As proposed transmigrante route draws closer, Presidio still awaits details

“I’ve been very reluctant to go to the newspaper or get on social media and say, ‘Hey folks, this is what we’ve got.' Because, really, what do we have?”

PRESIDIO — With the new year fast approaching, officials in Presidio city are preparing for a proposed transmigrante route that will run through Presidio/Ojinaga.

But even after meeting with U.S. and Mexican port officials, city leaders say they still have received almost no information on the route — including basic information like the Mexican regulations governing transmigrantes. “It doesn’t leave us with a warm and fuzzy feeling,” said City Administrator Joe Portillo.

The term “transmigrantes” describes traveling merchants who transport goods, especially cars, between Central America and the United States. To qualify as transmigrantes, the merchants aren’t allowed to sell their wares in Mexico. Their vehicles are weighed upon entering and leaving Mexico in a process that can take days.

In South Texas, the town of Los Indios currently serves as the only approved route for transmigrante traffic. Rick Cavazos, mayor pro tem for the small southern Texas city, told The Big Bend Sentinel earlier this year that he was glad to have the transmigrantes in town, describing them as “by far” the largest contributor to sales taxes.

The traveling salespeople have become a fixture there, and the town even commemorates the merchants with a yearly holiday called Dia del Transmigrante, or “Day of the Transmigrante.” But Los Indios isn’t exactly the best barometer on the issue; by the time the city incorporated in 1993, transmigrantes were already established in the area. And Cavazos said transmigrantes could become targets for cartels and/or corrupt Mexican officials.

“I feel sorry for them,” he said. “I really do.”

Presidio has expressed skepticism about the new route, with city leaders worrying about the implications of increased cross-border traffic through Presidio/Ojinaga. Those concerns were piqued after Presidio Mayor John Ferguson took a fact-finding trip to Los Indios and came back unimpressed. In September, he sent a letter to U.S. and Mexican officials urging them “not to pursue [a] transmigrante corridor at Presidio/Ojinaga,” as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported.

Ferguson and other Presidio officials worry about the logistics of accommodating transmigrantes and fear the proposed route could bring an increase in cartel activity, as opportunistic criminals prey on the bare-bones travelers.

In late November, Presidio city officials attended a meeting at the port of entry with mostly Mexican border officials, including Alejandro Leos, acting Presidio port director; Jorge Vargas Aguilar, the port director in Ojinaga; and Juan Carlos Loera de la Rosa, who serves as a point person between Chihuahua state in Mexico and the Mexican federal government under new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

A few details came out of the meeting. Mexican officials told Presidio officials that the route would likely begin in February, after construction work on the international bridge would hopefully be completed.

Mexican officials also told Presidio leaders that they would get some heads-up before the change. The proposed route will be published in the Mexican equivalent of the Federal Register, they said, which announces important updates and gives interested parties a chance to comment.

That was it. To date, Mayor Ferguson says he’s only received one document from Mexican officials: an informational pamphlet that he said included news stories on transmigrantes and a letter from City Administrator Joe Portillo.

At a city council meeting last week, Ferguson decried this lack of concrete information.

“I’ve been very reluctant to go to the newspaper or get on social media and say, ‘Hey folks, this is what we’ve got,’” he said. “Because, really, what do we have?”

One proposal being floated by Presidio leaders is to build a city-owned parking lot to accommodate the transmigrantes as they wait for their customs to be cleared. The city is eyeing a 61 acre lot, which it already owns, as a possible location.

But even that proposal is causing headaches in Presidio. During public comment period last week, the only member of the public to comment on the transmigrante issue was H. Cowan, a representative of Solitaire Homes. He said he was “dead-set against” the proposed parking lot, which he described as a “scheme” and said would increase traffic near a Solitaire facility. (Cowan did not respond to a request for comment by press time.)

“That’s not fair to private enterprise,” he told the council. “You should not be in the business of private enterprise. If you can do that, maybe you should open a grocery store, a service station and everything else.”

“Our company cannot and will not accept 300 to 400 transmigrantes traversing on [Farm to Market Road] 170 every day,” he said. Still, he acknowledged that Presidio was in a “tough, tough situation” and said Solitaire would support the city “in every possible way that we can.”

After the exchange, Cowan and public officials agreed that the simplest option — but unfortunately, also the least likely one — would be to simply not have a transmigrante route at all.

“We share the exact same concerns,” Councilmember Irvin Olivas told him. The “perfect scenario,” he said, would be if Mexican officials told them: “Don’t worry about it. We’re not going through Presidio.”