
“Todos los coyotes están con La Mano,” says Sylvia Cruz, an independent reporter in Reynosa who showed me around: “All of the coyotes are with the Hand.”
In March 2021, Border Patrol agents had 173,348 encounters with undocumented migrants at the southern border, according to Customs and Border Protection. That was a fivefold increase over March 2020, and easily double the number of run-ins that agents would typically have in the springtime. Of the March encounters, 60,839 took place in the Rio Grande Valley, more than three times the number recorded in the next-busiest sector, Del Rio. The most common profile was a Honduran family. Single Mexican men made up the next-largest category. As of April, a staggering 64,496 unaccompanied minors had crossed the U.S. border in 2021. Almost half of them did so in the Valley, as Texans call this region of the state.
Including all sectors, from Texas to California, Border Patrol encountered 687,854 migrants over the first five months of 2021. Some amount of double-counting is surely going on. A public-health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows Border Patrol to summarily boot out arrivals with no due process, and no penalty either, meaning there’s no reason for migrants who have come 1,000 miles or more not to make multiple attempts, leading to duplicative brushes with border agents. But no one I spoke to could remember another time when there had been so many people trying to come over at once. However rough a measurement, the 514,901 encounters that Border Patrol recorded in March, April, and May point to an influx on the scale of a million people this year.
Immigration is a perennially contentious topic in the United States. This was never more true than under former-President Donald Trump, whose most draconian policies included the separation of migrant children from their families as a punishment or deterrent; the placement of new restrictions on asylum claims; the cancellation of “temporary protected status” for Hondurans, El Salvadoreans, and Nicaraguans; and the expansion of physical barriers on the border, the so-called wall. President Joe Biden has undone some of Trump’s policies and scaled back raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but has retained others, including a Covid-era interpretation of Title 42 of U.S. law under which authorities can summarily expel migrants “to prevent spread of communicable disease.” The Democratic Party is split between conservatives like Rep. Henry Cuellar, from Laredo, Texas, who wants to “enforce the laws,” and reformers like San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who wants to repeal the statute that makes “illegal entry” a federal crime.
“This new surge we’re dealing with now started with the last administration, but it’s our responsibility to deal with it humanely,” Biden said in remarks on March 24th. He reinstated aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and gave Vice President Kamala Harris the job of leading a diplomatic effort to stem migration. In a recent interview with Lester Holt, Harris stressed the need to address the “root causes,” but the only new initiatives she cited were programs to expand access to vaccines, banking systems, and technology (in partnership with corporations including Microsoft, Mastercard, and the Chobani yogurt company). Her message to migrants was, “Do not come,” citing the “violence and danger” of the trek through Mexico, but it seems unlikely her words will go heeded. Truth be told, no past administration has grappled successfully with the phenomenon of mass migration from Latin America in the era of climate change. If Biden has any new ideas, he has yet to announce them.
In his remarks, Biden mentioned coyotes, and alluded to their practice of leaving people to die in the desert. People on all sides of the immigration debate can agree that human smugglers are bad actors. They are notorious for systematically swindling and deceiving their customers, especially by playing down the perils of the trip. Women and girls in their custody are extremely vulnerable to rape and may even be sold into sexual slavery. Coyotes routinely imprison, beat, and starve their “cargo,” and periodically cause terrible accidents in which large numbers of people die, whether by suffocation, drowning, exposure to the elements, or auto accidents. On March 2nd, 2021, near Mexicali, a smuggler’s SUV packed with 25 people got broadsided by a tractor-trailer, killing 13. Weeks later, eight died after a smuggler led Texas state troopers on a high-speed chase that ended in a head-on collision. These are only the most recent incidents on a long and tragic list.
Adding to its disrepute, the business of smuggling people over the border is now entirely controlled by organized crime, at least in the Rio Grande Valley. “The cartels, they’re more involved than they’ve ever been,” says Jerry Robinette, a former special agent in charge of the South Texas division of the Department of Homeland Security. “The sheer numbers that are coming across are providing more incentive to them.” If a million migrants arrive in 2021, each able to pay a minimum of $7,000 for smuggling services, that’s $7 billion of black-market cash up for grabs.
Geographic and demographic shifts in migration patterns have also contributed to increased cartel control over coyotes. “Around 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011,” Robinette says, “Arizona was where everything was coming across,” and the majority of migrants were Mexicans. The response was the militarization of the Sonoran Desert border in Arizona, which began under the Obama administration. But it was like squeezing a water balloon. Migrant flows shifted 1,000 miles southeast, down to the deep green tip of Texas, the closest point in the United States to Central America, where most migrants now come from.
This is not the tumbleweed borderland centered around El Paso and Cuidad Juárez that exists in the northern imagination. It is the citrus region of Texas, a sultry subtropical zone where grapefruits grow in abundance and the sky always looks like it’s about to rain. There are two main population centers: the binational twin city of Matamoros and Brownsville, which straddle the river delta where it meets the Gulf; and the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metroplex, across from Reynosa. This stretch of the border, with the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, happens to be more firmly in the grip of organized crime than any other point on the U.S.-Mexico line.
“That area is operated by the Gulf Cartel,” says Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, a Mexican political economist with posts at George Mason University and the University of Texas in Brownsville. She makes no bones about it: “They control the territory militarily.” Robinette agrees: “On that northern border of Tamaulipas, there’s not a whole lot of Mexican federal presence.”
The U.S. Department of State deems Tamaulipas to be as dangerous as Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan. Ta-ta-ta-Tamaulipas people call it, imitating the sound an AK-47 makes. The internet is replete with violent footage recorded in Reynosa: shootouts in the streets, flaming barricades, torture and execution videos, images of bodies hung from bridges, piles of severed heads. In a YouTube video viewed almost 7 million times, a breathless local TV reporter is standing on a bridge in downtown Reynosa in 2009, reporting on a street battle between the CDG and the Mexican military; as the fusillades of automatic gunfire intensify, he crouches further and further down, until he’s narrating the news flat on his stomach with bullets flying overhead. In bootleg Mexican gangster-rap videos, dedicated to this or that Gulf Cartel commander, they call it Reynosa la maldosa — Reynosa the hardcore or badass or evil.
More than a dozen international bridges connect the two sides of the Valley like stitches. At every hour of every day of the year, it’s safe to say, bricks of cocaine and heroin stamped with the CDG’s dolphin logo are moving across the border, hidden in secret compartments of cars and trucks. But narcotics are far from the cartel’s only source of revenue. In addition to stealing oil and gas from Mexican government infrastructure on a huge industrial scale (an activity carried out by fearsome gangs of gasoline thieves known as huachicoleros), they’re into kidnapping for ransom, auto theft, running guns, operating nightclubs and bars, prostitution, dealing counterfeit luxury goods, and piracy — both the literal, maritime kind, and the intellectual-property-rights type. As Correa likes to emphasize, it’s not so much a drug-trafficking operation as a “criminal oligopoly on illicit business.” To the Gulf Cartel, then, undocumented migrants are just another black-market commodity to traffic.
Yet it would be an oversimplification to equate coyotes with the cartel. According to Correa’s research, based on extensive interviews with migrants at shelters throughout Mexico, the market for human smuggling is “segmented,” with the first leg of the clandestine journey being arranged by more or less independent groups. “On WhatsApp, on Facebook,” she says, “they are now advertising trips like a tourist company.” These smugglers, often known as polleros, or “chicken men” (a term of uncertain origin), do most of the legwork of moving customers across the vast terrain of Mexico, mostly by bus, but also by train and on foot, which involves many payoffs to police and soldiers along the way.
Upon arrival in Monterrey, the biggest city in the north of Mexico, polleros arrange for customers to be smuggled across the actual border by true coyotes, who are backed by a web of spotters and informants. Hardened and militarized as it is, with troops deployed on the U.S. side, the border is practically impossible to cross without the assistance of a professional guide. There are multiple coyote networks in Tamaulipas, but several sources tell me that the biggest one is based in Miguel Alemán, the city across from Roma, Texas.
“In Miguel Alemán,” Correa says, “there is a big, big network of human smugglers connected to the cartel. Supposedly it is a cell of the Gulf Cartel.” Noé Gea, a reporter in Reynosa, agrees with that assessment, and adds that there are multiple cells in the area, all paying tribute to the CDG. “They work on a fee system with the cartel,” he says. “They cross people, nothing else.” A 2016 Texas Tribune investigation also noted the existence of a “mostly unseen but well-financed network” of cartel-connected human smugglers in Miguel Alemán.
On the stretch of the Rio Grande near Roma there is an island covered with scrub brush in the middle, surrounded by sandbars, gravelly shallows, and only one deep channel. The advantageous geography has made it a popular crossing spot for contraband since the earliest days of Texas. It may be controlled by the Gulf Cartel now, but in the past it’s been in the hands of Los Zetas, a rival criminal militia based in Nuevo Laredo, a border city northwest of Reynosa.
Los Zetas, initially comprised of Mexican special-forces deserters, some of whom had been trained by the U.S. at Fort Bragg, ruled the Mexican underworld with extreme violence for years, but it is much reduced from its peak strength. Now known as the Cartel del Noreste, CDN, or Northeast Cartel, it has been pushed back by the Gulf Cartel to Ciudad Mier, nine miles northwest of Miguel Alemán. The fighting between them is diminished from the worst of the conflict 10 years ago, but it still festers and flares, and is the main driver of homicide in Tamaulipas. Not surprisingly, the migrants who must pass through here often become the victims of violence.
On January 19th, 2021, 19 people, mostly Guatemalans, were found shot to death, their bodies burned, on a stretch of road near Camargo, a village just east of Miguel Alemán. The alleged perpetrators are 12 Mexican cops belonging to an American-sponsored, SWAT-style unit of the Tamaulipas state police known as GOPES, for Grupo de Operaciónes Especiales. The motive for murdering 19 defenseless people is unknown, but GOPES answers directly to the governor of Tamaulipas. Four out of the last five men to hold that office have been formally charged with drug-trafficking, money-laundering, or both. In May, a warrant on corruption charges was issued out of Mexico City for the arrest of the sitting governor, Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, but he refused to step down.
The police in Tamaulipas are infamous for collaborating with organized crime. Ten years ago, the Mexican federal government simply disbanded Reynosa’s municipal police force, having come to the conclusion that the people would be better off with no police at all. “Now,” says Silvia Cruz, the reporter who showed me around the city, “there is only the protection of God.”
I’ve come to Reynosa with Enrique Lerma, a reporter for Azteca Valle, a Spanish-language news channel that broadcasts throughout the Valley. A short walk from the plaza, we visit the Casa del Migrante Senda de Vida, a shelter for migrants from Africa and Asia, as well as Europe and the Caribbean. There are 200 people there, mostly from Ghana, Haiti, Cuba, and Russia.
Though it’s a humanitarian mission, with no barbed wire or guns, the open-air shelter has the feel of a prison compound. There are tall metal gates with tiny barred windows that close with a loud crash. Everyone has on face masks, heightening the sense of 21st-century dystopia. A construction project is underway to double the size of the facility, and 20-odd migrant men are working with hammers and shovels to build a cinder-block wall, their heads wrapped in T-shirts against the sun and dust. Once construction is complete, the shelter will be able to house 500. “It frustrates me that there’s not more help for these people,” says pastor Hector Silva, the shelter’s director. “Politicians are just focused on their campaigns.” He is vague about where his funding comes from, saying, “Many people have been disposed to give a jewel.”
Not far away, in a neighborhood that used to be a red-light district, under a dilapidated sign for the old Lipstick Hotel, is a church-run shelter called Casa del Migrante Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. A nun greets us at the door. “We have guests from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua,” she says, leading us into the courtyard. “Normally we have Garifunas,” she adds, referring to an Afro-indigenous people mostly from Honduras. “But not now.”
It’s late afternoon and about 15 people, men and women and children, are lined up for supper in the main hall. “We’ve been at maximum capacity with a hundred people, due to the pandemic,” says Mother Catalina Carmona Librado, the gray-haired director whose eyes look young and happy but whose face I never see because of the blue medical mask that she wears at all times. Every nun at the shelter, including her, has contracted Covid-19 at one point or another, she tells us. None have died.
She takes us to meet a reedy 25-year-old named Cesar who has just been released from a kidnapping. He is from northern Honduras and has fled poverty, violence, and “discrimination against people with my illness,” which he won’t specify, saying only, “People with my illness cannot get work.” Polleros helped him and his 10-year-old sister traverse Mexico. “I had read an article that it was dangerous, but it didn’t mention anything specific,” he says, adding that he was unaware of the risk of kidnapping.
On May 3rd, on a bus from Monterrey to Miguel Alemán, their intended crossing point, they were intercepted by men with guns, who took a group including Cesar to an abandoned house in a rural area, where they were separated by age and gender and locked in bedrooms. The kidnappers were not aggressive and behaved more or less politely the entire time, he says, but he was given only one meal a day. After a week, he was freed when a relative in Austin paid a ransom, the amount of which he won’t say. He only arrived at this shelter two days ago. He is visibly shaken, his eyes red as if from crying, and he says he feels “very anxious” for the safety of his little sister, who remains kidnapped, awaiting payment of her ransom next. Still, he remains intent on crossing the border. “I want to make another attempt,” he says. “I can’t go back to my country, to that poverty, that persecution.”
In the first four months of 2021, almost 50,000 kids crossed the border into Texas without their parents, enough to fill the Sun Bowl, yet we don’t see a single unaccompanied minor at the church shelter. Mother Carmona tells us that sometimes the shelter will get mothers who have just sent their kids over alone. “There was a woman who had sent her 16-year-old son,” she says. “Another sent a girl who was three. Another mother sent three girls, two of whom I know were special needs. They had neurological problems.”
In search of more children, we visit a shelter specifically for unaccompanied minors maintained by the state government of Tamaulipas in a converted university building. “We’re currently holding 70 children,” says the director, Ricardo Calderon Macias. He leads us inside to where 80 to 100 people, kids and women, are staying on pallets on the floor of a basketball court. A loud fan is blowing. There are clothes drying on the bleachers, shoes everywhere, babies crying. But it’s nowhere near as crowded as the plaza. Most of the space is empty.
“More than 400 have passed through here,” Calderon says, including adults. He means to tout the figure, but if anything, it seems incredibly low. We have visited the main shelters in Reynosa, the biggest city in Tamaulipas, and even counting the plazas full of deportees, we’ve seen fewer than 1,000 people, at a time when Border Patrol agents in the Valley are reporting 2,000 encounters every day.
They’re not here, I realize, because their room and board is already paid for. “The criminal element,” says Mother Carmona, “they have their own stash houses,” in the rural areas west of here, toward Miguel Alemán. Across northern Tamaulipas, the Gulf Cartel maintains a network of ranches and abandoned houses, and controls the rural roads leading up to the border. Access to this infrastructure, as well as safe passage, is what the cartel charges for. “They don’t provide the smuggling services,” Correa says, “but they do operate stash houses.” Mother Carmona says a bishop tried to open a modest migrant shelter in San Fernando, inadvertently placing himself in competition with the cartel. “They threatened him,” she says. “He’s not there anymore.”
Rain falls often in the Valley, and this spring has been especially wet and cool. The chain-store blight of the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metroplex is set amid palm trees and billboards in Spanish, advertising fast food, gas stations, and careers in the U.S. military. There are gun stores and pawn shops, and quite a few Trump signs, a jarring sight in Hidalgo County, which is 92 percent Hispanic.
Everywhere, there are signs that the Valley has become the main corridor for illegal immigration. At a section of border wall in Mission, we see a multitude of footprints in the mud amid the stands of carrizo cane. Lerma, who’s lived here his whole life, has never seen so many, nor so much garbage strewn on the ground. Headed west on U.S. Highway 83, next to an onion field, we see three big tractor tires chained together, a device used by coyotes to erase the tracks of large numbers of people. Beginning at La Joya, we see Texas state troopers in black-and-white SUVs stationed at every intersection, gas station, and mud-puddle-filled parking lot. “Normally there’s 15 units for the whole county,” says David Kifuri, a local with family on both sides of the border who used to work as a spokesman for the Starr County district attorney. “There’s about 200 now.”
Passing through Rio Grande City, we speak to Danny Villareal, a landowner with riverfront property across from the mouth of Mexico’s San Juan River. Undocumented migration “is nothing new to this area,” he says, but “the activity has gone up significantly.” It’s possible to hear gunfire from Miguel Alemán “at all hours,” he adds. “Most shootouts are spontaneous and short. They killed a person, or they made their point. If it lasts more than 30 seconds, that’s long.” But he is loathe to exaggerate. “I don’t want to make it sound like the Wild West. It’s not. Every community has its problems. Ours is not as bad as others.”
In La Rosita, almost to Roma, we stop to hike down into the terrain around the river. The hills are covered in creosote and mesquite, the gullies are full of sage, and there are lots of prickly pears and saw palmetto. It is a beautiful landscape in spite of the CBP surveillance tower and all the trash on the ground. The worst blights are diapers, old shoes, and castoff clothing. Scattered all over are snap-fastened plastic wristbands, the kind given out at concerts, carnivals, and rodeos. “You can find a lot more of them down by the river,” says a bearded Border Patrol agent named Yasquez, sitting in his vehicle nearby. “As soon as they cross, they take them off. I don’t know why,” he says. “They used to come in with them.”
I gather up a big handful of the color-coded, custom-labeled bracelets. Most say entrega, or “delivery.” Many more say llegada, meaning “arrival.” Some say Mexicanos, presumably to distinguish the customers who aren’t from Central America. The significance of others is harder to guess at. They say metal, with the emblem of a red star, or dorado, meaning “golden,” with a cartoon elephant.
“The bracelets show that you’ve paid the cartel the fee to cross the river, so that no one passes who hasn’t paid,” says a U.S. citizen in his early thirties who works as a coyote and spoke to us by phone. His social media posts show him wearing a black T-shirt and gold watch, with dollar bills spread out on his lap. “ ‘Entrega’ is ‘self-surrender,’ for those who will turn themselves into Border Patrol: the children,” he explains. “ ‘Llegada’ means ‘all the way to Houston.’ The others may signify where you cross, how dangerous it is, how much you paid.” He can’t or won’t say what “metal” or “dorado” means. He says the matter is “delicate.”
We arrive in Roma around 2 p.m. This is a true Tejano town, a remnant of old Spanish Texas that never really integrated with the Anglos who began to invade the territory in the 1800s. It used to be called Paso de la Mula, or “Mule Pass,” the original use for the ford in the river. After Texas gained its independence in 1836, it became notorious as a stronghold for smugglers. During Prohibition, they were called tequileros. In the 1970s, Roma was a hub for marijuana trafficking. It’s also a hot spot for gun-running; a week after we visit, Texas state troopers will seize a cache of 16 high-powered firearms, including a .50-caliber sniper rifle, and thousands of rounds of ammo.
The closer you get to the international bridge, the more dilapidated and boarded-up Roma gets. From a lookout point downtown, Miguel Alemán is easily visible across the river. It looks like any other small border city, with low concrete roofs amid green trees and a handful of cellphone towers. But it is a true no-go zone, even by the standards of northern Mexico, and turnover at the top of the Gulf Cartel has made the situation even more uncertain. “Right now,” Lerma says, “the one who is in charge is keeping a low profile. There were three guys, three different cartel leaders. El Huevo was one, El Toro was one, and the third was a young guy from Hidalgo. All three of them were eliminated: one in jail, two killed. That was in December. Since then, we don’t know who the current boss is.”
Splinter elements of Los Zetas have been taking advantage of the interregnum to make incursions. The day before, around 4 p.m., Noé Gea, the reporter in Reynosa, was in this vicinity and saw several convoys of monstruos, or “monsters.” These vehicles, also known as “narco tanks” or “rhino trucks,” are a mutant species of mechanized megafauna native to Iraq and Syria that has spread to northern Mexico. The Mad Max battlewagons are typically built on the chassis of tractors and dump trucks, and equipped with battering rams and machine guns. Gea saw multiple “caravans” of them “circulating” on the outskirts of Miguel Alemán. “At six o’clock in the afternoon,” he says, “the battle began.” It was a series of firefights, with inconclusive results, that lasted into the night. “No one group is in control,” he warns us. “Los Zetas, CDN, are in Ciudad Mier. We can’t go there anymore. Miguel Alemán is the dividing line. Both groups have their own factions and internal disputes. There isn’t any one commander. After 4 or 5 p.m., watch out.”
Though it’s already 3 p.m., we decide to cross over to the Mexico side after the editor of a small newspaper called El Tejano offers to introduce us to the reputed boss of the coyote mafia there. A condition of the interview is that we do not publish his real name, but refer to him only as El Comandante. Among coyotes in the Valley, he’s said to be el mero-mero petatero, or “boss of bosses,” who can have you buried. “He’s been in federal prison for human smuggling,” says El Tejano’s editor, Dina Garcia Peña, who published a two-part video interview with him in 2019, in which he appeared wearing a ski mask, and went by the same moniker. “He took me on a helicopter ride two years ago, to Monterrey. He has that much money,” she says. “He lived in the U.S. many years. He used to smuggle drugs, but found migrant smuggling more lucrative. And he felt like he was helping people.”
Hoping to meet him at the Hotel Virrey, just two blocks from the international bridge, we cross over on foot to Miguel Alemán. The bridge is concrete, two lanes, and parallels an old decommissioned suspension bridge. Down below, the river flows swift over shallow gravel, but no migrants are crossing it in broad daylight. Other than a pair of National Guard soldiers on the American side, there’s no one to be seen on either bank. We drop a quarter apiece into a turnstile and are in Mexico without showing passports to the few soldiers inside the checkpoint.
Right away, on Zapata Street, we see buildings that remain gutted by arson attacks from the fiercest narco battles of 10 years ago. We pass a spot where, in 2019, Los Zetas left a bunch of decapitated heads in an ice chest. A few shops are open, selling clothing and foodstuffs, and we pass two pairs of women and girls on the sidewalk, but the streets are otherwise bereft of people. We come to the Plaza Municipal and are greeted by the eerie sight of the sun shining on a town square where every bench is empty on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.
Robinette told me that U.S. agencies working with the Mexican federal government would not even attempt to infiltrate a town like Miguel Alemán because of the intensity of the cartel’s surveillance apparatus, which is both human and electronic. “It’s not like you’re going to put in an undercover,” he said. “Ain’t nobody going to prove an agent in that kind of environment. You’re operating in enemy territory.”
Sure enough, the instant we step off the bridge, we are being followed by a squat young man with long black hair dyed blond at the tips, who looks a bit like a troll doll. For so long as we are in Miguel Alemán, he will follow at a distance of 10 to 20 yards, blatantly filming us with his phone, whose screen he never takes his eyes from. Our second tail, a middle-aged man on a bicycle, posts up on a shady corner of the plaza and watches as we take tourist photos in front of big colorful letters that spell out Miguel Alemán. He is the only person we see who is openly carrying a gun. There is a third guy keeping tabs on us in a car, I think. He has a shaved head and sleeve tattoos.
With these three never far away, we walk the empty streets to the Hotel Virrey, which at five stories is the tallest building in town. We’re told that El Comandante keeps quarters on the top floor, where he would have a direct line of sight onto the river’s shallowest stretch. But he doesn’t answer his phone when we call. We loiter around for a time, hoping he’ll pick up, but there’s no response. Nor does he reply to our texts. With 5 p.m. hard approaching, we decide we better leave town.
Back in Brownsville, we get a phone call around 10 p.m. It’s El Comandante. At first the cell signal is bad and we can’t tell what he’s talking about, but it’s something to do with Houston. As it turns out, he’s angry about a TV report he has seen. On April 30th, police in Houston raided a stash house of his on Chessington Drive, where nearly 100 people were found locked in bedrooms. Federal prosecutors have charged five of his associates with human smuggling. “I’m angry that someone pointed the finger and gave up the location,” he tells Lerma, with me listening in on speakerphone. “They’re saying we had them there with no food, no water. That’s not true, they’re lying.”
When it comes to his smuggling operation, “it’s all about Houston,” he says. “We move them from Reynosa to Valadeces, through Camargo, all the way to Los Ángeles,” he says, referring to a tiny municipality immediately east of the Roma crossing. “If there’s a fence, a wall, well, you just have to get over it.” Once on the other side, “we have connections with migración,” he says, by which I assume he means Border Patrol. He avoids the La Joya corridor, where we saw such a heavy DPS presence, and uses an alternative route that he declines to describe.
He denies that his group is part of the Gulf Cartel proper. “We are independent,” he says. “The cartel has its own business, and we have another. We only pay them to let us work, and they don’t mess with us.” He has to pay the cartel $300 or $400 a head for every migrant whom he smuggles across, he says. This price is somewhat less than the $500 I’ve heard cited as the current cartel head tax, and I still don’t understand exactly how the $7,000 to $15,000 total fee that Central American migrants pay for the whole journey gets apportioned out; but from El Comandante and other sources, I gather that border coyotes like him get a cut of about $1,000 to $3,000, with $200 to $800 of that going to the cartel. “If that price isn’t paid, obviously they kidnap them,” he says. “And every day that goes by, the price increases.
“Here, there are laws,” he adds. “The laws of those who control the city.” When Lerma asks if he means the Gulf Cartel, he responds, “No comment.” But he goes on: “We all have a rank. Each one does his work. Each one has to follow the rules. And if the rules are broken, you know what can happen.”
The war between the CDG and Los Zetas “affect us a lot,” he says. “Because our territory is from Monterrey to Ciudad Mier.” If Los Zetas rip off a load of migrants, they’ll charge $500 a head to return them, he says. “If we pay, they’ll let them go. If not, they’ll leave them there on the ground.”
But neither Los Zetas nor the Gulf Cartel had anything to do with the 19 killed in Camargo, he says. They were his people, being moved along his route, when they were detained by the state police commandos from GOPES, who demanded a $20,000 ransom, which he considered excessive and refused to pay, leading to the massacre. “Los estatales shouldn’t have done that,” he says. “You don’t treat innocent people that way. But that’s what happens when you mess with the state police. They’ll beat you, or much worse.”
He says that he normally prefers to move migrants in smaller groups. “The most I can sneak across at a time is eight or seven or five. Big groups are the ones that turn themselves in” to Border Patrol. These asylum seekers, mostly minors, are not as profitable as those who pay to reach Houston, he says. “Plenty of kids arrive alone. Right now we have a boy of one year to turn in to Border Patrol,” he says, causing Lerma’s jaw to drop. “The location of his family [in the U.S.] is written on his diaper,” he adds. The practice of giving children so young over to smugglers seems to trouble the coyote boss as much as it did Mother Carmona. “It’s a pretty ugly thing,” he says, “to send your kid alone to the world that is the border.”
He inveighs against the Border Patrol with real vitriol. “When they catch people, they treat them like dogs,” he says, raising his voice. “They mock them like dogs.” He describes border agents using horses to corral people and rough them up for the fun of it. “One time a horse trampled and killed a person I had brought,” he says. “They laughed at him as he was dying. The four-wheelers, too, they use them to knock people down.” Border Patrol does the same thing with its boats, he says, “without caring if people drown. I’m tired of it.”
He accuses Border Patrol of corruption. “They’re involved with us, too,” he says. “We have connections with them on the other side. They let people pass. Everyone has their price.”
“The overwhelming majority of CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor,” says Tom Gresbeck, the regional spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “We do not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks.”
That may be, but Border Patrol officers get arrested on a near-daily basis, far more frequently than any other federal law-enforcement agents. A recent analysis by a San Diego State University professor named David Jancsics looked at 156 cases and found that the majority “were related to organized-crime activities,” and that while younger CBP agents with short service histories were most likely to be involved in drug-related wrongdoing, those implicated in immigration-related corruption tended to be older, more experienced officers. Their techniques included falsely registering license plates, not swiping passports, and allowing people to use impostor documents. In several cases, Jancsics found, Border Patrol agents personally escorted human smugglers by driving just ahead of them and providing advice over the phone. In some cases, they smuggled illegal immigrants in their own vehicle.
“I repeat,” El Comandante says, “everyone has their price.” No amount of infrastructure or enforcement on the border will ever stop his operation, he says. “Whether or not there’s a wall, we’re going to keep working. Si no es por las buenas, es por las malas.” The expression could variously be translated as: “One way or the other”; “The easy way or the hard way”; “By hook or by crook”; “By fair or foul means”; or “Whether you like it or not.”