Sad migration stories from the U.S.-Mexico border and closer to home

Driving to San Antonio, a 12- to 14-hour tiresome but otherwise unremarkable marathon, takes a grim turn as one nears the Colombia International Bridge over the Rio Grande, the last stretch before entering the U.S.  

Up to that point, the roads are mostly first-class expressways, particularly Mex 85, north of Monterrey, recently resurfaced though repair crews can’t seem to keep up with the wreckage of still-shiny guardrails  mangled by 18-wheel semis flying out of control to the median or the right shoulder. A mammoth rig lying helplessly on its side is not an uncommon sight.  

As one nears the border, the chaotic, multiple-bridge international crossings at Nuevo Laredo lie ahead, but we avoid them by taking highway Hwy. 2 westbound for 25 or 30 miles, to the newer and less crowded Colombia Bridge. 

Road signs on this orphan strip of asphalt are often knocked down or vandalized, and speed limits change every few miles for no apparent reason. There are truck yards on both sides, separated by vast, barren pieces of land, some for sale, that vanish into the horizon, and the U.S. border a few more miles beyond that. During the summer, temperatures topping 100 degrees add to the Death Valley-like feel of the landscape.  Ever since we began using this road 15 years ago, the rusting conical bowl of a concrete mixer truck has lain on the eastbound shoulder, like a space capsule that missed its target on reentry and no one wants to claim. 

Roadside relic on Hwy. 2

We’ve never been approached by crooked cops patrolling Hwy. 2, which parallels the Mexico-U.S. border, though once, while going through Nuevo Laredo, we were extorted out of some sum of money, I can’t remember how much, supposedly for making an illegal left turn. The fine was payable to a young woman cashier of a nearby Oxxo convenience store, who gave me a pitying, you-poor-schmuck look, with no official receipt expected or offered. 

Among some of our friends stories abound of police cars stopping motorists and demanding cash for real or imagined traffic infractions. Our friend Ron was stopped recently by a cop who wanted $3600 pesos in cash, or about $180 dollars, supposedly for speeding. Ron took a collection from everyone in the car and could only come up with $900 pesos, or $45 dollars. The cop settled for that.

Fear of crooked cops and the sight of the forbidding terrain, invariably make that last stretch before the Colombia Bridge a bit hair-raising, even from inside an air-conditioned car.  It also brings images of America-bound migrants attempting to navigate this no-man’s-land, with no other provisions than a knapsack with perhaps a bottle of water, a couple of sandwiches and a cell phone, plus a scapular or other religious relic for divine protection. 

“How or why do people attempt such a perilous journey?” I ask. 

Stew’s one-word response is always the same: “Desperation.”

Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans successfully make it to the other side, adding to the millions of undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. But probably just as many never make it across, falling victims of extortion by Mexican cops, assault by gangs and other mishaps, if not plain bad luck.

A month ago our own gardener, who has worked with us for 12 years, and three friends, led by a cousin apparently trying his hand at the migrant-smuggling business, attempted a run to the U.S. to make “some real money.”

Our gardener showed up to work on a Monday, sporting a neatly trimmed buzz cut and beard, and clean clothes, as if he were going to church, handed us the keys to the ranch, and announced he was leaving for the promised land that very night, a plan later delayed by a day. 

“What the fuck?” I said. “You’re leaving with no notice or explanation?”

He said he his life had crumpled under a mountain of debts, including finishing a bathroom construction project in his house, fixing his truck which needed a new distributor, taking care of his elderly parents, and his own family, in addition to repaying a $13,000-peso “loan,” or $650 dollars, from the cousin who cooked up the excursion to the U.S. 

Our man came back the next day, and we spoke more calmly. I said I understood his predicament though his timing was awful—we were set to leave for San Antonio a week later and were counting on him to look after the ranch. We nevertheless returned $350 dollars he had on deposit with us for the sale of honey. 

His adventure didn’t last long. Thursday night I got a text that said the group of five had been assaulted and robbed on Hwy. 2, near the town of Piedras Negras—and far from their intended destination of Ciudad Acuña, across the border from the Texas town of Del Río, directly west of San Antonio. Most of their money and other valuables were gone.   

The robbers were Mexican state policemen from the state of Coahuila, who ordered them off the bus at a remote, uninhabited spot, and told to take off their shoes, socks, belts, and turn over their credencial (a national I.D. card carried by all Mexican citizens) and all their money. Another cop warned that anyone caught hiding anything would be beaten. And so there went all the pesos my gardener had, along with the $350 dollars he had earned from the sale of honey. 

The money from the group was placed in a plastic bag to be used as “evidence” against anyone who dared report the incident to anyone. Using a cell phone, one of the cops photographed each of the five guys and their credencial, standing next to the confiscated loot. 

Understandably, my gardener, who still had a ragged cloth escapulario tied to his left wrist, asked me not to use his name. Still in shock, he swears he’ll never make a run for the border again, though he had successfully made two, one when he was still a teenager. 

The cops handed everyone $2,500 pesos to get back home, and were left on a deserted spot on Hwy. 2, except the cousin who had led the group, who was held three more days at a local jail and released with no money to get home. His wife here had to buy him a return bus ticket. 

While my gardener and three friends worked their way back to San Miguel, another small group from the nearby town of Cañajo set off for the border on their own venture. They made it across alright but the contact who was supposed to pick them up by the side of highway on the other side never showed up. So they spent four days in a remote corner of Texas with no food, shelter or clue what to do next until—fortunately for them—the U.S. Border Patrol picked them up.  

They were detained overnight and booked, given a meal and a quick medical checkup, handed back all their money and other belongings, and escorted to the border for the long trip back home. 

“It’s a hell of a fucking deal when American cops treat Mexicans more decently than our own police,” my gardener said. 

The following week, the gardener came with another immigration-related story, this one with a fatal outcome. Four individuals dressed in military outfits, including Kevlar vests and long weapons, visited the home of a known pollero, or migrant smuggler, in the town of Santa Julia, on the road to the town of Los Rodríguez, by the campus of the new Universidad Allende. 

The visitors opened fire and killed the pollero and seriously wounded his wife. 

The hitmen may have belonged to a different gang of migrant smugglers, upset by too much competition. One never knows the who, what or why of many crimes here. 

Most amazing was the outcome of this bloody incident: The police actually caught the hitmen. 

While in San Antonio we bought a replacement distributor for our gardener’s 2000 Nissan Frontier, which we had given him several years ago when we bought a new truck. 

Both the gardener and his pickup are working again.   

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