Response mixed to stringent security along border
LOS EBANOS, TEXAS – It takes only a few tugs to go from Texas to the outskirts of the Mexican city of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, but a phalanx of federal and state cops watch every foot the boat travels.
Juan E. Gonzalez, 52, and seven of his fellow ferrymen are yanking on a rope to pull the barge across the Rio Grande River, back toward Los Ebanos, population about 300.
“Remember what I told you: Stay away from Mexico,” Gonzalez said, nodding south.
Launched in 1852, the ferry can hold three cars and maybe a dozen pedestrians.
The trip lasts two minutes and is overseen by two Texas Department of Public Safety gunboats, a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter and, atop the bluff on the U.S. side, federal Customs inspectors.
Standing on the southern shore, a Mexican soldier grips a rifle, his body clad in bullet-proof armor. Behind him are more federal soldiers and, behind them, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz — population about 12,000. It's contested by the central government in Mexico City and assassins from Comando Zetas, a wing of the larger Los Zetas smuggling syndicate.
“It's good. You feel safe here,” said Armando Acosta, 28, an ex-Mexican citizen who married an American and now lives near the San Miguel ArcAngel cathedral, a Los Ebanos icon. He is a legal permanent U.S. citizen and a farm worker.
“Life is better here. Better opportunities, better jobs. In Mexico, you can work for a whole day to make what you get in an hour here.”
A heavy presence of local, state and federal law enforcement has sparked concerns among residents elsewhere across the Rio Grande Valley about ethnic profiling, police brutality and official corruption. But there's strong support here for police and Border Patrol. On the state highway leading toward Los Ebanos, a black-and-white handmade sign thanks Texas troopers for helping to secure the town.
Critics contend that while increasingly robust border security triggered plummeting numbers of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico line, it also inadvertently enriched criminal networks like Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
“Here's the problem: No matter what you put on the border, those on the other side will respond with counter-resources to get drugs and people here,” said Vicki B. Gaubeca, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico's Regional Center for Border Rights.
Gaubeca advocates working closely with Mexico to identify and credential individuals seeking to come to the United States to work and to set up a better guest worker visa system that stems illegal smuggling by cutting out the cartels.
The United Nations estimates that immigrants attempting to sneak into the United States hire coyotes 90 percent of the time – partly because, as Gaubeca said, criminal networks are smuggling drugs and other contraband, and partly because they use violence and intimidation against undocumented people, increasingly from Central America, arriving in northern Mexico.
It's a problem exacerbated by some Mexican police, who supplement their paltry salaries with bribes and often look the other way.
Sitting on a park bench in McAllen, Texas, a homeless Luis Marven, 33, used one word to describe the Mexican cops he encountered in his nine-month illegal journey in 2014 across more than 2,400 miles from Ecuador to Texas: “bandits.”
The ex-welder told a Tribune-Review investigative reporter that he would stop in a village, work odd jobs for cash, then pay the Mexican police to continue along the way north.
The Mexican secretariat of the Interior's Migration Policy Unit detained 86,298 illegal immigrants in 2013, mostly from Central American nations.
Smugglers, illegal aliens and U.S. officials agreed that undocumented immigrants like Marven often fall prey to smuggling cartels, who will kidnap them until relatives wire money to free them or transport them north into Texas.
Marven said that Gulf operatives tore his toenails out with pliers, trying to make him divulge the names of family who could send the “payout” sum. They didn't believe he was an orphan.
Although a Trib investigative reporter could not independently confirm his story, blood was squishing out of his sneakers during the interview and the laces were untied because his feet had swollen. He later bandaged his mangled toes after soaking them in disinfectant.
Marven said the torn and rancid rags he wore were better than a boy's outfit he stole from a clothesline after escaping the Gulf stash house and swimming the Rio Grande.
Cracking down on cartels
Started in 2009, the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats lassoed the U.S. and Mexico governments, plus the states and Indian tribes on both sides of the border, into a coalition to take down the Gulf Cartel and other criminal networks, with an emphasis in Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.
A Trib investigative reporter accompanied Border Patrol agents and Mexican federal police on a joint patrol along “no-man's land” dividing the Five Points section of the west Texas city of El Paso from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. Along the way, they met Alfredo Figueroa, 50, director of a Mexican border museum commemorating the Battle of Ciudad Juárez.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the rapid fortification along the U.S. side of the border, his museum attracted 20,000 American visitors annually – 10 times more than today, he said.
Pointing south, Figueroa said the joint policing protects citizens from both countries from “bad people” who “try to come from these mountains” – rugged drug- and human-smuggling routes fought over by two Mexican criminal gangs, the Cártel de Sinaloa and La Línea, the enforcement arm of rival Cártel de Juárez.
But that's the problem, said Shura Wallin, 73, a cofounder of Green Valley Los Samaritanos, a humanitarian group in the Tucson, Ariz., suburbs that tries to rescue undocumented immigrants with serious medical issues on their clandestine journeys north.
As security on the U.S. side rapidly escalated, Wallin said, the cartels and the coyote organizations shifted to the only remaining routes to circumvent U.S. Border Patrol: mountains and deserts.
“It's tantamount to murder,” Wallin said. “There are many decent agents at Border Patrol, but the strategy of walls and increased law enforcement is pushing desperate people into places where they die from exposure.”
Federal officials declined comment on law enforcement strategies but pointed to the proliferation of “panic poles” — emergency beacons that contain jugs of water and that can summon agents to rescue immigrants dying from exposure.
U.S. officials concede the solar-powered beacons can be counted only in the dozens along a border that stretches 1,933 miles from south Texas to San Diego. That's why Wallin and others put out unauthorized stashes of food and water for undocumented walkers.
If Wallin had her way, the thousands of illegal immigrants she meets annually at El Comedor in the Mexican city of Heroica Nogales wouldn't try to come to the United States. Run by the Roman Catholic Church's Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist and the Jesuits, El Comedor is the last waystation before entering the U.S. portion of the Sonora Desert.
Wallin shows the people about to cross the border a “map of death” marked with locations where illegal immigrants have died on a foot journey that typically takes a week.
Between 1998 and 2014, more than 6,100 undocumented immigrants — an average of 381 a year — died during the passage from Mexico to the United States, according to Border Patrol.
“Many people in this community don't realize that others are dying 40 seconds from their homes,” said Wallin.