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Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.

Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.

Border Wars

by Peter Gorman

Moving people across the border from Mexico is a game of cat and mouse that’s been enjoyed equally by smugglers and agents for the US Bureau of Immigration and Border Protection since the days they were known simply as Patrol Agents. But in the last ten years, since Mexico has become the world’s capital for hard drug smuggling into the US, the borders have tightened and the stakes have risen almost daily. And as the risks and rewards increase, so does the level of competition—as well as the number of people caught in the dirty middle.

The sun was blinding. US Bureau of Immigration and Border Protection Supervisor Victor Sauceda stood in front of his green striped Border Patrol SUV in the sweltering afternoon heat on a dusty dirt road just outside of the Texas bordertown of Del Rio and opened a padlocked car gate on a barbed-wire fence.

“See those train tracks?” he asked, pointing to the slightly raised tracks less than 100 feet from the gate. “You think it’s hard to smuggle people here?”

He didn’t need an answer.

It’s always been easy to smuggle people across the border. Businesses on the US side have always needed a temporary workforce that could accordian-out during high seasons, then disappear when work slowed up. Ranches, farms, building contractors and restaurants are the traditional places where temporary workforces have been utilized. In recent years companies with factories and warehouses on both sides of the border—NAFTA sweatshops the locals call them—have been added to the mix. But while the game has been going on for decades, during the past several weeks it has garnered a lot more attention in the news than it generally does and two recent tragedys have forced the Bureau of Immigration and Border Protection—formerly the Border Patrol—to admit that the smuggling of people is a lot more sophisticated and organized than they have previously acknowledged. On April 18, 2003 Reuben Patrick Valdes, 32, was convicted of being the kingpin of a smuggling operation that moved more than 200 people weekly across the border from Juaraz, Mexico through El Paso, TX and now faces the possibility of the death penalty. Mr. Valdes’ case first garnered headlines when two illegals died in the back of a truck he’d arranged for them. Newspapers were quick to jump on the official word that not only had Mr. Valdes been the innovator in the use of tractor-trailers to move large numbers of illegals but that his arrest and conviction would see an end to that type of smuggling. In an April 18, 2003 report in the Dallas Morning News, it was reported that “officials said they thought the Valdes prosecution had already put a huge dent in mass smuggling in El Paso and forced many smugglers to return to moving people in smaller groups using cars, vans and rental trucks.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. In May, 2003, in an incident which has sickened all of the US as well as Mexico, 19 people died during and shortly after a six-and-one-half hour ride in the back of an airtight tractor-trailer in Victoria, TX. The dead were part of a group officials estimate to have included at least 100 illegals who had paid between $1,500 and $2,000 each for a trip which probably originiated in Reynosa, Mexico and included destinations throughout the US.

The Victoria incident has begun to shine a light on a subject that the US government has tried to keep in the dark: that the smuggling of immigrants across the Mexican border is no longer a mom-and-pop industry but a high stakes game in which smugglers can make millions.

And the Victoria incident, according to a veteran agent from the Del Rio Border Patrol sector who asked to go unnamed, while the only truckload of immigrants to make the news last week, was actually the third truckload of illegal immigrants stopped near the Texas border: two others of at least 50 people each were stopped that originated in McAllen, Texas. How many more got through is anyone’s guess.

“Large numbers of people are moved across the border all the time,” Victor Sauceda from the Del Rio border sector told the Ft. Worth Weekly. “Just recently we had an incident where we came on a woman who said she’d been pushed from a box car full of illegals while it was moving because it was too full to close the door. When my partner and I found her she was crawling along the tracks, yelling for help. She’s already lost her right foot and I think she lost her right leg after we got her to the hospital. Imagine how many people were in that car for it to be so full they had to push her out to close the door?”

Two things have prompted the change in the way people smuggling is being done these days as opposed to a decade ago: the first is that Mexico has become the primary transit point for drugs entering the US; the second, ironically, is that border security has been ratcheted up several notches.


During the heyday of the Colombian cocaine cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s, Mexico was an important transit point for drugs to enter the US. Long established marijuana smuggling routes were simply adapted to the needs of cocaine smugglers, who, carrying smaller loads, found it easy to move the Colombian goods across the border.

But Mexico was only one of a number of key drug smuggling routes: Miami was the primary point of entry, but all of Florida’s thousands of miles of beaches, as well as the Georgia and Louisiana coasts were utilized too. Then there were the east coast points of entry, from South Carolina to New York and Boston.

But with the breakup of the Medellin cartel in the early 1990s, coupled with tightened security along the southern and eastern coasts, Mexico became the number one entry point for Colombia’s cocaine. According to legend, the head of the Juarez cartel, Amado “Lord of the Skies” Carillo Fuentes took it on himself to call a meeting with several of Colombia’s leading cocaine producers, at which he told them that with US coastal ports now effectively shut down, Colombia was now dependent on Mexico to move their dope. And as the key to that movement, Mexico would no longer work for the Colombians as high-paid mules, but would now be recognized as a full and equal partner in the deal. What that meant was that Fuentes and the Juarez cartel, along with both the Gulf and Tijuana cartels, Mexico’s three most powerful drug smuggling syndicates, would no longer accept money as payment for the movement of cocaine, but would now take a large cut of the cocaine itself.

The Colombians, with no single cartel in power any longer, had no choice but to go along with Fuentes’ plan, and the Mexican cartels, already wealthy beyond dreams, saw their fortunes continue to expand. Colombian heroin, as well as Mexican “brown” heroin and the production and movement of methamphetemine were soon added to the mix of drugs coming north in large quantities.

With the increase in volume of drugs coming across the Mexican border, corruption, which had always been rife in the Mexico, also expanded to new heights, reaching even then-Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, who, according to several sources including award winning journalist Bill Weinberg in his book Homage to Chiapas (Verso, London-New York; 2000) was widely “assumed to have inflated the peso by laundering recycled narco-dollars into the treasury in order to get NAFTA passed.” Both the disgraced Salinas and his brother Raul Salinas were investigated for narco-corruption.

The Mexican military was thoroughly involved in the drug smuggling as well. In February, 1997, shortly after US Drug Czar (Ret.) General Barry McCaffrey referred to him as “a guy of absolute, unquestioned integrity,” Mexico’s Drug Czar equivalent, General Jesus Guiterrez Rebollo was arrested and indicted as the key military protector of the Juarez drug cartel. Rebollo had been receiving intelligence briefings from the US on drug interdiction methods and plans and had passed them along.

The former president of Mexico and that country’s drug czar were only the tip of the iceberg of corruption. Whole military brigades whose only task was drug interdiction have been fired for corruption, and entire police forces let go as well.

But at the same time that the quantity of drugs passing across the Mexican border was increasing, so was the flow if illegal immigrants, some headed north to escape desperate poverty; others simply searching for what they thought was a better life. Unfortunately, while the entire US-Mexican border runs 2,000 miles from Baja California to the Gulf of Mexico, there are a limited number of roads the smugglers must eventually use. And the last thing smugglers wanted was to have their million dollar shipments intercepted because an illegal-alien smuggler accidentally drew the attention of the Border Patrol to their location. “It does happen and once in a while they start shooting at each other, yes,” says Del Rio Sector Public Relations Agent Carlton Jones. For both people smugglers and drug smugglers to co-exist while utilizing the same routes, an accommodation had to be reached. That accommodation came in the form of the creation of organized people smuggling rings.

“Very Few Mom and Pop Smugglers Anymore”

Paul M. Berg is the Chief Patrol Agent of the Del Rio Sector of the Texas-Mexico border. An imposing man in his late fifties, he’s as fit as a military recruit, carries himself with absolute surety, and wears his Sean Connery good looks with ease. The Del Rio sector over which he commands includes 205 miles of border and 59,000 square miles of territory. It runs from the West side of Val Verde County at Comstock, to the border of Uvalde county at Corrido Springs. To the north it runs all the way to Abilene, nearly 305 miles, and not far from Ft. Worth. The sector has roughly 1,000 Agents to cover the entire territory, rarely more than 30 a shift in any of its ten stations. Nonetheless, in fiscal year 2002, the Del Rio Sector apprehended 66,985 illegal immigrants, seized 48,930 pounds of marijuana and 623 pounds of cocaine. While the drug-seizure numbers are up from previous years, the people apprehensions are down considerably in the last couple of years, something Chief Berg attributes to better border control.

“After 9-11, the number of entries has gone down and stayed down. Part of that is better policing, which has made it more difficult to cross, so that the desire to come here is down. If you know we’re going to get you and you’ll do 30-or 90 days in jail, or whatever the judge gives you and you’ll miss your season of work, well, it doesn’t make sense to come here then.”

Chief Berg acknowledges that a downturn in the US economy means less available work for immigrants and that plays a factor as well. But he’d prefer to think it’s border control. “We’ve had a strategy we’ve worked on since 1994, and that’s to pick one location at a time and work on that,” he says. “And while that tends to balloon out other areas, as you get control of each section it finally gets so tight that there is no place to get through.”

He admits that’s only in theory, and that if it was really working, there wouldn’t have been 66,000 apprehensions in FY 2002. “You’re never going to stop the flow altogether,” he says.

“But we’re only doing 150-250 apprehensions in the Del Rio sector per day right now, and a couple of years ago there were times we were as high as 1,200 daily.”

Those figures don’t compare to some sectors in Arizona, but they still represent a lot of people paying a lot of money to come to the US.

“Yes, it does,” he agrees. “The people smugglers have become very organized in the past several years. It would be accurate to say that the rise of the Mexican border drug cartels forced their hand because both groups need to use the same routes. And often the same guides. So there aren’t a lot of mom and pop smugglers left here. There are some, or course, people who are trying to get relatives across and that sort of thing, but most of it is very organized. And as it becomes harder and harder to get through, they’ll become even more organized.

In recent years, the Del Rio sector, like the entire border, has been equipped with technology to help stem the flow of both people and drugs. “We have sensors that can move to where we see traffic on the river or on the ranches and roads; we have 24 stationary cameras stationed at critical border points and airboats that travel sunrise to sunset along the river. I’ve heard that we may begin using drone airplanes for surveillance, but we’ve got a pretty good Border Patrol airforce ourselves, and our boys fly low and slow.

“On the other hand, the smugglers have good intelligence about where we are, where the sensors are, and so forth. Like that load up in Victoria, where so many died. There’s a lot of that. That’s how it’s being done.”

Asked if he had a sense of how many truckloads are getting through, he wouldn’t even hazard a guess. “It’s hard to say. We get a lot of them but a lot of them get through. We can’t really guess how many get through for how many we catch.”

Chief Berg didn’t hesitate when asked to describe the process by which an illegal makes his way from Mexico’s interior to the US. “These smuggling organizations have recruiters all over Mexico and Central America. If you wanted to get here you would go to the plaza and ask around for who might help you make it north. It wouldn’t take long to find someone. There will be some known person who arranges transport and you’ll go to him or her—and there are lots of hers—and you’ll arrange a price. Sometimes you’ll pay upfront, sometimes you pay half when you start and half later. Sometimes you’ll be allowed to pay the entire cost—which is generally $1,500 to get as far as San Antonio, and more the further you go—when you arrive. Some of these organizations even offer a guarantee of three tries, so that if you get caught the same fee includes a second and third chance to get across.

“After the price and method of payment is arranged you’ll get the information you need. You’ll be told to get to a certain border town on a certain date at such and such a time. There you’ll be told to meet someone named Chacho or whatever, and he’ll see that you get across.

“Of course you may end up in the town and when you meet your contact you might be given an address to go to, a safe house on the Mexican side, or a hotel, to wait. You might later find that that there are 10 or 20 or even 50 others who have also arrived to meet Chacho, though you won’t know them and may not even meet them on the Mexican side. But sooner or later a guide will get you across the river, and then you’ll march across the land to where you meet your transportation. You won’t know any of this in advance, when you’re going, or even if your transportation is a railroad car, a truck or a bus. You might be picked up just over the border or you might walk for a few days until you’re past the Border Patrol Immigration checkpoints on the roads. You might be driven part of the way to the checkpoint then let out and walked around it to a point where you can safely get back into it. From there you’re taken to your destination.

“For most of these people, if they can get across the river to a safe house on the US side, they’re home free. Most of our apprehensions are at the border.

“That’s a pretty standard way to do it. Of course the smugglers utilize every variation you can think of and a lot you can’t think of to accomplish that. We had one case here that I heard of where the smugglers walked their people 17 days through the brush before they got transport.”

And if they’re caught?

“If they’re Mexican nationals they get turned around with a voluntary return, a VR after they have their picture and prints taken and run through the computer. Of course if they’re wanted for criminal activity they will be processed for that first. But if they’re clean they get a VR. We here in Del Rio have a very limited number of VR’s they can get before they are charged and brought before a judge and face some jail time.”

Many of the people coming through Mexico are “OTMs”, other than Mexicans in Border Patrol parlance. For them the fee to get to the US is higher—Chinese illegals spend as much as $65,000 to reach the US, and middle easterners spend in the tens of thousands as well.

“Those people are brought by what we call ‘specialty smugglers,’ says Chief Berg. “They don’t usually travel with anyone outside their group. And if we catch them they generally have to sit in jail until a formal deportation hearing.”


“I would say it’s not something we encounter,” says Public Relations Officer, Houston Division, of the Drug Enforcement Administration Robert Paiz. He’d been asked how often he’d run into people smugglers running drugs. “I’m not saying it wouldn’t happen, or hasn’t happened, but generally speaking, the DEA wouldn’t even be called in to a Border Patrol or Customs investigation unless the quantity of drugs was sufficiently large or the person or people involved were people we already had an interest in.”

According to several Border Patrol agents, while actual smugglers often work for hire and will smuggle whatever needs to be moved across the border, it’s rare that people being smuggled are utilized to move drugs. “You wouldn’t want amateurs moving your drugs,” says Supervisor Sauceda. You have professionals for that.”

But Sauceda, Paiz, and others all agree that that doesn’t mean there isn’t overlap between the two groups. According to Wayne Weimers, who retired from the Border Patrol in November, 2002 after 28 years in the Marfa and Presidio areas, much of that on joint DEA—Border Patrol organized crime task forces, “A lot of your drug smugglers in the border areas, during the 1960s and 1970s began as people smugglers. A lot of the drug smugglers you caught in the ‘70s had rap sheets for people smuggling too.

“Now when Colombia and Mexico got together later on, you definitely had more organized people smuggling. High level drug smugglers would hire high dollar people smugglers to get them around the people check points by getting in touch with people smugglers to get papers.

“But you don’t really want to depend on alien-smugglers to move your loads for you because they aren’t as sophisticated as drug smugglers. Let’s say you were backpacking 100 pounds of cocaine, you would take every precaution—two day hikes take five days, you only move at night and so forth. People smugglers just walk it.

“Then too, I don’t think there is much shared intelligence, at lease in the direction of drug smugglers to alien smugglers because you want to avoid too many people knowing your business. But drug smugglers often use alien smugglers who know the routes just to find out what the routes are, and then they go via different routes.”

Intelligence Officer Al Moreno from the Laredo Border Patrol station says that “the large smuggling operations of people are structured in a fashion similar to drug smuggling organizations. You have your bosses, your underbosses, your contacts, your guides. And there are a fair number of large smuggling organizations. Still, I’ve never come across a tractor-trailer load of illegal aliens mixed in with a cargo of drugs. Down here our smuggling route for both people and drugs is I-35, so both types of organizations use that, but generally, when someone is moving a load of drugs through we won’t see illegals on the same night. Perhaps they’ve been alerted, but it’s just as possible that if there was a group of illegals planning on crossing the river at a certain point and they saw someone unloading a truck nearby they would assume it was marijuana or other drugs and they wouldn’t cross. They’d know that drug dealers generally have guns or weapons to protect their loads and would be scared off by that. Sometimes the drug dealers even send a boat down the Rio Grande during the day with armed men on it as a signal to the coyotes—the people who take people across the river—that it isn’t a good night to make a crossing.

“Of course sometimes you see drug smugglers give drugs to illegals to carry across, small quantities of cocaine or heroin that they carry in lieu of payment, but not that often.”

Carlton Jones, Public Information Officer for the Del Rio sector of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, says you also see illegals with drugs for another reason. “The drug market has changed the smuggling market a great deal, but not necessarily how you think. You’d imagine that one would force the hand of the other, drugs forcing smugglers, but in fact the drug cartels frequently use mules with the intent that they are cannon fodder to occupy the border patrol in order to get the larger shipments through.”

Chief Berg agrees with Jones’ assessment. “Anytime one of our agents comes on an illegal with drugs we can assume that 1) there are other drugs coming through elsewhere and he’s been given up to distract us, or 2) a drug dealer is testing a new crossing point.

“Then a lot of the drug smugglers, big ones, will give up a load of people and right behind it is a big load of drugs. And if you get the border Patrol all bogged down with those people that load can come right in.

Supervisor Sauceda used to work with drug-and-illegal-alien sniffing dogs at an inland Immigration Checkpoint. “One of the things drug smugglers would do would be to put a couple of people in the back of a car. Then at the checkpoint my dog would signal that something was there, either drugs or people—we don’t really know what it is that illegals give off that the dog smells, maybe fear. Then, while we were busy with that car maybe a few cars back would be a truck with drugs in a hidden compartment. It didn’t work too often for them though, because we liked to have more than one dog working at a time. You know, cat and mouse. You try to escape, we’ll try to catch you.”


According to Sauceda, there are basically three types of people smuggling into Texas. There are people who simply cross the border on their own, people who hire people to get them from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to a phone booth on the US side; and those who pay organizations. The first group crosses for free; the second group might pay anywhere from $50 to $300 to anyone from an eight-year-old shoeshine boy who has watched where smugglers cross the river to a coyote looking for pocket money. But it is the third group which produces the money.

The tragic truck load of immigrants in the Victoria incident was probably worth between $150,000 and $200,000 in smuggling fees. The driver of that truck, Tyrone Williams, claims he was paid $2,500 to move his cargo from Harlingen, TX to Corpus Christie. Additional drivers had probably been lined up for equally paltry amounts to move the people—had the horror not occurred—to their final destinations. The truckloads that PIO Jones talked about that had earlier been stopped outside of McAllen might have been worth $75,000 each.

This is a great deal of money, with probably less than half being paid to recruiters, safe house operators, coyotes and finally the transport providers.

Jones goes easy on the edges when asked about the number of organizations being supported by organized people smuggling. “We have no real numbers on how many people are being smuggled through via organizations, but we think there are several organizations being investigated. I can’t talk about them but I think there are several.”

Chief Berg was more to the point: “In the Del Rio Sector we think there are between 12 and 18 drug smuggling organizations and as many as 25 people smuggling organizations.”

And Del Rio represents only 205 of the near 2,000-mile, US-Mexican border. The overall figures are astounding: While the Immigration and Naturalization service generally suggests the illegal population in the US to be about 7 million, several people working for the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection suggested that a truer figure could be found by comparing the US Census Estimated Population with it’s Actual Population, which shows perhaps 12-15 million more people actually living in the US than should be based on birth and death rates. Add to that another couple of million missed by the census and you’ve probably got a pretty good estimate of the number of illegal immigrants actually living here.

The money to be made in moving people, while considerably less than that made moving drugs, is significant. It’s safe to assume that it’s in the millions weekly along the Texas border alone, and possibly in the tens of millions.

That kind of money buys a lot of friends. “There are a number of politicians, some of them high up, that were making money,” alleges Fred Meyer, a retired Custom’s officer who began his career in Military Intelligence and now runs a successful private investigation firm just outside of Ft. Worth. “And then there are the ranchers and farmers. Most of them hate the people walking across their ranches, cutting their fences, but you always have to be suspicious that a few of them are not doing so badly because of that same traffic. And sometimes those are the ranchers yelling the loudest about illegals.”

But an occasional rancher who decided to make a few dollars for all the inconvenience he’s going to go through and 25 Mexican organizations are not the only ones profiting from the illegal immigrants. On the US side you have the ranchers and farmers who need workers only seasonally, businesses that can’t afford to pay health insurance for full time workers; business who operate on a piecemeal pay scale and a host of other employers who may not necessarily be profiteering by paying lower wages, but doing so to survive. And, Zoe Baird, Bill Clinton’s choice for Attorney General before Janet Reno who lost her bid because she wasn’t paying her nanny’s health care, be damned, very few people who can afford nanny’s at all can also afford to pay full-time US wages and benefit packages to boot.

In short, nearly all of us in the US benefit greatly because of the illegal workforce here, whether it’s in the price of vegetables or beef or the cost of a trip to your local fast food joint.

There is also a surprising beneficiary: the US Social Security Administration. Millions of illegal immigrants are currently working with either fake, stolen or copied Social Security Cards. And every one of those working for a legitimate employer has 6+% of his or her paycheck sent to social Security weekly, while none of them will ever be able to receive a penny of what they contributed. The math comes to $20 or so weekly for every $300 a week earned, or $1,000 annually per worker. For every million illegal workers paying in to Social Security, that’s a free billion for the Administration.

Repeated efforts to get a comment for this story from either the White House or the SS Administration itself were unsuccessful, but it’s another safe bet to think both are happy with the way things are.

On the Mexican side of the border, the big winners in the illegal alien economy are the families of the workers who receive part of the paychecks earned here in the US, and Mexican economy overall. Chief Berg put it succinctly when asked how much help he thought the US Border Patrol was getting from the Mexican government to help stop the flow of illegal immigrants to the US.

“Let’s say it’s not a bad strategy to get rid of your unemployed and send them somewhere where they’ll send back money. The sending of money from the US to Mexico is now considered, I believe, the third largest revenue producer in Mexico behind oil and tourism.”

“Where does the DEA’s $50 billion annual cross-border drug trade estimate fit into that scheme?” he was asked.

“They don’t count that as a legitimate revenue producer, but if they did of course, it would be number one.”


An organized effort as large as that taking place with the smuggling of people across the Mexican border to the US has several severe tolls. One is the cost in terms of institutional corruption. On the Mexican side and throughout much of Central and South America, corruption is so openly embedded in the fabric of society that it almost seems that a little more couldn’t hurt. Wrong. Corruption always allows the wealthy to buy they way out of civil and criminal responsibility for their actions, while leaving the little guy who can’t afford to buy his way out to pay the bill.

But the corruption on the US side of the border, while veiled in more secrecy because it’s not nearly as publicly acceptable, is nearly as rife as it is in Mexico. Among the more notable cases, Carlos Rodriguez, a former key player with the Gulf Cartel who is serving 60 years in a Federal US Penitentiary, testified in the trial of Gulf Cartel kingpin Juan Garcia Abrego that the cartel had a “special deal” with a group in the Texas National Guard to truck cocaine and marijuana across the border to Houston. Another member of the Gulf Cartel, Juan Antonio Ortiz, testified in 1993 that from 1986 through 1990 it used Immigration and Naturalization Services busses—used to transport captured illegals to Houston—to transport loads of cocaine. The busses were never stopped at Immigration checkpoints testified Ortiz, “they just waved them through.”

While such blatant corruption has yet to be associated with the movement of people, where there is ready cash, there are certain to be takers. “Of course there’s corruption here,” admits Chief Berg. “But I don’t think there is a lot of it and I think that’s partly because the Border Patrol has such a rigorous training program. I think we weed them out early. But then some people will always fall. That’s human nature. And it doesn’t matter if the money comes from smuggling drugs or people. It’s the money that counts.”

But while institutionalized corruption is a dire price to pay, even more immediate is the simple cost of human life. And while many would say that those who deal in the black market of drugs have only themselves to blame if they end up in a drug-related crossfire, it’s difficult to fault an impoverished father looking for work when he ends up just as dead. The Victoria tragedy is a prime example: among the dead were husbands, wives, a 5-year-old child and a 91-year-old grandfather. But Victoria, while exceptional for the number of people who died in a single incident, will not make a dent in the total number of illegal immigrant deaths tallied across the border this year. It will hardly make a dent in the Texas total.

Deaths of people making their way into the US from Mexico have only recently begun to be studied. One study accepted by the US government and published in the International Migration Review (vol. 33. #2, Summer, 1999) indicates that during the five year period of 1993-1997, there was a total of 1.034 possible undocumented migrant deaths on the US side of the Mexican border region.

A second study of documented deaths during border crossings during 1993-1996 found a total of 1,185 deaths on both sides of the border. That study was done by the University of Houston Center for Migration Research and published in the New York Times on August 24, 1997.

Both studies have disclaimers explaining that migrant deaths vary significantly from one source to another and acknowledge that some bodies may never be recovered and so not reflected in the totals.

More recent tallies by the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection indicate significantly higher numbers in recent years—383 in 2000 (when the Border Patrol apprehended over 1.6 million immigrants trying to enter the US illegally); 336 in 2001 (1.26 million apprehensions); and 320 in 2002, when apprehensions dropped to just under one million in the wake of 9-11. Apprehensions are on schedule to hit about 1.3 million in 2003 with the death toll, prior to the Victoria tragedy already at 80 for the year. The largest number of deaths in all studies came from drowning while crossing the Rio Grande, though substantial numbers also occurred from exposure to the elements on the US side.

According to Del Rio Sector’s PIO Carlton Jones, the more recent figures are either accurate or a little high. “In the first years we did the counting we were counting everything we found. Might be a bone from 50 years ago but we counted it trying to get a handle on the death totals.”

Supervisor Sauceda, whose worked out in the brush tracking illegal immigrants for 17 years thinks otherwise. “We have no idea of how many are dead. You know when we know someone died? When they die in a truck or locked in a train and we get word of it. We find dead people when we get a call from a relative in Mexico that someone who was expected to call when they got to San Antonio hasn’t called and we go looking, or when we find a body in the river. But we have no real idea of how many were left to die by the guides, how many ran out of water or food or simply got lost out in the desert. If nobody tells us where to look, it’s not likely we’ll stumble on them. Sometimes a rancher might give us a call when he finds remains, but then how many die and are eaten by coyotes? Could be dozens or even hundreds we miss every year. You just see so much death in this job—things I can’t bring home to talk about with my family.”

An agent from a different sector who talked on condition his name would not be used went even further than Sauceda. “Officially we have to report deaths. Unofficially, nobody likes to hear about them—partly because there’s nothing you can do about them and partly because they bring unwanted attention to border work. Plus, unless you know for sure it was a migrant, for all you know it could have been a desert rat or someone or a bunch of someone’s killed over drugs. So unofficially, sometimes you come on a bone or a pile of bones in the desert and it’s just easier to throw dirt or rocks on it and say a prayer and forget you ever found it. There’s lots of little rock piles out there in the desert.”


The Mexican economy, particularly for the poor classes, is down. Civil war plagues Colombia, and poverty the majority of the remainder of Central and South America. The US economy, as bad as it currently is, seems wealthy by comparison, and so we remain an attractive alternative to people looking to put food on their tables or for the opportunity for a better life.

For our part we can’t live without them. The US workforce, without outside help, simply isn’t capable of addressing all of the economy’s seasonal needs. Neither has the workforce shown itself willing to take on work which pays less than can be earned by simply taking advantage of social programs available to citizens. In other words, we don’t have the numbers of people necessary to do the shit work that needs doing, from busing tables to picking fruit.

Several attempts have been made to theoretically level the economic playing field between the US and Mexico during the past 20 years, none of which have succeeded. Among them was the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The act was passed both to control illegal immigration and to offer amnesty and the opportunity to apply for legal immigration to the millions of illegal immigrants living here at the time. In addition, the act increased appropriations for enforcement and created employer sanctions for people who continued to hire illegal immigrants.

Key to the Act was the amnesty provision, which permitted any illegal alien who had lived continuously in the US since December 31, 1982 to apply for a change of immigration status. Millions did. In theory, the Act would incorporate a large disenfranchised sector of the US populace while making it considerably more difficult for future illegals to find work in the US, thereby eliminating the incentive for emigrating here.

While the Act did empower huge numbers of illegals, politically it had an unanticipated side effect: with their altered status, many of the newly-legal aliens were no longer afraid to seek better jobs and more schooling, which reopened precisely those employment opportunities the formerly illegal alliens had previously filled. Which left the US economy with a huge demand for labor that could only be filled by a new influx of illegal aliens willing to work dirty jobs at lower than scale pay with few, if any, benefits.

Another was the January 1, 1994 passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA, which was supposed to produce work both in the US and Mexico, in reality took tens of thousands of factory and agricultural jobs out of the US economy while not fully living up to its promise in Mexico either. The free trade of agricultural products not only cost US jobs but wound up promoting the expansion of large combine farms in Mexico which actually caused more small-farmers to lose work there than were replaced by the jobs it created. The factory jobs did come, but at the expense of the American blue-collar worker. Too, so many factories were placed just over the border in Mexico that to fill them workers had to come in from the countryside. Once there, many found themselves within sight of the American dream yet not paid enough to live it, prompting even more Mexican exodus. Moreover, the presence of NAFTA industry along the border and the loosening of trade restrictions between the US and Mexico wound up promoting the smuggling of both people and drugs as more cargo made cross-border runs.

That cocaine smuggling continues to rise is affirmed by Houston Sector Drug Enforcement Administration Public Information Officer Robert Paiz. “There was a slight dip after 9-11, maybe a month or two when the heightened security checks at the border towns slowed things down, but overall cocaine imports are up. We havn’t seen any lesser quantity, and the prices have held steady in Houston, which is a major transshipment point for cocaine.”

The Federal response to both increases in drug and organized people smuggling has been to continue to tighten border security with increased manpower and technology. Which in turn has made both types of smuggling more dangerous and more lucrative than ever.


Victor Saucedo walks his visitor through the modern Del Rio Sector Headquarters, pointing out briefing rooms, a computer room and various offices on his way to the holding cells. There, two good looking, well-dressed Honduran men in their late teens are being processed. He glances at them and says they’ve been caught before. Their photos and fingerprints are already in the IDENT computers. He can’t be sure, he says, but he thinks they made a deal to get across the border and were taken to a safe house in Acuna, the Mexican city across the Rio Grand from Del Rio while their smugglers waited for their fee to arrive. “They probably don’t have any money and just bolted,” he says.

Asked what will happen to them he says they’ll probably get a little jail time before being deported back to Honduras. But he adds that almost no one in the people smuggling business, from the recruiters to the guides to the transport people and even the bosses ever gets much time.

“But you must see the same coyotes over and over again. You’re saying that they don’t get time either?” he’s asked.

“We don’t even know who they are, usually. When we pick up a group they’re just one of the people in it. They make it a habit to blend in with the people they’re guiding. And the people being smuggled will probably have been threatened not to give them up—and they don’t usually know anymore than a nickname anyway. When we pick up a group they all say they just decided to cross and ran into some other people and that’s all they know.

“The smugglers could get five years for each person they smuggle but they generally get a misdemeanor and six months, or maybe a low-level felony and a year.”

The exception is when people die, as in the case of the Valdes brothers out of El Paso, one of whom faces life in prison, and the drivers of the ill-fated truck, who face a possible death penalty. Similar penalties are expected to be sought for the driver of the truck in the Victoria tragedy.

“As a rule, though, if no one dies the jail time is minimal at best,” says Sauceda.

His boss, Chief Berg later echoes his point. “Can you imagine trying to prosecute 1.5 million cases in the border courts annually? We simply can’t do it.”

Saucedo later notes that smuggling people is getting so

lucrative and generally carries such a minimal legal threat that “I’ve heard of cases where some drug smugglers are considering switching to people. For them it’s all the same anyway. It’s a game. They want to try to get past me and I want to catch them. Cat and mouse. For the smugglers, anyway.”