Set to debut in March, new transmigrante route leaves Presidio preparing

Adain Gonzalez fills up his tank at a gas station in West Texas last week, as he made his way from California to Belize to sell used U.S. goods for a profit in his home country. Working as a transmigrante, he said he had long heard rumors about the Presidio/Ojinaga transmigrante route, which Mexican officials finally confirmed in December. But the transmigrante doubted whether the new port would be useful for his travels.

PRESIDIO — Once a major topic in Presidio, the issue of transmigrantes fell by the wayside last year as city officials scrambled to respond to coronavirus.

But now, as The Big Bend Sentinel reported last week, the topic is back on the radar after the Mexican government in December officially announced the new route in its Diario Oficial de la Federación, the Mexican equivalent of the federal register.

That announcement was short on details. But in a short section on “baggage and allowance” rules for transmigrantes, Mexican officials said that transmigrantes would now be processed by customs officials in Ojinaga.

The announcement said these rules would go into effect in three months, indicating that the route could debut as early as March. The Los Indios/Matamoros port — currently the only approved route for transmigrantes — would also remain open to the merchants, the announcement said.

Adain Gonzalez, a transmigrante, was making his way through West Texas last week. For the past three years, he’s heard rumors but no confirmations about the route change.

In the past, Mexican officials have “changed the port where you can pass,”said Gonzales, who’s spent 23 years transporting goods between the United States and his home country of Belize. “But you always pass through just one.” Adding Presidio without removing Los Indios will mark the first time Gonzales has a chance to choose which port to use.

On both sides of the Presidio/Ojinaga border, brokers are preparing for a mix of new customers and new competition. Port officials are preparing for a potential influx in traffic. And city officials in Presidio are once again figuring out how to respond, in hopes of getting the new route delayed or canceled altogether.

At a city council meeting last week, when transmigrantes showed up on the agenda, people at the meeting could not hide their disappointment.

“Oh no,” one person on an audio recording of the meeting said, “here we go again.” Another attendee opined that “I thought [the transmigrante issue] had gone away.”

Transmigrantes are traveling merchants from Central America who purchase consumer goods in the United States and resell them back home. The merchants aren’t allowed to sell those goods in Mexico, and the country tightly regulates the industry, funneling transmigrantes onto certain routes and cataloging their goods as they enter and leave the country.

Currently, the only transmigrante route runs through Los Indios, a South Texas town where the traveling merchants dominate the local economy and civic life. At least 10 brokerage and depot businesses in tiny Los Indios (pop. 850) cater to transmigrantes. The city even celebrates a Dia del Transmigrante, or “Day of the Transmigrante.”

Rick Cavazos, the mayor pro tem of Los Indios, told The Big Bend Sentinel in 2019 that transmigrantes were an important part of the local economy. A truck stop used by transmigrantes was “by far the [largest] sales-tax-driver for the city,” he said. But transmigrantes also present challenges to the city, including traffic accidents and frequent long wait times at the port.

Over years of meetings, Presidio city officials have made it clear where they stand on the new proposed transmigrante route.

Officials worry the new route could overwhelm local services, slow down the port and bring crime to the region, as cartels prey on the traveling merchants.

Gonzalez, the transmigrante from Belize, said it is dangerous on the Mexican side of Los Indios, where he has been stopped and extorted for money. “They say it’s organized crime, but you don’t ask who they are,” he said.

The set price is 2000 pesos, around $100 USD. “If they stop you, you don’t hesitate to give them money,” he said. “If you hesitate, they might get more aggressive. It’s not worth dying for $100.”

When asked if the port opening to transmigrantes in Presidio could lead to a rise in crime in Ojinaga, Gonzalez was blunt. “Most likely,” he said.

At best, Presidio city officials would like to see the route canceled altogether. And at the very least, they want better communication with Mexican, Texan and U.S. officials, to make sure Presidio is ready for any influx of new commercial traffic.

As early as 2017 — when rumors of a new route were just starting to bubble up in Presidio — the city passed an ordinance regulating transmigrante traffic. It imposes regulations on the drivers, including barring them from parking in residential areas.

Last March, the city went further, passing a resolution opposing the new route. The resolution cited a number of factors, including a lack of “overnight accommodations” for transmigrante traffic and the fact that U.S. Highway 67 is a “mainly two lane, curvy and hilly roadway.” It urged Marfa and Presidio County to pass similar resolutions and encouraged the U.S. federal government to pay attention to local opposition.

Few concrete developments came out of last week’s meeting, and city council took no action. Regardless, city officials made it clear that they still oppose the route.

“I still stand the same way,” said Councilmember Rogelio Zubia. Mayor John Ferguson likewise said that his feelings were “still the same as well.”

City Attorney Rod Ponton noted that “the city council is already on record as saying y’all oppose it.” He urged city officials to contact higher-ups in the Texas and federal government for help in cancelling or delaying the new route.

We should “contact our state representative and state senator and our U.S. congressman and tell all of them that not only is Presidio opposed to this, we don’t have the infrastructure to handle it,” Ponton added. At press time, city officials said they had not yet contacted U.S. lawmakers about Mexico’s December announcement. Tony Gonzales, the new U.S. representative for TX-23, did not respond to a request for comment on the issue.

At the meeting, Ferguson touched on a concern he’s brought up for months. While officials in Chihuahua and Ojinaga make preparations — and while officials in Presidio try to do the same — it’s been hard to get the attention of higher-ups in the United States, he said.

“I just find it really, really weird how [information on the new route] is all coming from Mexico,” Ferguson said. Former Congressman Will Hurd, with whom Ferguson previously discussed the matter, had made little headway with the Mexican government before leaving office, Ferguson said.

As The Big Bend Sentinel was going to press on Wednesday, Joe Biden took the oath as president of the United States. In an interview, Ferguson was hopeful that the new federal government would be more attune to the ins-and-outs of U.S.-Mexico trade policy, including the Presidio/Ojinaga transmigrante route.

Former President Donald Trump “wasn’t about building bridges; he was about building walls,” Ferguson told The Big Bend Sentinel. “His interest in the border has been building walls and denying people entry.”

When it comes to transmigrantes, though, Presidio city officials aren’t exactly trying to build bridges, either.

One big concern is crime, as cartels in Mexico target transmigrantes for bribes and merchandise. Cavazos, the Los Indios official, said transmigrantes in Los Indios were frequent targets of Mexican criminals and that he felt “sorry for them.” And in a report on transmigrantes last year, a Mexican newspaper cited similar concerns from Mexican officials, with one official complaining that transmigrante brokers in Matamoros had “corrupted this activity.”

At last week’s meeting, Presidio City Administrator Joe Portillo said that crime was likely one reason why Mexico wanted a new transmigrante route. Another likely reason, he said, was “politics.”

“It’s an economic stimulus” for Ojinaga, Portillo explained. “It’s a job opportunity for businesses that do that kind of export work.” It would also bring new customers to other businesses in Ojinaga, from food vendors to car mechanics.

Presidio city officials may oppose the new route, but for brokers on both sides of the border, the mood is more ambivalent.

A possible new parking lot development on U.S. 67 aims to profit from transmigrantes looking for places to park. In recent weeks, brokers have reportedly had meetings with Portillo and other city officials to discuss preparations. Presidio city officials confirmed these meetings, but by press time The Big Bend Sentinel was unable to get more information.

Isela Nuñez, a broker at Pro Customs Broker in Presidio, had mixed feelings on the new route. It would “definitely be good for business” and would “leave some revenue in the City of Presidio,” she said.

At the same time, she shared officials’ concerns about transmigrantes, including traffic accidents, long wait times at the port and a lack of facilities for the merchants. “I don’t think we have the infrastructure to handle the traffic that will come,” she said.

Gonzalez filled his gas tank at a Sunoco in Ozona on Friday night, making a short pit stop along I-10 on his way from California. He was heading to Los Indios, and eventually to his final destination in Belize.

The transmigrante remarked that he hadn’t heard Presidio/Ojinaga was officially announced as a new route. He wasn’t sure he would use it.

“I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “the less time you spend in Mexico, the better. Because Mexico is more dangerous than here.” Traveling through Presidio could make the route to Central America slightly shorter — but for Gonzalez, a longer drive through the United States was worth it for the relative safety.