October 9, 2019 830 PM
PRESIDIO — Perhaps you’ve seen them: trucks piled high with bicycles, toys and assorted junk, looking something like a garage sale on wheels.
Other times, they are hauling whole cars to resell or break down for parts. These transmigrantes, as they’re known, buy up cheap goods in the United States and sell them in Central America (and occasionally vice versa). Think of them as an international traveling flea market.
Transmigrantes are known as such because they strictly sell their goods in Central America, with no stops in Mexico. They require particular documents and are typically weighed at the U.S.-Mexico border to ensure they aren’t selling goods on their way through Mexico — a process that can take days.
Transmigrantes are a common sight in southeast Texas, where the tiny town of Los Indios has the only route approved for transmigrante traffic. The town of just over 1,000 people has at least 10 businesses with “transmigrante” in the name, serving as depots and waypoints for the traveling merchants.
Transmigrantes are rarer in the Big Bend, though: the Presidio/Ojinaga border crossing isn’t equipped to handle them. And Presidio Mayor John Ferguson wants to keep things that way, after chatter from the Mexican government had city officials worrying that the Presidio/Ojinaga crossing could become a future route for transmigrantes.
In an email sent to Presidio Port Director Alejandro Leos in September, Mayor Ferguson urged federal officials in the United States and Mexico “not to pursue [a] transmigrante corridor at Presidio/Ojinaga.”
Ferguson acknowledged in the email that the decision on a transmigrante crossing was “neither yours, nor mine.” But after visiting Los Indios a few weeks ago, Ferguson said he had “major concerns about Mexico directing transmigrante traffic through Ojinaga” — describing transmigrante businesses as apparently “largely unregulated” and having “possible links to cartels.”
“Presidio and Ojinaga are somewhat of an oasis,” Ferguson wrote. “Obviously the question should be asked, ‘Why would we intentionally provide a means for organized crime to infiltrate our city if it could be avoided?’” Transmigrantes — who have little protection once they cross the U.S.-Mexico border into Mexico — can be an easy target for cartels. And if cartels became more established in the area, Ferguson and others fear they’d find other victims as well.
Earlier this year, Presidio scrambled to prepare after Border Patrol said that an unspecified policy could see the agency release an unknown number of migrants into the border city starting in September, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported. But federal officials stayed mostly mum on the issue — and then September arrived with no new policies.
Like that issue, the transmigrante question appears to be another case of federal officials (this time, mostly in Mexico) keeping Presidio out of the loop on topics that could have big ramifications for the small city.
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection did not respond to a request for comment by press time. In an emailed statement, Presidio Port Director Leos said the Mexican government is considering “possibly allowing” Presidio/Ojinaga to become a crossing for transmigrante traffic in an effort to “increase trade through the Ojinaga corridor.”
CBP is working to upgrade and prepare the Presidio port of entry in case these changes happen, he said.
The Mexican government has not apparently released any policy papers or news releases about expanding transmigrante traffic to Presidio/Ojinaga. And Sergio Francisco Salinas Meza, the Mexican consul in Presidio, said in an email that “unfortunately” he did not “have any information about this topic yet.”
Brad Newton, executive director for the Presidio Municipal Development District, shared some of Ferguson’s same concerns. He also worried that the mostly two-lane U.S. Route 67, which connects Presidio to Marfa and other Texas cities up north, wouldn’t be able to handle all the truck traffic.
For now, Newton’s taking a wait-and-see attitude. “Sometimes in life, we don’t get choices,” he said. If transmigrante traffic did show up in Presidio, the city would find a way to manage. But Presidio will not “spend a nickel on it until we know it’s official.”
Rick Cavazos, city alderman and mayor pro tem of Los Indios, has a more ambivalent view towards transmigrantes, which he said presented both opportunities and challenges to the border town.
A truck stop used by transmigrantes was “by far the [largest] sales-tax-driver for the city,” he said. But like Presidio officials, he worried about cartel members, who he said hassled transmigrantes after they passed into Mexico.
“I feel sorry for them,” Cavazos said of the traveling merchants. “I really do.” He noted that transmigrantes were operating with tight profit margins even before cartels or corrupt Mexican officials shook them down for bribes. “By the time they get to their final destination, there might not be much [profit] left,” he said.
Los Indios incorporated in 1993, Cavazos said. By the time officials in the newly formed city became aware of transmigrantes, they were already an established part of the area. But while most of the drivers were just passing through town, over the years they’ve become a fixture of the community, and are now even commemorated with a yearly festival: Dia del Transmigrante, or “Day of the Transmigrante.”
“Personally, I’m glad they’re here,” Cavazos said.