January 10, 2024 530 PM
PRESIDIO COUNTY –– On the rugged Bennett Barrows Road at the western edge of the county –– 16 miles from pavement and less than a mile from the Rio Grande –– a metal cross stands near the spot where a man, walking into the United States in a group of eight, died on June 27, 2021.
Seven miles northeast of that metal cross where Jose Lopez Vasquez died in the 100-degree heat, another cross stands on another dirt road leading toward the Helios oil operations, and after that, the Coal Mine Ranch. This second cross, wooden but also set firmly in the earth, marks the spot where, six days before the death of Lopez Vasquez, a 15-year-old boy from Ecuador died while walking with his father toward the rim rock of the Sierra Vieja and Highway 90 beyond.
The deaths of Lopez Vasquez and the 15-year-old, named Christian, were just two among dozens of people known to have died during a hot year in the Big Bend, as the number of migrants crossing the dangerous desert jumped to seldom-seen heights.
Now, three years later, the two roadside crosses commemorating deaths in the desert also mark an unexpected turning point, as the number of migrants in the Big Bend, and the number who have died, has dropped sharply since 2021, even as record numbers of people continue to arrive at much of the rest of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
The Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector covers 517 miles of the Rio Grande, from Sierra Blanca in the west to Sanderson in the east. Total Border Patrol encounters with migrants in the sector, one measure of the volume of traffic, fell nearly 70% from a 2021 peak of 37,266 to 11,823 in the 2023 fiscal year that ended September 30. That downward trend appears to be holding into this new year, with 906 Border Patrol encounters through November, a rate that could lead to a total in 2024 that is even lower.
According to a Border Patrol spokesman, agents encountered 70 deceased migrants in the Big Bend in 2021 and 2022 and six in 2023. The Border Patrol says that sharp drop comes in part because of extra efforts to rescue migrants walking through the desert. The Border Patrol has installed 26 rescue beacons in remote stretches and responded to 16 calls for help from migrants at those beacons last year.
Local justices of the peace, who handle remains of deceased migrants, confirm the reality behind the Border Patrol statistics. Jeff Davis County’s swath of borderland includes much of the Chispa Road area that runs from Highway 90 west of Valentine south to the Rio Grande. The Chispa Road valley is one of the shortest points between river and highway. It has long been popular terrain for smuggling drugs and people, and Judge Mary Ann Luedecke, justice of the peace in Jeff Davis County, responded frequently to migrant deaths during 2021 and 2022, but saw a drop in early 2023.
“This foot traffic scenario, and resulting death, has dramatically decreased,” she said in an October interview in her office in the Fort Davis courthouse. She has not handled a new death case since.
Luedecke and others see a range of reasons for the decline in migrants crossing in the Big Bend, from changes in border policy that have drawn migrants seeking asylum toward crowded ports of entry to cartel feuding south of the border. But Border Patrol officials cite one main reason for the lower foot traffic along the 517 miles of border that follows the Rio Grande through the region: autonomous surveillance towers. The first was installed in the Big Bend Sector in the spring of 2021. Fifty more towers have been added in the sector since, among several hundred towers installed along the entire border, from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.
Each solar-powered tower captures images and other data using cameras and radar. Computers use algorithms to process that information, determining, for example, whether moving objects are animals or humans, and whether the humans are moving in a way that would make them likely to be migrants. One Border Patrol agent can monitor several towers, only examining images and other information once it has been deemed worthwhile by the computer algorithms.
A tower stands alongside Highway 67 south of Marfa, near the Border Patrol checkpoint. Several more are set along FM 170 as it traces the Rio Grande from Presidio toward Ruidosa. Others rise on ranches along Highway 90 south of Valentine.
The Big Bend terrain has always been challenging to patrol, with agents heading out on foot to look for signs of moving migrants, following footprints and snapped branches in hopes of keeping the trail. Buried sensors and remote cameras have helped to monitor areas where agents aren’t present, but those only offer occasional information. The autonomous towers provide 24-hour surveillance.
“Particularly in this sector, the terrain really lends itself to the technology of the [towers],” said Jaime Castillo, assistant chief patrol agent for the Big Bend Sector. “So, we know what is going on where and when, and we can track it.”
The Border Patrol credits the towers with helping to stop more than 11,000 migrants in the Big Bend since 2021. Castillo said cartel leaders and the smugglers they hire to lead migrants have realized they’re much more likely to be spotted and stopped while walking historic routes, such as those along Chispa Road. He believes that’s pushed traffic out of the Big Bend. “We shape their environment and not vice versa,” Castillo said.
Albert Miller, whose grandparents started the C.E. Miller Ranch south of Valentine in the 1920s, has seen the impact of the towers on his family’s land. Miller remembers the days of his grandparents and parents, when cross-border migration was much more regional, with people traveling from northern Mexico over the Sierra Vieja to work locally on ranches or in the oil fields around Odessa. It was an informal system, and those who made the trip knew the desert climate and terrain. “We didn’t have people lost,” Miller said. “We did not have people dying in the desert. That did not happen.”
Miller saw the changes after the 1980s, as border enforcement became ever more militarized, and then as migrant traffic began to increase four years ago. Migrants traversing the Big Bend now tend to come from deeper in Mexico or from Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries. They are led into the desert in larger groups organized by cartels but still are often unprepared for the harshness of the terrain and the dangers of the journey. Miller recalled how on some mornings as recently as 2021 he would see migrants who hadn’t been able to connect with a pickup on Highway 90 waiting behind the Valentine Post Office as they figured out what to do next.
The Miller family’s ranch includes land in the flats south of Valentine and up into the Sierra Vieja, where a striking canyon is fed by a strong spring. The U.S. Army ran a mule train through the gap and down to the Rio Grande a century ago, and it remained a common route for migrants making the trip over the Sierra Vieja until recently. A cave just below the rim rock on the south side of the canyon still contains discarded plastic water bottles, backpacks, and other items left by migrants.
But then in 2021, the Border Patrol installed an autonomous surveillance tower on the ranch. It stands 33 feet high; cameras and other equipment at the top rotate 360 degrees to track movement across more than three miles of terrain. Two other towers were added on neighboring ranches south of Highway 90. “It pretty well stopped the traffic coming into Valentine pretty quick,” Miller said.
Jose Aleman, who retired in 2022 as chief patrol agent of the Van Horn Station, which includes the Chispa Road area and Valentine, credits the towers with helping to change things. “They tried to hit us really hard,” Aleman said of the cartels moving migrants during those busy days in 2021. “And it didn’t work.”
Mike Wright, who worked smuggling cases for Homeland Security Investigations in Presidio for 20 years and now serves as constable of Jeff Davis County, often travels down the Chispa Road to look for migrants on his own. Funded by money from the state’s Operation Lone Star, he bought a four-wheel-drive pickup and set remote cameras at several locations south of the Sierra Vieja rim rock. Border Patrol agents tend to work farther back from the river, preferring to wait for migrants as they near Highway 90.
Wright said he noticed the drop in foot traffic most sharply one year ago, and he said it has been relatively quiet since. One afternoon in November, a remote camera he had set a few miles from the Rio Grande captured an image of four men clad in camouflage and carrying small backpacks. The next day, Wright drove the pickup down Chispa Road.
The two-lane dirt road begins just a few miles south of Highway 90, cutting through a low point in the rim rock to a valley that spills toward the Rio Grande. The road continues more than 10 miles before angling south along the river toward Candelaria. Wright took the fork north onto Bennett Barrows Road, passing the cross where Lopez Vasquez died, and slowed where the road runs alongside the narrow canal of the Rio Grande. He lowered a window and began to look for footprints. After a few minutes, he stopped at a locked gate then continued onto a private ranch, with the Mexican settlement of Lomas de Arena visible across the Rio Grande. The town is often a cartel staging ground for moving migrants across the border.
Wright, who still gets briefings from Border Patrol intelligence officers, knows the surveillance towers and other technology help. But he believes the real reason for the drop in migration during the past few years has been cartels fighting for control between Ojinaga and Ciudad Juarez. “You don’t want to be caught crossing if you’re not authorized by the cartel. You’ve got to pay the quota,” Wright said. “Since no one’s in control, there’s no organized smuggling going on.”
Wright drove slowly along several more miles of ranch road, keeping an eye for footprints, with no luck. Wright began his career as a Border Patrol agent in San Diego, an urban setting in which agents have minutes to track a migrant before losing them on city streets. In the Big Bend, Wright knows agents have plenty of time, as the long walk from the river up and over the Sierra Vieja can cover 20 or 30 miles, or more, and take days.
Wright parked the truck and hiked into the deep wash of Hog Canyon. He had a hunch the four men who tripped his camera may have found their way there, and soon enough he spotted one footprint, then the marks of three other treads. The prints followed the deep cut of the canyon north, each tread shining in the crushed rock of the wash. The footprints turned up one narrow draw then doubled back. The prints angled west, up a hillside, then turned around again. Wright radioed Border Patrol agents, who were also tracking the group. A Texas Department of Public Safety helicopter circled above the 96 Ranch, to the north, and agents on foot and in an ATV followed what a spotter in the sky thought might be the four men’s path. Everyone suspected that the men may have become alarmed by the helicopter, changed course, and lost their way.
After an hour, Wright returned down Hog Canyon to his truck and drove up the Chispa Road, meeting a Border Patrol agent preparing to launch a drone. As dusk approached, that agent and others weren’t entirely sure if they were tracking one group or two. And they did not know if the men were still somewhere below the rim rock or “getaways,” already up on Highway 90, and maybe in a vehicle speeding them off toward Midland or farther inland.
By one measure, roughly half the migrants that get spotted –– by sensors, cameras, or even surveillance towers –– continue onward, without getting caught. And there is no telling, of course, how many people, so-called “unknowns,” move through the region without being noticed at all.
So, even during a time of decreased traffic, at least hundreds of people each month are continuing to risk their lives walking through the desert in the Big Bend, moving on foot as darkness falls. That is especially true at the eastern edge of the sector, around Sanderson, one area that has continued to see high traffic through 2023, even though more than a half-dozen autonomous surveillance towers were installed in the area.
At 4:03 a.m. on a late November morning, minutes before the moon would reach its brightest moment of the month, Terrell County Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland turned his pickup truck onto Highway 90 in the center of Sanderson.
Cleveland spent 26 years with the Border Patrol, the last 11 as station chief in Sanderson, his hometown, before taking office as county sheriff in 2022. He has since made patrolling the highways for vehicles carrying migrants who entered the country illegally his main priority. He posts photos on his personal Instagram account nearly daily of arrested migrants who were either walking through the desert or had already made it into vehicles. He is a frequent critic of federal border policy on Fox and other conservative news outlets. He says he would welcome comprehensive reform that allows migrants more pathways to enter and work in the U.S., but also more resources along the border for stopping and deporting those who do that illegally.
Early on that November morning, Cleveland got word that Border Patrol agents were tracking a group of 11 migrants through the moonlit darkness just a few miles north of Sanderson. The day before, he had been on site as Border Patrol agents arrested roughly half of a group of 45 migrants who had walked from the Rio Grande across a dozen miles of desert south of Sanderson. So, Cleveland turned from Highway 90 onto Highway 285, which tracks northwest to Fort Stockton, to patrol for slowing vehicles, should the morning’s 11 walkers make it to the roadside and get picked up for a ride to Midland, or Dallas or Houston.
As Cleveland sat parked on the roadside, his radio crackled with updates from one Border Patrol agent who was stationed on a ridge to the east of the highway. The agent was using a telescoping unit in the back of his truck to track the 11 walkers with a night-vision camera. Another agent chimed in to say that the 6 a.m. shift would roll out that way too, and those agents would set off on foot in search of signs of the migrants’ trail.
“It has been very active this past week,” Cleveland said. As he prepared to join the hike himself, Cleveland described a common fate of many who try to make the crossing. “They haven’t eaten in days,” he said. “They’ve been drinking water out of a water tank.”
Five hours later, after another telescoping truck joined the effort and agents marched several miles into a deep draw, six of the 11 migrants had been caught. Agents made them remove the laces from their boots and then used those laces to tie the men hand-in-hand, in pairs, for the walk out to waiting vehicles. Several of the men, some appearing to be in their 20s, one perhaps near 50, climbed into Cleveland’s pickup for a ride to a Border Patrol van. One of the men explained that several in the group hailed from Hidalgo, just north of Mexico City. They were trying, he said, to get to Virginia, where he had previously lived and held a well-paying job.
Once out on Highway 285, Cleveland ushered the men from the back of his truck into a Border Patrol van for transport to the Sanderson station, where they would be processed for illegal entry and deported. Cleveland knows that the reasons people leave their homes in other countries will not disappear soon. The State Department estimates that, thanks to economic inequality and hardship, political violence and other corruption, climate impacts and more, 28 million people –– more than ever before –– are on the move in the western hemisphere.
In the pre-dawn dark that November morning, as Cleveland had sat on the roadside wondering if he and the agents would catch the 11 men moving beneath the moon, he said of them, but also of others who risk their lives to cross the desert, “The vast majority are people … looking to better their lives. If I’d been born somewhere else, I’d be doing it too.”
Tom Haines, a reporter and editor at The Big Bend Sentinel in 2010 and 2011, teaches journalism at the University of New Hampshire. His reporting in this story was part of broader work on the border this fall during a research fellowship from UNH’s Center for the Humanities. Tom can be reached at [email protected].