FALFURRIAS, Texas—Wyatt Hollek maneuvers his four-wheel-drive truck along a rutted sandy road and stops at a small, fenced-off enclosure where a mesquite tree provides shade to a dripping water pipe. Last Thanksgiving, Hollek found a dead woman tied to the tree trunk, her pants and underwear wrapped around her ankles. A Honduran ID card had been neatly placed next to her head, which lay face down in the sand.
“They just keep coming,” said Hollek, the 26-year-old manager of the Los Compadres Ranch, which grazes cattle and offers quail hunting. “They all just want to get to Houston, and a lot of them die trying.”
Tens of thousands of migrants from Central America have streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border this year and have surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol agents. The agents can’t immediately deport those from countries that don’t share a border with the U.S. so many Central American migrants believe they stand a better chance of staying if they go through the legal procedure of requesting asylum. (Related: “Texas Church Becomes Oasis for Central American Migrants, Their Children”)
Many are unaccompanied minors being housed in detention centers, while others have been given permission to seek out family members living in the U.S. The surge has sparked a national political debate, with mounting calls for immigration reform. (Related: “American-Born Gangs Helping Drive Immigrant Crisis at U.S. Border”)
But many tens of thousands more take their chances trying to make it north undetected. Last year, U.S. Border Patrol stopped more than 420,000 migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, but many more slipped through. In Texas alone, 238 people died trying to cross the desert.
Hollek lives and works on the front lines of this migration, much of which passes directly through the Los Compadres Ranch. Its 15,000 acres of mesquite, live oak, and wild grass sit just a few miles south of Falfurrias, a downtrodden outpost of 5,200 in southeast Texas that’s bisected by Highway 285, a two-lane road that runs west toward the border town of Nuevo Laredo and east toward Baffin Bay and roads that lead to Houston.
In this part of south Texas, the migrant route flows north from the border and through the desert toward 285, the first major eastbound road for miles. There are various paths through the desert, but collectively the route north is known as “the pipeline,” in part because of the huge numbers of people involved, but also because it follows a series of underground natural gas pipelines that migrants and their “coyotes”—the Mexican or American guides whom migrants pay to lead them safely to the United States—can track.
The pipelines are underground, but the land above is regularly cleared and maintained for safety purposes, which provides a clean path through the desert brush.
Its easy highway access, combined with the resurgence of a kind of frontier lawlessness here, has made Falfurrias—or Fal, as locals call it—part of an increasingly vast and lucrative human smuggling hub. The little Texas town sits exactly 18 miles north of the last official Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint. If migrants coming up through Mexico—Hollek and many others here call them by the derogatory terms “illegals” and “wetbacks”—can get this far, they’re almost certain to make their final destination, often Houston and New York.
“Where Is Houston?”
For thousands of migrants each year, reaching Highway 285 means crossing 85 miles of inhospitable desert as the crow flies from Reynosa, on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The land is dotted with ranches like Los Compadres, which are popular with cattle ranchers and wealthy quail hunters. Former Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a campaign contributor in the face during a hunting trip in 2006 not far from Los Compadres.
For years, ranchers in the area have been watching migrants move north. Many stop and ask for food, water, and rest. Some get lost in the desert or are abandoned by their coyotes and wind up dead. Hollek says that he won’t eat hog caught south of Highway 285 because the chances of it having fed on a dead human being are too high.
He and others around town say migrant girls are raped and killed by their coyotes so often that there’s a term for the trees where the bra-and-underwear ties are hung: rape trees.
Hollek carries an AR-15 assault rifle in the back of his truck for protection. Groups of dozens of migrants have surrounded his house at night asking for help. In the last year he has found two dead bodies.
Sometimes he helps migrants with food and water. More often, he calls Border Patrol. He spends a lot of time collecting trash and repairing broken PVC pipe the travelers have broken to access fresh water. He often stumbles across people who are lost and dehydrated, begging for help.
They always have one question: Where is Houston?
(Related: “The Other Mexicans”)
Highway Like the Holy Grail
If the migrants make it through the ranches to Highway 285, “the pipeline” often deposits them at the doorstep of a man who owns a house along the road. The man, a 52-year-old oil industry worker, asked that his name not be used for fear of retaliation by smugglers or Border Patrol.
“This highway is like the holy grail,” he said from his front porch, which looks onto 285. “You can just sit here on my porch and watch it happening.” What he sees is an international refugee crisis crashing headlong into American capitalism.
Up and down Highway 285 cars and trucks cruise by. Smugglers often drive in teams of two or three cars—one ahead and one behind scanning for police, with the transport car in the middle. As we sat there one day last week, a large black pickup truck hurtled by, did a fast U-turn in the middle of the road, and went speeding back in the other direction.
“See that right there?” asked the oil worker, who is Latino, pointing at the truck. “That’s how they do it. He’s probably checking for Border Patrol right now.”
Others will take the risk and drive solo. A honking horn means a car is empty and ready to take passengers. Migrants and coyotes know the game too. They hang shirts or plastic bags on sagging fence lines to indicate that migrants are nearby, hiding in weeds, waiting for a ride.
From Falfurrias, a five-hour car ride to Houston can run into several thousand dollars. Smugglers rarely drive migrants all the way, says Ramiro Gonzalez, Falfurrias’s chief of police. Instead, they race around the backroads along 285 for a few hours before taking their bewildered passengers’ money and depositing them in the desert.
“We attempt to stop them, but 90 percent of the time they won’t stop,” Gonzalez says. “We get into high speed chases. Then they’ll abandon the vehicle where the area is thick and go through fence lines. They dump the migrants, who take off running.”
Last year, Gonzalez’s troopers chased a Chevy Blazer that crashed, killing five people. Some of the dead were from Honduras.
The man who lives on 285 was raised in south Texas and works on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He sympathizes with most of the migrants who arrive on his doorstep, sometimes in the middle of the night, exhausted, thirsty, and desperately looking for a ride.
“They’ll pull out wads of hundreds of dollars and beg me to drive them to Houston,” he says, admitting that he’s been tempted more than once.
He believes most of them are hard-working people in search of a better life. But every now and again he wonders who else is getting through.
Men have shown up with no signs of having trekked through the desert, their clothes fresh and pressed. Some speak perfect English. “I know there are criminals and narco traffickers also coming through here,” the man says. That’s what scares him most about living on Highway 285. “You just don’t know who they are.”
“A Huge Business”
The steady supply of human cargo has had a dramatic effect on the economy around Falfurrias. One local woman, Martha Schuetz, worked as a human smuggler for several years before she got caught and went to jail.
In 2003, desperate for quick cash to help pay bills, Schuetz began driving migrants from Falfurrias to Houston. She earned $1,000 for her first trip. Other locals soon caught on and young people began drifting into the smuggling trade in greater numbers. “Everybody wants a piece of it now,” she says. “It’s a huge business around here.”
In four years, she drove about a hundred people to Houston. Nowadays the same Falfurrias-to-Houston voyage could cost as much as $5,000.
Smuggling became so lucrative that Schuetz began working further afield. In 2007 she started working with a Mexican trafficker who went by the name of Sandra. Well-dressed, sophisticated, and bilingual, Schuetz says that Sandra served as an intermediary and hired her to transport infants—many from Central America—from Mexico to Houston.
Schuetz began crossing into Reynosa, on the Mexican side, and bringing back small children and babies, one and two at a time.
Sandra, who had a green card and could cross back and forth across the border, would drug the kids with Benadryl to keep them docile. Schuetz would pick them up at a motel in Reynosa and drive north, telling Border Patrol they were her own children. “People carry them in trucks, SUVs, cars, vans, whatever they can get,” she says, “They stack ‘em close, one on top of another, they stuff ‘em in, and no car is discriminated against.”
Schuetz says she doesn’t know what became of the children once she handed them off again to Sandra, usually at a hotel or a “stash house”—a temporary staging point for migrants and coyotes—in and around Falfurrias. Schuetz’s frequent journeys raised alarms with border patrol agents and she was caught in 2007, but only spent two days in jail. A judge sentenced her to six months of house arrest on charges of human trafficking and three years of probation.
The easy money and relatively weak punishment of smugglers has helped change the character of Falfurrias, stripping it of the traditional businesses and commerce. Many restaurants, stores, and small businesses are shuttered. Recently, a string of grim, smoke-filled “game rooms” with slot machines have sprung up along the town’s main street.
Most of them pay cash prizes, making them illegal in Texas, but local authorities have turned a blind eye.
“This used to be a booming little town, where everybody worked and had jobs,” said the oil worker who lives in 285. “Now it’s just smuggling and game rooms and none of the young people want to work for a living.”
Falfurrias almost went bankrupt a few years ago. If you can’t get a job on a ranch, smuggling has become the go-to industry. “If there’s someone on the highway, people here are gonna pick them up,” says Schuetz. “They’re not gonna pass ‘em by, not in this town.”