The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Border Patrol’s September on the Rio Grande: Bodies, cartel lookouts, footprints in the mud. And fewer migrants.

Members of a U.S. Border Patrol river unit catch and detain migrants in a field as they patrol the Rio Grande on Sept. 5 near Mission, Tex. Apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border are 62 percent lower than they were three months ago, but authorities believe they could surge again when the summer heat subsides. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

ABRAM, Tex. — The dead man was face down near the riverbank, visible mostly because of the slivers of red on the soles of his sneakers.

“We’ve got a floater,” U.S. Border Patrol agent Deborah Villarreal called out to the rest of her unit. She swung the patrol boat around to get a closer look.

It was predawn, early in Villarreal’s shift, and the purplish-pink sky reflected in the placid waters of the Rio Grande. She furrowed her brow at the grim start to her day, and she thought about the family out there somewhere, missing this man, wondering where he was, not knowing he was dead.

“I hate to see that,” she said.

Villarreal sees dead bodies regularly, floating in this river that separates Mexico from the United States. This was the second her unit had spotted along this particular stretch in about a week.

By the end of her day, she would have steered the boat up and down the river a couple dozen more times, passing the body again and again before Mexican authorities arrived to take it away. She would pass the same series of concrete sheds — holes drilled into the sides so the drug cartels can use them as lookout points — and the same run-down riverfront cafe, where a black car loitered, and a man watched the boat pass. She would wave to the Mexican national guardsmen at their sleepy encampment, push through a cloud of skunk odor — it was their mating season — scour the river reeds for signs of footsteps into the United States, and send her agents up the bank and into the brush after a pair of Mexican migrants, ultimately catching up to them on the edge of a cane field.

This, relative to recent months, was a slow day in the Rio Grande Valley.

The winding body of the river here in South Texas — with its submerged remnants of rafts, its banks trampled by migrant families and cartel workers, and now, by Mexican forces — is a microcosm of all the ebbs and flows of the nation’s approach to immigration. This sliver of the 1,954-mile border with Mexico is primed to deliver a verdict on the effectiveness of the Trump administration’s border policies.

It is here that the spring influx of migrant families and children reached its peak, inundating U.S. Border Patrol stations with too many detainees. But apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley have dropped 55 percent since May, down from nearly 50,000 to just more than 22,000 in August. Though this area still sees more migrant crossings than any other sector of the border, border agents here have witnessed how Washington policies aimed at decreasing the flow have played out in real time.

To them, it is President Trump’s deal with Mexico to intercept migrants before they cross into the United States that has seemed to have the most impact. They do not know the details of the accord or how long it will last, but they can see the Mexican forces on the other side of the Rio Grande.

“You see a difference,” said Ryan Ansbro, a Border Patrol agent who works alongside Villarreal.

Villarreal and her team, who patrol the river by boat, rush to intercept migrants and smugglers before they cross, and they pluck people from the water when they wind up in it. The precipitous summer decline in migrant crossings has meant quieter shifts on a river that is suddenly more manageable, less frantic.

But the constants remain: the desperation that cannot be deterred by danger; the drug cartels that devise new methods as fast as authorities try to thwart them; the everyday logistical challenges facing the Border Patrol, even as Trump focuses money and rhetorical energy on a border wall.

Though lower than earlier in the year, last month still saw more crossings than any other August in a decade. Will large groups of families and children — sometimes as many as 300 people at once — again pull agents away from their patrol duties, forcing them to become processors and jail guards? Will Mexican troops be able to sustain their efforts?

“We’re all in limbo,” Villarreal said. “We don’t know if it’s going to skyrocket again or if this is going to be what helps us. It’s just an unknown.”

The chase is always on

On the river, the chase is always on. Cartel scouts along the Mexican side keep watch for the Border Patrol, launching rafts to the United States full of migrants or drugs whenever they find a gap.

The agents, in turn, speed back and forth, hoping to keep up. They rely heavily on eyes in the sky: helicopters, blimps with cameras, and stationary surveillance technology mounted on the edges of walls and fields to warn them of a raft hitting the water. If they get to the launch point quickly enough, the rafts often double back — sometimes tossing migrants into the water as they do.

“Our job is more of a deterrence unit,” Villarreal said. “And we are involved in a lot of rescues.”

The pale-green water in this region is flat and still, its current barely discernible from the boat deck, as it winds snakelike through the thick scrubland, with curves and switchbacks. Some of the narrowest areas and favored crossing points are less than a football field wide. But the water can be deceiving.

“You look at it right now, and you think there’s no current,” Ansbro said. “But you get in, and you find out there is a current. And a lot of them can’t swim,” he said of the migrants. Others get disoriented in the thick brush on the U.S. side, and in their exhaustion, they try to swim back.

Thick tangles of reeds, known locally as carrizo cane, create dense jungles that stretch from the riverbanks inland, thwarting the movements of migrants and the Border Patrol agents seeking to apprehend them.

The Border Patrol agents tell stories of the people they have found: the 18-year-old who medic Salvador Pastran discovered face up and arms spread in the middle of a dirt road a few years ago, the body reminding him of a snow angel; the young woman and three babies that agent Sheymarie Rosa and colleagues spotted recently, so close to a road, but all dead; or the group of 20 children and adults who Villarreal and her team rescued from the reeds at the water’s edge earlier in the summer.

In three days on the river this month, agents from the McAllen Border Patrol station, including Villarreal’s unit, encountered migrants during every shift who were suffering from heat exhaustion in the cane fields and citrus orchards between the river and the roads, even though the weather was cooler — in the 80s — than it had been in weeks.

Linda Rivas is an immigration attorney whose work regularly takes her to the dangerous Mexican border city of Juarez, where thousands of migrants are stranded. (Video: The Washington Post)

There was a Nicaraguan man who told agents he had lost consciousness in the brush after being deposited there by smugglers early in the morning. Hours later, he came to and crawled out onto a levee, where he was able to seek help from two U.S. National Guardsmen who have been deployed to the border in recent months to assist the Border Patrol.

There was another migrant, who agents believed to be a Chinese national, who began vomiting incessantly — a common symptom of heat exhaustion, Pastran said — shortly after they gave him water to drink.

Many of the migrants are leaving behind abject poverty, gangs, violence — and the dangers of a northbound trek and a hazardous crossing do not dilute the potential promise of life in the United States.

“The conditions here are still better,” Ansbro said.

Echoing the broad contours of arguments the Trump administration has made about why it is necessary to more aggressively deport those who are in the country illegally, Villarreal, Ansbro and other agents said they believe little can be done to stop the flow of migrants without tightening the laws to make it more difficult for asylum seekers and illegal entrants to remain in the United States.

“If they think they can come and stay, they’re going to do it,” Villarreal said.

Policies such as the administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols, which pushes asylum seekers back into Mexico to await U.S. court hearings, and other restrictions such as requiring migrants to first seek asylum in countries they transit on their way to the United States, are aimed at preventing people from even attempting a crossing.

But the Mexican forces are the only policy that the agents on the river can see for themselves.

Change on the Rio Grande

The change came earlier this summer.

Early one morning, Villarreal and her unit caught a glimpse of something unusual in the dark.

There, on the Mexican side of the river, was a collection of colorful tent canvases, like a family campsite at a national park. But this was the bank of the Rio Grande, just north of the Mexican city of Reynosa, where the government had notoriously little authority in the face of cartel control. It was only after the tents’ occupants came to life under the beams of the Border Patrol’s flashlights that Villarreal and her agents realized what they were seeing.

“Oh, it’s the Mexican military,” she said, recalling her surprise, referring to the Mexican national guard forces. “We woke those poor guys up.”

There is little direct communication between the agents and the Mexican authorities. An international liaison handles that.

But on this day, Villarreal waved to the men in fatigues as her boat passed. We haven’t seen much today, she calls out to them in Spanish through the boat’s loudspeaker, “but we’ll let you know if we do.”

Two of the men responded with a thumbs-up.

When a late morning call came in over the radio about a group crossing downriver, the intelligence was coming from an agent watching an aerial camera, and Villarreal’s boat unit took off at 47 mph, past the inlet where agents have seen alligators, and past the remnants of a dozen green plastic rafts snagged on tree branches in the shallows.

“Mira,” Rosa told Villarreal in Spanish. “Look.”

The boat slowed next to a forested bank across from an empty Mexican cafe.

“There’s a guy right there.” Across the river, a man was watching them.

They moved up and down along the river bank, searching for signs of trampled reeds. The raft had already crossed. Finding fresh footprints in the mud, Ansbro and Rosa set off in pursuit through the brush, where their uniforms snagged on blades of cane and the air felt heavy and suffocating.

They followed the tracks out to a dirt road along another dense field of cane, and up the road, a snake slipping over the sandy berm to get out of their way. A helicopter moved in overhead.

“Fifty yards ahead of you, there’s going to be two of them,” came a voice from the helicopter over the radio after several minutes. “Right shoulder. Go into the field right there.” And the agents plunged into the cane, emerging seconds later with two muddied men handcuffed together.

They sat them down on the road to collect their belongings and to begin the typical questioning. One was a 44-year-old fisherman from the southern Mexican state of Veracruz. The other was a 32-year-old from Guerrero. Both were fathers of three. Both were exhausted.

They had not eaten in two or three days, the fisherman said. They had come to the United States to look for work.

The agents led them back to the boat, took them upriver, and handed them off to another agent with a truck. They would likely face swift deportation.

In the afternoon, the tiny boat Villarreal had been waiting for since dawn appeared around a river bend. Two bomberos — Mexican firefighters in red vests — stood side-by-side as they steered upriver. Villarreal’s team guided them to the body they had reported that morning.

The man, whose name they would likely never know, was just as they had left him, the red of his sneakers still peeking above the murky green in the shadow of the reeds. They guessed he had been dead for days, and Villarreal furrowed her brow again, this time in pity for what the firefighters would have to do.

“I feel bad for the bomberos. They pay them nothing,” she said as she watched them delicately tie the body to a rope attached to their boat.

When bodies end up on the U.S. side of the border, agents call the local sheriff’s office or justice of the peace to handle the remains and seek identification. When they are on the Mexican side, it is up to the bomberos.

Ansbro and Rosa asked what would become of him. Villarreal shrugged. If he has no identification, she said, he will probably be placed in a grave of unknowns.

The bomberos motored away, dragging the man in the boat’s wake.

Villarreal picked up the radio.

“The body has been recovered.”