The Ride Along

Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series looks 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 to catch up on all the stories in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch.

The agents were pleased with the results of their morning work, demonstrating their satisfaction with high-fives, back slaps and fist bumps. Seven undocumented migrants were secured in Border Patrol vehicles and the officers were asking for names, ages, countries of origin. Quietly, six men and one woman responded. The officers’ cheery mood was in stark contrast to that of the detained migrants. The agents were energized; the migrants were spent.

“Would you like to talk to them?” my Border Patrol guide asked. I was reluctant, rattled by the commotion, so I said no, not yet. I kept myself out of the way, taking pictures of the scenes swirling in the periphery of my lens: A chopper hovering in the grey January clouds, elderly cyclists riding past in DayGlo shirts, visored retirees puttering past in golf-carts, stopping to breathlessly debrief the Border Patrol on what they had seen before and during the capture. Last, the dark motorcyclist in black leather and a sleek onyx helmet that raced away before I could snap his picture.

Local friends who work in law enforcement knew that I had been writing a series about life on the border, and had encouraged me to request a ride along with a Border Patrol agent. Even though I have lived on the border of Mexico for my entire life, and see agents every time I leave our home, I had never seen the inside of a Border Patrol vehicle, much less ridden alongside an agent on patrol. After a few months of asking around, I finally secured a date for a ride along.

My day started with meeting the agent assigned to host my ride along at a vocational college located next to the Border Patrol headquarters. There, a team of agents was delivering a presentation to truck-driving students as part of Border Patrol’s Operation Big Rig Initiative. “They’re Humans, not Cargo!” was the message on the awareness posters.

More often, Border Patrol agents are finding migrants smuggled or trafficked in the empty spaces of 18-wheeler compartments and cargo loads, with unsuspecting migrants suffering death, or life-altering consequences from extreme heat, cold, or lack of water. The agents told the story of a stowaway that had been locked in a secret compartment of an 18-wheeler who went undetected by Border Patrol until after the rig had been towed to an impound lot. The stench of his decomposing body in the hot South Texas weather alerted the agents to his location three days later.

The agents cautioned the students to check their tractor trailers for stowaways before leaving rest stops, and to resist the temptation of accepting cash to transport migrants, as drivers would be held responsible for transporting undocumented aliens whether they were aware of the presence of stowaways, or not. The students were encouraged to memorize and actualize the G.O.A.L. practice (Get Out and Look) for safe, stowaway free departure every time they stopped their trucks for extended rest breaks.

Two days prior to the presentation, Border Patrol agents had found 57 people locked in the back of an 18-wheeler. The driver had been paid $100 per person. For a mere $5,700, the driver was now facing 10 years in jail, in addition to a possible $250,000 fine. One of the agents giving the presentation indicated that there were truckers who were indifferent to the prospect of a decade in prison if they got some quick cash out of the deal. For me, that was an eye opener. The spokesperson for the event was also my Border Patrol agent guide in the ride along, so after we left the truckers, we headed out.

We drove past a border wall that already exists, which runs south to north, making me question how a wall running perpendicular to the river helped stop undocumented migrants from entering the United States. The agent assured me that the north-south wall, which was made of solid vertical pipes, works like a channel, limiting an entering group’s ability to disperse into the local community. My guide pointed out the spot next to the wall where a Border Patrol agent had been attacked by rock-wielding drug smugglers. As a result of the assault, the agent required four titanium plates to reassemble his ocular bowl, in addition to stitches in his eyeball.  The attack site was next to a memorial boat ramp, named after Jaime Zapata, the ICE agent that was shot and killed by cartel members outside San Luis Potosi, Mexico.

The delta of the Rio Grande features rich soil, so farming along the river is great business on both the Mexico and U.S. sides. Wide levees not only defend the fields during river floods, but provide elevated roadways if fields are impassable due to flooding or irrigation. We drove along the levees, through the sugar cane fields and onion farms patched together along the river. My guide commented on the high-water marks left from past floods, and pointed out the junked agricultural equipment one farmer had arranged along the fence line of his property to thwart the speeding vehicles of coyotes. Levees can easily become launch ramps during high-speed escapades.

We talked a bit about coyotes, the notorious human smugglers that make their money charging outrageous sums to cross human cargo into the United States. “They feel nothing for the people they are bringing over,” my guide said. I know this to be true, as we see abandoned, disoriented migrants crossing our ranch almost daily. Lost, and sometimes near death, each migrant that I see at the ranch started out at the riverside location that I was currently touring.

My guide told me of one coyote that attempted to bail out of the speeding car he was driving, pointing to the field we were passing. With a carload of undocumented migrants, the coyote would have been arrested and held responsible as their smuggler. His headlights were turned off to avoid detection by Border Patrol. As he careened across the farmed acres, he decided to jump out of the car, avoid prosecution, and let his human cargo hurtle into the night. He opened the door, but didn’t see the oncoming tree. As he attempted to jump, the tree slammed into the driver’s side door and crushed his skull.

Our conversation ended when a call came over the agent’s radio. A group of seven people had been detected exiting the river and were headed north. We accelerated to the intervention site at a butterfly refuge.

The National Butterfly Center is 100-acre refuge on the banks of the Rio Grande where native birds and over 200 migrating butterfly species can be observed in a tranquil waterside setting. The preserve is seen as a weak spot in border security, not only by the U.S., who plan to build a border wall through it, but by the aforementioned smugglers, who hide their migrant clients in the thickly overgrown brush to avoid detection. Several travel trailer parks border the refuge, as retirees from northern states clamor for camping spots with riverside views, inexpensive fees and, from what I observed, the frequent real-life excitement of law-enforcement in hot pursuit of undocumented migrants as they attempt to enter the United States.

Migrants spotted on X-Ray camera by Border Patrol hidding inside of an 18-wheeler.
Life along the border.
A migrant meeting with Border Patrol.
Border Patrol doing a routine run.

When we pulled up, there were five other green striped patrol vehicles gathered next to the center. A helicopter chopped the air above us. Retirees in golf carts orbited the scene, gesturing and reciting detailed accounts of what they had witnessed. The mood was neither morose nor tense. If anything, it was upbeat.  I was even introduced to the Dutch Shepherd sniffer dog who had detected the group.

The agents had confiscated the cell phones of the detainees. Most of the phones were disposable, but one was an expensive smartphone, which kept receiving text messages — “¿Ya? ¿Adonde estás?”  — vibrating every 30 seconds. The Border Patrol agents chuckled. “It’s the cartel.” They were checking to see if their human cargo had crossed successfully. After so many unanswered texts, a call came through. An agent answered the call, impersonating the group’s coyote, who the cartel was trying to reach. The voice on the line asked again where the group was, but after a few words from the not-so familiar voice of the agent, the line went dead.

Earlier I had declined the invitation, but I was asked again if I wanted to speak with the detainees, and this time I said yes. The door opened. The man closest to me was wearing handcuffs, his grey t-shirt and blue jeans were torn, bloody scratches visible through the holes. “Buenos dias,” I began. “How long have you been traveling?” He looked me over through the distant empty eyes of shock. “From where?” the man asked. “From your home,” I clarified. “15 days.” he said. He was from Honduras.

I didn’t want to ask too many questions, so I did the math. Honduras is 1,500 miles away, so he averaged 100 miles per day, at a hypothetical walking pace of nine mph, if he traveled for 11 hours per day. Taking into account the enormous amount of human energy required to travel that distance by foot in such a short amount of time, I assumed he entered Mexico illegally by bus, plane, or possibly hidden in an 18-wheeler. He probably waited in a smuggling cartel’s Reynosa stash house for several days before attempting to cross to the U.S side. As I stood there in the open door, a Border Patrol medic arrived, and carefully extracted him from the patrol vehicle. The man’s hands were cuffed behind his back, as he had proven to be a “runner” during the interception.

The only woman in the patrol car wore a look of numb disbelief, and sat rigidly between the man in torn clothing and another man that revealed he was the group’s smuggler (who the cartel had been texting.) She was dressed in a leather jacket and t-shirt, and her hair hung in tatters over her brooding gaze. She seemed to be replaying the scenes of her journey in her mind, incredulous that this was the ending. I wondered what had happened to her along the way, but with the reliable occurrence of sexual assault among female migrants as they travel north to the border, I hesitated to pursue a conversation with her, and left her alone in her thoughts. Emotionally, it seemed, she had retreated into darkness.

An officer approached and asked the age of the coyote. “I’m 20 years old,” he muttered. Age is a major factor in how an undocumented migrant is processed when taken into custody.  The U.S. federal court system doesn’t have a juvenile division, and therefore sends cases involving minors to district courts. This lenient treatment of minors is often exploited by cartels. But, as he verified his age as an adult, the 20-year-old coyote was separated from the group, frisked, handcuffed, and placed in a separate patrol vehicle.

“Did you see that motorcyclist pull up to us at the butterfly center and then speed away?” my guide asked. Yes, I did. Even from a distance of 200 yards, the motorcyclist had frightened me, leaving too quickly for me to get a photo. “That was the coyote’s cartel informant,” said my guide. “He was verifying that the group we picked up was indeed intercepted by Border Patrol.” Smuggled migrants are seen as inventory and often intercepted by rival smuggling gangs. Just like drug cargo, human cargo is a marketable commodity with street value.

A busy day logged, the patrol vehicles pulled away, and my guide and I returned to my vehicle. We said our goodbyes, and I expressed my gratitude for being able to tag along on their daily patrol. But I was having a hard time reconciling the jovial mood of the interception with the reality of the detained migrants. One sustained scratches, torn clothing, and a 20-year-old coyote was now facing federal criminal charges for human smuggling. In light of the devastation of the migrants in front of them, why were the agents high-fiving each other?

I had to think back to when began to write this series; my first interview was with a Border Patrol agent who explained his job duties to me. Although each agent swears an oath to support and defend the United States Constitution, securing our border from threats, he paraphrased that his primary daily activity was search and rescue. This conversation put the mood of the day in context. Perhaps seven people had been stopped from entering the United States illegally, but they were alive. The most injured among the detainees had scratches and torn clothes. If someone had died, there would have been no high-fiving. In the perspective of Border Patrol, it was a good day.

After telling of my experience during the ride along, a friend of mine suggested that perhaps Border Patrol’s upbeat mood was in celebration of scoring points of some kind, as if the day was a win for the United States by thwarting the migration efforts of seven people from Latin America. But I didn’t agree. Border Patrol has no way of knowing how the immigration courts will process each person’s case. With the exception of the 20-year-old coyote who would obviously be charged with the federal crime of human smuggling, the remaining six undocumented crossers of our border will be processed according to their specific circumstances. Some might be allowed to enter the United States as refugees requesting asylum. Some might be sponsored by a family member in another state, and spend the next few nights at the Respite Center while waiting for their departing bus ride. And yes, some might be deported.

But the scene within which we were all participating was not the designated venue for the hard questions of immigration, nor the decisive moment of one’s citizenship fate. In that moment, we were not people in a situation, but components in a system. The migrants in custody would be asked more probing questions by a different set of authorities later in the day. From a zoomed-out perspective, perhaps it did appear that the U.S. won the border war on this particular day. There were two groups of people following a precise choreography, with one surrendering, and the other prevailing. But declaring one the winner is an oversimplification of a complicated dilemma.  The migrants were breaking our laws, while paradoxically seeking our help.

After much thought, I realized that my unwillingness to ask questions was rooted in what a few words could reveal. With a two-word mutter, one migrant sent himself down the path of federal charges. With three words, another hinted at a stay in a smuggling stash house, and further suggested that he traveled illegally through Guatemala and Mexico before his undocumented entrance into the United States. I could only guess what the silent woman would say. For myself, I wanted out of the awkwardness. In order to avoid mentally processing their individual predicaments, I simply stopped asking questions, and quietly watched the scene from behind my camera.

I also debated whether the migrants, stunned and bewildered in the Border Patrol vehicle, would consider themselves lucky. The day could have turned out differently. There could have been crushed skulls. There could have been driverless carloads of migrants hurtling into the night, or stowaways locked inside hidden compartments, detected only by smell of their hot decomposition. There could have been 57 people locked in a tractor-trailer rig.

In the moment where they found themselves, I wondered how the hollow-eyed migrants viewed their circumstances. Sadly, I won’t ever know. I was too reluctant to ask.