Global Development: On the Texas-Mexico border, no one knows who’s smuggling the border crossers. Everyone’s a suspect

Two men suspected of crossing the border illegally search for a safe house in the early morning darkness in Colonia De La Cruz. After speaking briefly to a journalist, they turned around in apparent confusion and headed back down the alley.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It was 11 p.m. when her six dogs started barking on the patio, a sign Maria Guadalupe “Lupita” Rios had come to recognize. Immigrants were passing through her street a block north of the Rio Grande.

From her leather couch facing an oil painting of the river, Rios called to her 5-year-old granddaughter, Brianna, who was monitoring security footage on a large screen in the master bedroom. Rios’ husband installed half a dozen $300 security cameras around their ranch house last year after she grew nervous about him leaving 11 days at a time to work the south Texas oilfields.

“Who is it?” Rios asked. “Your cousin? A mojado?”

That’s what residents of Roma, most with roots that stretch across the river to Mexico, call border crossers: wetback, a word stripped of its vitriol in Spanish. Some even use the diminutive mojadito.

Brianna peeked through the blinds, but didn’t recognize the figure creeping through the mesquite brush. Her grandmother asked where the person went. Into the garage, the girl replied calmly, accustomed to strange figures passing at all hours.


The Border Patrol had just changed shifts — prime time for smuggling. Other than the dogs, the only sound was the drone of cicadas. The loudmouthed chachalaca birds once were natural sentries, but most had been shot by the son of a neighbor whom Rios suspects of smuggling. Sultry river breezes stirred the palms, sending shadows flitting across parked cars. Rios guessed the creeping figure was her sister who lives nearby, but didn’t want to risk stepping into the street.

“You can’t tell who’s who,” she said.

You can’t tell who’s who. For Rios, 60, and others in the riverfront colonia, or neighborhood, border life is marked not so much by violence — that tends to stay on the other side of the river — as by uneasiness, distrust and suspicion of just about everyone: law enforcement, smugglers, immigrants, even their own neighbors.

Roma is one of the quickest “vanishing points,” as Border Patrol agents say, into Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the main gateway for illegal immigration on the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Those who scramble up the riverbank often run through Rios’ neighborhood, quickly disappearing behind mulberry and pecan trees. From there, they dart into stash houses or climb into the idling cars of smugglers who try to slip them past Border Patrol checkpoints to the north that mark the edge of the valley’s “tortilla curtain.”

Roma residents have grown accustomed to national attention shifting their way, as when unaccompanied youths surged toward the border in 2014 or when the U.S. separated immigrant families this summer. Each time the spotlight faded until the next crisis, real or imagined.

To capture life on the border, a Times reporter and photographer rented a house in the colonia half a block from the Rio Grande and lived there off and on for four months. They found a community like any other: families settling down, raising children and caring for aging grandparents. But they also witnessed surreal scenes as coyotes guided immigrants out of the river and Border Patrol trucks barreled past candidates campaigning door-to-door, an ambulance rushing to a call and children awaiting school buses.

It’s a neighborhood where the ordinary becomes suspect. A man walking his dog might be a smuggler’s lookout. At a pink apartment complex down the street from The Times’ house, an apartment door has been plastered with a life-size poster of a leering clown. It might be a leftover party decoration. But residents think it signals a stash house where immigrants hide.


Then there’s the guy who honks his car horn at odd hours, shouting into the wind. He’s not crazy, neighbors insist — he’s alerting smugglers the coast is clear. (He says he’s not.)

“Roma has its reputation — like Colombia,” said Sandra Garcia, whose family owns the pink apartments.

She denied rumors that her family smuggles immigrants. Garcia, 51, her parents and other relatives were convicted of federal drug trafficking in 1994, did their time and don’t want to get in trouble again, she said. Sometimes, while sitting behind her elderly father as he naps on the apartment stoop, she sees immigrants dash past. Garcia said she urges them to move on.

Roma’s location makes it an ideal smuggling spot. The Rio Grande — or Rio Bravo, as it’s known in Mexico — is about 100 yards wide as it courses past the city. When the water’s low, immigrants can wade across. A few blocks north lies Highway 83, the valley’s central artery, which smugglers use to whisk clients away, disappearing into the thrum of traffic. The closest big city is McAllen, about 55 miles east.

A bridge over the river links Roma with Miguel Aleman, which, like many parts of the state of Tamaulipas, has been plagued by drug cartel violence. Some Roma residents have stopped going to the Mexican side, but others cross for shopping or a good meal, though they remain wary and tend to go to shops near the bridge.

Roma’s median household income is about $20,000, less than a third of the national median. There’s no real industry in the city of 11,400, and well-paid jobs are hard to come by. Big-ticket purchases arouse suspicion.

Rios wonders about a neighbor who throws family parties, bought an ATV and new cars but never seems to work.

“We don’t make enough to have two new vehicles, [or] a house like that. And he just came back from Las Vegas,” Rios said.

That neighbor, Santiago “Chago” Barrera, 31, said he has worked as a security guard, his wife as a home health provider. He worries about Border Patrol agents speeding down the street where his three daughters and pets play, and said they have accidentally run over two of his dogs. Still, he said, “The guys in green have it under control.”

He too is suspicious of his neighbors.

“We don’t trust anyone, miss,” he told a Times reporter. “I don’t trust you.”

Even those who call authorities are suspect, a Border Patrol commander said, because smugglers often snitch on their competition.

Some whisper that another neighbor never gets caught smuggling because she placed a spell on the Border Patrol. She’s a witch, they say, a bruja. They debate whether the faint wailing captured by a neighbor’s security system is a migrant, a cat or a ghost.

When the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” opened in nearby Rio Grande City this summer, Roma residents scoffed in Spanish at the introduction that claimed Mexican cartels controlled the border. Smuggling isn’t a cartel invention. It’s a homegrown tradition.

Smuggling has been a way of life in Roma since its founding in what was Mexico in 1765. The city, which some say was named after Rome by priests enamored of its sandstone bluffs, rose from riverfront Spanish land grants.

The landed class banded together into what they called a masa de heredores, or group of heirs, even after the Texas Republic was declared in 1836. When a U.S. Army surveyor, William Emory, arrived in 1844, he couldn’t tell what industry was fueling the thriving Tejano town until he camped on the riverbank and was awoken by smugglers’ late-night mule trains headed south.

During the Civil War, Roma remained allied with the Union even as smugglers eluded its cotton blockade. Under Prohibition, bootleggers known as tequileros carted in illicit Mexican liquor through the plaza. By the 1970s, smugglers called mafiosos were trafficking marijuana and other illicit drugs.

“Why do we allow it? Well, it’s very simple — MONEY, PROFIT, AND LACK OF MORALS,” local prosecutor Arnulfo Guerra, owner of the South Texas Reporter, wrote in a front-page editorial in 1976. Perhaps authorities could “turn time back for us and give us another chance,” he wrote. “But not until we quit turning our heads and chasing after that filthy and now bloodstained dirty dollar.”

A state grand jury convened in the mid-’70s estimated that up to 35% of Starr County’s 200,000 residents were smuggling drugs.

“In the ’80s, we had 30% unemployment, but people had new cars and houses,” said Roma’s assistant city manager, Freddy Guerra.

As oil boomed and unemployment dropped to the single digits in south Texas, some Roma residents abandoned off-the-books work and “legitimized,” Guerra said, while others “just wanted to do what their parents did: smuggle.”

In recent years, Rio Grande Valley sheriffs and county judges were arrested on drug charges. Teachers were caught trafficking drugs through schools.

Rios, who works as an attendance clerk at a local school, has seen the trade passed down through generations of students and relatives. More than the Mexican cartels or the U.S. government, she blames American smugglers for the flow of drugs and immigrants through her streets. “This would not be happening if people were not helping them,” she said.

In Roma, Spanish may be the language of choice, but its vibe is more Tejano than Mexican. They don’t just fly the Stars and Stripes; they wear it, hang “Proud to be an American” signs on garden fences and paint grocery store walls with “We support our troops.” Roma High’s champion mariachi band’s CD includes “America the Beautiful.”

In December, locals stage a procession, or caminata, to honor the Virgin of Guadalupe and in September celebrate Fiestas Patrias, Mexican Independence Day. But Roma also mounts a massive Fourth of July festival in the central plaza with patriotic prayers, fireworks and a Border Patrol booth where residents greet agents warmly.

“This is the land of the free!” an agent leading a band shouted in Spanish. “How many people would like to come live here?” The crowd’s cheers echoed across the riverbank and into Mexico.

But civic pride is accompanied by an ever-present worry about arousing suspicion — from authorities or smugglers. Just stepping out for a routine errand at the wrong time can be dangerous.

If you happen to be outside when immigrants get caught, smugglers might think you tipped off the Border Patrol, said Edgar Vargas, 30, a dispatcher for Roma police who grew up and settled in the colonia with his family. Almost two years ago, smugglers running a nearby stash house called the Border Patrol on Vargas. To prove he’d done nothing wrong, Vargas had to let agents search his house. Eventually, they left. Only later were the real smugglers busted.

In Roma, opinion about the Border Patrol is divided. In the colonia, distrust is palpable — agents rarely speak with residents, who complain they’re often treated like suspects, even those with connections to law enforcement. Some agents said they believe everyone in the neighborhood is involved in smuggling. A Border Patrol spokesman said agents live in the communities they serve and are committed to treating “all people they encounter humanely and professionally at all times.”

The woman neighbors believe is a witch and smuggler laughs off the gossip. She said the only witchcraft she knows is a trick a neighbor tried to keep the Border Patrol away: piling lime halves stuck with cloves on a plate. But it only seemed to draw more agents.

She asked to be identified only by her first name, Tana, because she fled Mexico with her granddaughter in 2012 after her husband and 18-year-old daughter were disappeared by the Gulf cartel. Tana, who is 51, speaks of her husband and daughter in whispers, because her 8-year-old granddaughter doesn’t know they’re presumed dead. She says she supports herself by ironing, cleaning homes and baking empanadas. Church friends are helping her find an immigration lawyer and pursue asylum. She said she won’t even let her granddaughter offer passing migrants food.

After a neighbor spread a rumor that Tana was fingering a smuggler, the man showed up at her door threatening to kill her.

“I’m more afraid of them than immigration,” she said of neighbors.

One night last summer, Rios was on her daughter’s patio, watching her granddaughters dash from the 105-degree heat into their blue inflated wading pool. Her husband had just emerged from the ranch house they were helping their daughter renovate when a chubby young man approached. He had a cellphone in one hand and a plastic bag in another. He looked damp — and lost.

Rios had trained her granddaughters what to do when they see immigrants: Run inside. But now they froze, curious. Their grandmother pulled them to her on the patio where they stood, watching.

The man hid briefly behind a trash can, tugging palm fronds over his face. He dashed right, then left up the street toward the pink apartments, squeezing through a narrow gap beside the building. Rios recognized the gap as one of several entrances to a well-worn dirt path. It ends at the trailer of a suspected smuggler.

Rios’ relatives and neighbors have had similar encounters. They fear the growing number of immigrants from Central America, including gang members, and resent the intrusion of immigrants into significant moments of their lives. In October, when Rios found her 91-year-old father, Guadalupe Cruz, had died in his sleep in his house across the street and called an ambulance, Border Patrol responded too — because immigrants were crossing nearby.

“At the beginning we would see them pass and it was like, ‘Oh, these poor people.’ Not anymore. Because it’s not one or two anymore. And it’s our neighborhood,” she said. Rios is a longtime Democrat, as are most Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley. But she voted for Donald Trump because of immigration.

On another summer evening, her younger sister next door was confronted by an immigrant couple. She barred the front door, but they forced their way in, scratching her arm. She screamed, alerting her husband who was watching television. He didn’t arrive in time to stop the immigrants from barricading themselves in a bathroom. The family called the Border Patrol, or la migra, as it’s often known, and after agents finally extracted the couple, a paramedic treated Rios’ sister.

Such intrusions are rare. Mostly, immigrants want to get through the colonia as fast as possible. The border crossers are so common, residents often barely notice them.

One hot Saturday afternoon, Anita Loera was playing with her 3-year-old granddaughter outside their house facing the Rio Grande when she saw a group of young men in the mesquite brush below.

“Look, there’s mojaditos,” Loera said.

Suddenly, the man leading the migrants retreated, and they followed him back toward the river.

“Look, he’s running!” Loera said, puzzled.

La migra are coming,” said her husband, Jose Armando Loera, 58.

Loera, 55, walked her granddaughter down to the river’s edge to see the men flee.

“They’re in the water!” the girl cried.

“Yes, with the coyote,” Loera explained coolly. “Tell them bye.”

The little girl waved at the shirtless men swimming back to Mexico.

Rios, who lives around the corner, has stumbled upon migrants hiding on her patio, in the bushes, behind her Jeep and in the family RV. She had to repair the RV this summer after immigrants fleeing Border Patrol agents ripped the ceiling and screens as she watched from inside her house. Rios has seen them in an abandoned shack behind her elderly parents’ home, even resting on the porch of her 82-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia.

She tries to help the Border Patrol. But agents don’t appear to interact with residents much, unless they are pursuing immigrants.

Rios reported a stash house that was eventually busted and has told agents about other smugglers. She also asked them to add street lights, increase foot patrols and decrease response times. Their response to the immigrant traffic: “Ma’am, it’s all over Roma.” A Border Patrol spokesman said the agency’s chief in the valley has asked for more staffing but also noted that some issues, such as street lights, are city responsibilities.

Rios and her neighbors feel helpless as they watch smugglers foil the Border Patrol by creating diversions, throwing street parties, playing baseball and riding go-karts with their children.

At least one suspected smuggler has complained to neighbors about Rios calling the Border Patrol, and her husband of 38 years, Jorge, worries that criminals might retaliate.

“They might burn our house,” Jorge said as they stood at their front gate one night.

“Have they done it?” Rios asked defiantly.

“No, but they might.”

Rios scanned the street nervously. The air was thick with the scent of sweet cane burning in Mexico. She didn’t see any agents.

“I feel better when they’re here. When they’re not …”

“…They come like bees,” her husband said of immigrants.

Rios feels sympathy for some of the immigrants, particularly other mothers. Last month, when two women traveling with a young girl collapsed on her daughter’s lawn, Rios’ son-in-law gave them water before the Border Patrol arrived to detain them. “How can mothers put them through that?” her daughter said. Rio countered: “You don’t know how desperate they are.”

Still, Rios and her family aren’t waiting for a border wall. They decided to erect a fence around her daughter’s place nearby, and they’ve already added two security cameras.

As they worked one night, Rios could see a neighbor she suspects of smuggling playing soccer with his children while relatives flew a black-and-white kite. Her granddaughters wanted to fly it, but Rios kept them close.

Suddenly, a man sprinted past them down the dirt alley. Neighbors washing dishes watched from their windows as the man disappeared. Three Border Patrol cars soon arrived, and agents spread out on foot.

As the agents asked whether residents had seen anything, the soccer game continued. A gust lifted the kite, tore its string, and it landed a few blocks away in Vargas’ lemon tree. When he attempted to return it, the owners didn’t seem to care.

Rios wondered: Was it a toy or a signal?

Agents circled the block.

“Did they get him?” Rios asked agents as they passed.

They said the man was gone.

A short time later, when the agents had left, Jorge Rios glimpsed the migrant: He was standing among the soccer players. Distracted by the kite, no one else had seen the man, who blended into the crowd and then vanished.

Special correspondent Verónica G. Cárdenas in Roma contributed to this report.