“You’re lucky to spot the buzzards,” he said.
A desperate lot
The Border Patrol registered 463 migrant deaths along the Southwest border during fiscal 2012, the second highest after 2005, when 492 bodies were found. But the overall number of people trying to cross was more than three times as high then.
Illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped an estimated 75 percent since 2005, the result of a stronger Mexican economy, tougher U.S. enforcement and widespread fears of the criminal gangs that dominate border towns.
But those factors have not discouraged Central Americans, whose desperation appears to be undeterred.
South Texas is their nearest entry point to the United States. Last year, the number of people arrested in the Rio Grande Valley sector whom the Border Patrol classified as “Other Than Mexican” (OTM) jumped 139 percent, to nearly 50,000, accounting for half of all the OTMs caught nationwide. The vast majority were from Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle region: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“There’s nothing in Honduras,” said Jairo Guevara, a scrappy, thin 18-year-old waiting at a church-run shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville.
Guevara and a friend had set out six weeks earlier, traversing Guatemala and riding the rails clear across Mexico. They held on tightly to the tops of freight cars, some with curved roofs, along with hundreds of other Central Americans, and they saw legs and arms severed when fellow travelers drifted off to sleep and fell onto the tracks.
It is a route stalked by kidnapping gangs and extortion crews that demand payoffs at periodic intervals, like toll collectors, charging $100 per traveler or more. “The scariest part of the trip,” Guevara said.
In the past, migrants could arrive at shelters in Mexican border towns such as Matamoros to rest and get water and food before jumping the line.
Not in “Mat-tat-tat-a-moros,” as Father Francisco Gallardo, the priest who runs the shelter there, dryly calls the city, echoing the sound of automatic gunfire. A few days earlier, armed men forced their way into his dormitory and abducted three men.
Lying on his bunk, Guevara fingered a wooden crucifix necklace and quizzed the older men in the dorm for tips on how to swim across the Rio Grande and follow the highways north toward Houston. He had no map of South Texas, let alone Brooks County.
“Is there a shelter like this one on the other side?” he asked, looking disappointed on learning that there was not.
Volunteer, armed patrollers
From McAllen, Route 281 runs straight north like a rifle shot, past some of the largest tracts of private property in Texas. The land is pancake flat and drought-parched, dotted with mesquite and verdant stands of oak trees. Unlike Arizona’s deserts, there are no mountain ranges to orient migrants on foot, only unmarked ranch roads and cattle trails leading in circles.