THE COYOTE CARTEL
In the Rio Grande Valley, human smuggling is overseen by a powerful crime syndicate, forcing the migrants arriving in record numbers to put their lives in violent hands
The pistol the boy is holding is a plastic toy. He and two other kids from Honduras are playing on the pedestal of a statue of an Aztec eagle in Reynosa, a Mexican city just south of the tail end of Texas. The three of them are wearing face masks, as are most of the Central American migrants packed together, sleeping rough, in this city square, Plaza de la República. It is May 14th, 2021, and cases of Covid-19 are common among the multitudes of deportees being turned back from the United States in record numbers.
Never have so many undocumented migrants arrived at the same time to the Rio Grande Valley. Many of the plazas in Reynosa have turned i nto open-air camps like this one. I count 50 to 100 tents, sheltering four or five people apiece. Most are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Many come from within Mexico, too. The bandstand in the center of the square has been draped in so many tarpaulins that it looks like a big patchwork yurt. People line up to charge their cellphones from an extension cord run in from a light post. Lines of laundry hang from the trees.
In five days’ time, a thunderstorm will flood this encampment and turn the beaten-down grass into mud. Today, it’s warm and muggy, and the air is motionless, typical weather for humid Reynosa, 50 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. For the most part, these deportees did not choose to come to this city, which is perennially ranked among the world’s most homicidal. They have been dropped off here by U.S. immigration authorities after failed attempts to cross the border, mostly at more rural points upstream. This plaza, one block from the international bridge to McAllen, Texas, is essentially a collection point, where migrants await their next attempt to cross into the United States. The deals they have struck with smugglers, known as coyotes or polleros, allow them to try several times. That’s only fair, when most of them have paid between $7,000 and $15,000, depending on their country of origin. It’s a huge sum — $7,000 is more than the average annual income in Honduras — and it typically has to be raised by relatives already in the U.S., or by the sale of land, with many forms of repayment amounting to indentured servitude. But the price promises passage not just over the Texas border, but all the way to Houston, in most cases including housing, food, and transportation.
“Nos agarraron,” says a man coming down from the McAllen bridge with muddy shoes and jeans: “They grabbed us.” He’s with five others, all muddy to the knees, who have been turned back by Border Patrol. But he grins and gives a thumbs-up. “We’re going to try again later. We’re fighting for a good life.”
The legacy of Spanish colonialism, U.S. coups in the Cold War, the pan-Latin American war on drugs, and the expropriation of natural resources by multinational companies are among the factors that have driven Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to the brink of failed-state status. Deforestation, overfishing, unregulated pollution, and especially soil erosion have made envi
ronmental conditions dire. Most of all, the people suffer from poverty and lack of opportunity. Those who can afford the smuggler’s fee are considered fortunate. It’s a big investment to make, and the price keeps going up as the U.S. border grows harder to penetrate. The dangers of the journey have also intensified, as the main route increasingly converges with one of the most fractious battlegrounds of the long-running cartel wars in Mexico.
A couple of young guys in camouflage cargo shorts go around visiting with various groups of migrants. Their yellow traffic vests identify them as coyotitos, or smugglers’ assistants: gofers for the network of coyotes that operates from here all the way to Miguel Alemán, 60 miles farther inland, a notorious cartel redoubt scarred by 20 years of gangland warfare that has been the epicenter of mass migration in 2021. In March, an Associated Press reporter standing on the riverbank on the American side, in Roma, Texas, saw people coming across at the rate of 100 an hour. Photographers at the scene captured a veritable flotilla of inflatable boats, and scuffles between coyotes and Border Patrol agents as well as Texas state police, who in some cases tried to puncture the rubber rafts with knives, to keep them from being reused.
I’ll soon have the chance to speak to one of the most prolific coyotes around, a 36-year-old who goes by the name El Comandante, and claims to oversee much of the human smuggling in this corridor. He confirms what U.S. law-enforcement sources and university researchers have already told me: Along the 250-mile stretch of border from Miguel Alemán to the coast, all the migrant smuggling is carried out under the aegis of the Gulf Cartel, Mexico’s original crime syndicate.
The Cartel del Golfo, also known as the CDG, the Company, or the Hand, was founded in the Prohibition era by the legendary bootlegger Juan Nepomuceno Guerra. Nearly a century later, it holds a brutal monopoly on all forms of organized crime in the Rio Grande Valley, including human smuggling.
“Todos los coyotes están con La Mano,” says Sylvia Cruz, an independent reporter in Reynosa who showed me around: “All of the coyotes are with the Hand.”
in march 2021, Border Patrol agents had 173,348 encounters with undocumented migrants at the southern border, according to Customs and Border Protection. That was a fivefold increase over March 2020, and easily double the number of run-ins that agents would typically have in the springtime. Of the March encounters, 60,839 took place in the Rio Grande Valley, more than three times the number recorded in the next-busiest sector, Del Rio. The most common profile was a Honduran family. Single Mexican men made up the next-largest category. As of April, a staggering 64,496 unaccompanied minors had crossed the U.S. border in 2021. Almost half of them did so in the Valley, as Texans call this region of the state.
Including all sectors, from Texas to California, Border Patrol encountered 687,854 migrants over the first five months of 2021. Some amount of double-counting is surely going on. A public-health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention allows Border Patrol to summarily boot out arrivals with no due process, and no penalty either, meaning there’s no reason for migrants who have come 1,000 miles or more not to make multiple attempts, leading to duplicative brushes with border agents. But no one I spoke to could remember another time
when there had been so many people trying to come over at once. However rough a measurement, the 514,901 encounters that Border Patrol recorded in March, April, and May point to an influx on the scale of a million people this year.
Immigration is a perennially contentious topic in the United States. This was never more true than under former-President Donald Trump, whose most draconian policies included the separation of migrant children from their families as a punishment or deterrent; the placement of new restrictions on asylum claims; the cancellation of “temporary protected status” for Hondurans, El Salvadoreans, and Nicaraguans; and the expansion of physical barriers on the border, the so-called wall. President Joe Biden has undone some of Trump’s policies and scaled back raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but has retained others, including a Covid-era interpretation of Title 42 of U.S. law under which authorities can summarily expel migrants “to prevent spread of communicable disease.” The Democratic Party is split between conservatives like Rep. Henry Cuellar, from Laredo, Texas, who wants to “enforce the laws,” and reformers like San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who wants to repeal the statute that makes “illegal entry” a federal crime.
“This new surge we’re dealing with now started with the last administration, but it’s our responsibility to deal with it humanely,” Biden said in remarks on March 24th. He reinstated aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, and gave Vice President Kamala Harris the job of leading a diplomatic effort to stem migration. In a recent interview with Lester Holt, Harris stressed the need to address the “root causes,” but the only new initiatives she cited were programs to expand access to vaccines, banking systems, and technology (in partnership with corporations including Microsoft, Mastercard, and the Chobani yogurt company). Her message to migrants was, “Do not come,” citing the “violence and danger” of the trek through Mexico, but it seems unlikely her words will go heeded. Truth be told, no past administration has grappled successfully with the phenomenon of mass migration from Latin America in the era of climate change. If Biden has any new ideas, he has yet to announce them.
In his remarks, Biden mentioned coyotes, and alluded to their practice of leaving people to die in the desert. People on all sides of the immigration debate can agree that human smugglers are bad actors. They are notorious for systematically swindling and deceiving their customers, especially by playing down the perils of the trip. Women and girls in their custody are extremely vulnerable to rape and may even be sold into sexual slavery. Coyotes routinely imprison, beat, and starve their “cargo,” and periodically cause terrible accidents in which large numbers of people die, whether by suffocation, drowning, exposure to the elements, or auto accidents. On March 2nd, 2021, near Mexicali, a smuggler’s SUV packed with 25 people got broadsided by a tractor-trailer, killing 13. Weeks later, eight died after a smuggler led Texas state troopers on a high-speed chase that ended in a head-on collision. These are only the most recent incidents on a long and tragic list.
Adding to its disrepute, the business of smuggling people over the border is now entirely controlled by organized crime, at least in the Rio Grande Valley. “The cartels, they’re more involved than they’ve ever been,” says Jerry Robinette, a former special agent in charge of the South Texas division of the Department of Homeland Security. “The sheer numbers that are coming across are providing more incentive to them.” If a million migrants arrive in 2021, each able to pay a minimum of $7,000 for smuggling services, that’s $7 billion of black-market cash up for grabs.
Geographic and demographic shifts in migration patterns have also contributed to increased cartel control over coyotes. “Around 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011,” Robinette says, “Arizona was where everything was coming across,” and the majority of migrants were Mexicans. The response was the militarization of the Sonoran Desert border in Arizona, which began under the Obama administration. But it was like squeezing a water balloon. Migrant flows shifted 1,000 miles southeast, down to the deep green tip of Texas, the closest point in the United States to Central America, where most migrants now come from.
This is not the tumbleweed borderland centered around El Paso and Cuidad Juárez that exists in the northern imagination. It is the citrus region of Texas, a sultry subtropical zone where grapefruits grow in abundance and the sky always looks like it’s about to rain. There are two main population centers: the binational twin city of Matamoros and Brownsville, which straddle the river delta where it meets the Gulf; and the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission metroplex, across from Reynosa. This stretch of the border, with the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, happens to be more firmly in the grip of organized crime than any other point on the U.S.-Mexico line.
“That area is operated by the Gulf Cartel,” says Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, a Mexican political economist with posts at George Mason University and the University of Texas in Brownsville. She makes no bones about it: “They control the territory militarily.” Robinette agrees: “On that northern border of Tamaulipas, there’s not a whole lot of Mexican federal presence.”
The U.S. Department of State deems Tamaulipas to be as dangerous as Syria, Yemen, or Afghanistan. Ta-ta-ta-Tamaulipas people call it, imitating the sound an AK-47 makes. The internet is replete with violent footage recorded in Reynosa: shootouts in the streets, flaming barricades, torture and execution videos, images of bodies hung from bridges, piles of severed heads. In a YouTube video viewed almost 7 million times, a breathless local TV reporter is standing on a bridge in downtown Reynosa in 2009, reporting on a street battle between the CDG and the Mexican military; as the fusillades of automatic gunfire intensify, he crouches further and further down, until he’s narrating the news flat on his stomach with bullets flying overhead. In bootleg Mexican gangster-rap videos, dedicated to this or that Gulf Cartel commander, they call it Reynosa la maldosa — Reynosa the hardcore or badass or evil.
More than a dozen international bridges connect the two sides of the Valley like stitches. At every hour of every day of the year, it’s safe to say, bricks of cocaine and heroin stamped with the CDG’s dolphin logo are moving across the border, hidden in secret compartments of cars and trucks. But narcotics are far from the cartel’s only source of revenue. In addition to stealing oil and gas from Mexican government infrastructure on a huge industrial scale (an activity carried out by fearsome gangs of gasoline thieves known as huachicoleros), they’re into kidnapping for ransom, auto theft, running guns, operating nightclubs and bars, prostitution, dealing counterfeit luxury goods, and piracy — both the literal, maritime kind, and the intellectual-property-rights type. As Correa likes to emphasize, it’s not so much a drug-trafficking operation as a “criminal oligopoly on illicit business.” To the Gulf Cartel,