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Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series will look at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with our Mexican neighbors, writer Melissa Guerra takes us on a narrative journey of her homeland, sticking strictly to description and narrative and veering away from politics in a powerful collection of personal stories. Click here read the first entry in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch.
When people ask me where I live, many times I joke that I live in my pick-up truck on Highway 281. About 10 years ago, I moved my kitchen store business to San Antonio, which is 250 miles from our cattle ranch in the Rio Grande Valley. Once a week, I drive three plus hours north to work at my store, then stay in the city a couple of days. Logging over 600 miles every week, I have come to regard the Texas highway system as part of my neighborhood, which both extends to and encompasses my ranch community. Friends on adjacent ranches think nothing of hopping in the truck for a one-way eight-hour drive to a weekend college football game, or hauling a horse trailer to a rodeo competition six hours away. These highways connect me to my work, to my sons in college, to my church, and place their comforting slate grey color on my horizon when it’s time for me to head home to the ranch. Texans love the open road. So, when I hear of reports of wrongdoing in my neighborhood, I pay attention.
My commute north on Highway 281 runs through the Falfurrias checkpoint, one of the most notorious human smuggling and drug trafficking corridors in the nation. Among my “neighbors” on the highway are not just fellow ranchers, but smugglers and traffickers. Just like me, they are simply commuting to work, traveling from rural ranch country to an urban market. What differentiates us is our cargo.
Case in point: On July 23, 2017, a large group of Latin American migrants were transported from Laredo, Texas in the empty trailer of an 18-wheeler. When they arrived in the parking lot of a nearby Walmart in San Antonio, witnesses said that waiting black SUVs whisked away the able survivors, probably to the nearby smuggler’s stash houses, where they could regroup and continue their journey. Those immobile had died in the trailer and were described by the driver of the trailers as “lying on the floor like meat.”
Texans love the open road. So, when I hear of reports of wrongdoing in my neighborhood, I pay attention.
It was estimated that 100 migrants had been crammed into the tractor-trailer, 10 of which died, while 29 recovered in area hospitals. According to local reports, some of the migrants were expected to suffer from irreversible brain damage, due to heat stroke and lack of oxygen. Two of the migrants were just 15 years old, with indications from the survivors that the whimpers of younger children could be heard during the two-hour trip. They had no water and took turns breathing fresh air from perforations in the trailer’s sheet metal siding.
All national, and international news outlets picked up this story. The incident was even featured on the BBC news’ website, which is remarkable as San Antonio is rarely mentioned in global feeds. For a brief, shining social media moment, San Antonio was the center of the world’s attention. Since the incident, there have been a few updates regarding the prosecution of the driver, but no information whatsoever on the migrants. The reporters, it seems, have moved on. Though stories are dropped partly because they become ongoing criminal investigations where police refrain from sharing details, at the same time, the public and reporters move on once shock value has worn off. We cease to be curious.
As catastrophic events go, the incident was of no value, literally. Sometimes, when these incidents occur, I can’t help but call to mind the incessant amount of traction and follow-up that stories about celebrities caught in compromising situations generate. But in the case of a very real humanitarian problem that plagues our southern border, we know nothing. What were the names of the migrants? While we know the names of a few survivors, as reported by the news, the names of the able bodied that were hustled away in black SUV’s will probably never be known. How many were assisted at local hospitals? Perhaps some died. Where do the remains of the bodies of the deceased migrants go? Are families in Mexico notified? What is the protocol for such situations, which ultimately involve human lives? Questions, all around. Most which will go forever unanswered.
Though this story made the news, the majority of incidents that occur along my highway neighborhood are overlooked by national media. Locally, cases of smuggled migrants are sometimes reported by our newspapers, but rather than rate as hard news, they are merely newsflashes – a hasty, soon-to-be-forgotten scroll along the bottom of a screen. And although smuggling incidents are common, researching them can be confusing as multiples incidents often happen on the same day, or can present similar scenarios making pinpointing individual incidents tough. We have become desensitized to smuggling occurrences, and we amalgamate the individual episodes into a single depressing situation.
On July 23, the same day as the Walmart tractor trailer incident, a stash house of trafficked migrants — with 11 men clothed only in their underwear — was also discovered in San Antonio. Stash houses are stopping places along a highway route, used by smugglers to warehouse and consolidate the migrants that pay to be smuggled to northern markets. The migrants’ garments had been taken by the smugglers to prevent their escape and keep them hidden from law enforcement. A neighbor in the next house had complained about suspicious activity, and the stash house was discovered. No information was shared regarding the health condition of the men. No follow-up could be found. Their story was overshadowed by the bigger Walmart trailer story, which though sensationalized at the time, disappeared quickly thereafter.
Ten days later, on August 13, 2017, 17 migrants were found locked in the back of an abandoned trailer at the truck stop where I fuel my own vehicle on Highway 281. It was a sweltering August day, but the migrants were rescued after they used a cell phone to call their relatives in Mexico. The relatives alerted U.S. authorities. Because there were 17 migrants in the trailer in the August 2017 truck-stop episode, it was easy to confuse this situation with another trailer smuggling incident that happened in May 2017, this one at the Falfurrias check point. That May incident included 18 migrants.. With so many incidents along my particular highway route, the details are easy to jumble, and the victims easy to lose track of. As these events take place in our neighborhood, my friends and family care about these happenings. But our conversations are befuddling at times and we have a hard time recalling the details of so many smuggling cases.
Among my “neighbors” on the highway are not just fellow ranchers, but smugglers and traffickers. What differentiates us is our cargo.
Just days later, I was horrified to hear of yet another freezer trailer smuggling incident at the Falfurrias checkpoint on August 21, 2017. The distinctive element here was that the trailer’s freezer was running. So, instead of sweltering conditions, the interior temperature of the transport ran 49°F (9.4°C). The 60 migrants were issued snow parkas by their traffickers, and laid down shoulder to shoulder in efficient, space saving rows, hidden among boxes of icy produce. While I don’t know the names of any of the migrants, I do know the name vegetable that hid them. It was broccoli.
For privacy reasons, Customs and Border Patrol does not share the names of the migrants. Newspapers can share their names, only if the migrant agrees to be interviewed, perhaps while recovering in the hospital, or in the aftermath of dismantling a stash house. But the dead; well, many of the dead are never identified.
Currently, our area’s best known, internationally recognized figure is the nameless, faceless, and many times lifeless, migrant. Just like the numerous incidents of discovered human smuggling are amalgamated into a single depressing situation, the nationality and individuality of the smuggled humans is amalgamated into a single persona. They are dark specters that we see as an issue, not a human being. In my mind’s eye, I only see men, but statistics show a growing percentage of migrants are women and children.
Yet, even if we knew their names, knowing doesn’t translate to understanding them, their intentions, or their story. Migrants are present everywhere in my South Texas community, sometimes walking through our cattle ranch, sometimes traveling next to me on the highway. But no matter how hard I might try to learn more about them, I don’t know who or, more importantly, where they are, often until it’s too late.
Forget the latest transgressing Hollywood ingénue; for South Texans, migrants are our local celebrities. They are the reason our area is occasionally featured in the global news feed, and the motivation for Washington politicians to visit our border community. Shoulder to shoulder I travel among them, though I can’t see them. I don’t know them and I am not sure how to help them. Their journeys begin elsewhere, compelled by violence and poverty. They come from circumstances beyond my comprehension, where I cannot affect change. Rescuing a migrant today does not prevent another from taking that risk tomorrow.
My highway neighborhood is famous for people I don’t even know.