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In Presidio, Locals Weigh Risks and Rewards Of Transmigrante Traffic

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio
Transmigrantes, Central American drivers hauling second hand wares back to their home countries, can often be seen on Texas highways. The words 'In Tow' are usually taped across their vehicle's tailgate.

It’s early morning in January at a gas station in Marfa and there's a steady stream of traffic filing into the tiny West Texas town. There are weary-eyed travelers filling up on gas, others stopping by for a quick breakfast and, waiting outside, a handful of drivers standing next to a row of beat-up Toyotas.

One of the men, Bener López, quickly scans over the goods he's towing in his crumbling truck. There's a ladder, an old bathroom scale, even a motorbike — and everything’s second hand.

You've likely seen the kind of vehicle López is driving on Texas highways: old trucks, loaded with used items and the words “In Tow” taped across the tailgate. Behind the wheel are drivers like López — transmigrantes, travelers from Central America, hoping to give unwanted goods a second life back home. For years, the Mexican government’s funneled these drivers through a small border town in the Rio Grande Valley. But now, there’s speculation Mexico’s considering moving some of that traffic west to Presidio.

For the last four years, López has traveled from his home in Guatemala to buy second-hand goods at auctions in the U.S., picking up vehicles and appliances for cheap.

Transmigrantes like López then drive thousands of miles back to their own country hoping to resell the assorted goods for a slight profit.

"Thank God, we have the opportunity to travel and live like this for a better future for our families," says López in Spanish.

From this stop in Marfa, López and the other drivers he’s caravanning with have more than 600 miles before they get to Los Indios in South Texas. Right now, that’s the only border crossing where transmigrantes are allowed to enter Mexico.

“You’re looking at between 8 and 10, maybe even 12,000 vehicles a month that will cross over," says Presidio City Manager Jose Portillo.

Portillo's seen briefings to Mexico’s President arguing for a new transmigrante route through his city and into Ojinaga across the border. In part, the report, shared with Marfa Public Radio, sites overcrowding and potential dangers in Los Indios as some of the reasons the Mexican government is considering the move. Opening the Presidio Port of Entry to the Central American junk dealers would be entirely up to the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, leaving Presidio officials and residents without much recourse.

“We have nothing official and in writing that says this is going to happen," Portillo says. "Do we suspect? Yeah. And if I were a betting man, I'd probably bet it is going to happen.”

Portillo along with other Presidio officials are trying to figure out how transmigrante traffic could impact the city’s resources, infrastructure and the community's only major highway, U.S. 6.7.

"Transmigrantes have a reputation of driving very, very conservatively," Portillo says. "So when you put in the mix our drivers who like to really test that 70 miles an hour speed limit, it's a recipe for disaster."

But it’s not just the extra vehicles on the road. Some locals are worried about the impact on traffic at the international bridge in Presidio. Wait times can be lengthy, especially during the month of December — which is also a busy time for transmigrante travel. Right now, two more lanes are being added to the port, but locals think that still won’t be enough.

Once transmigrantes reach the town they'll cross into Mexico through, they must wait in the U.S. for up to 72 hours while their paperwork’s processed at the port of entry. This has caused another concern among officials who worry about junk cars crowding the streets of Presidio.

There is also a worry that crime may increase in Presidio — and especially Ojinaga. Bener López, the Guatemalan driver, says that’s because once in Mexico transmigrantes are often targeted and face extortion.

"Sometimes we run a risk," López says. "But no risk, no reward."

The sentiment is shared by some in the business communities on both sides of the border who think this change could mean big bucks.

Take Jose Antonio Mercado, a broker who makes a living filling out the forms needed for shipments passing through Mexico.

"From the moment [transmigrantes] arrive in Presidio, people that have driven 15, 20 hours, they're going to have to eat, they’re going to have to shower, they’re going to need to sleep," argues Mercado. "And you multiply that by 100, 200 people a day who are going cross."

Carlos Morales
Marfa Public Radio

Los Indios — where transmigrantes currently cross — is a town roughly a fifth the size of Presidio. Since this type of cross-border travel began here, roughly 20 years ago, there have been a handful of businesses set up to directly cater to the drivers.

“So there’s going to be a wide range of opportunities for not only the brokers but for other people," says Isella Nuñez, a former city council member who's run a brokerage company in Presidio for the last nine years.

Back in 2017, when Nuñez was still on council, she says the talk of transmigrantes in Presidio first came up. And now that it seems more likely, she has some mixed feelings about it.

"Presidio is going to have to really pay attention to what are we going to do, how are we going to be prepared?" asks Nuñez.

If the city doesn't do anything ahead of a formal policy shift from Mexico, Presidio City Manager Jose Portillo says they've simply "prepared to fail" — and Portillo doesn’t want that to happen.

The city has taken some initial steps: A city ordinance passed in early January designates where transmigrates can park in town, and the city has proposed building a municipal parking lot where drivers would wait for their turn to cross into Mexico.

While everything remains up in the air, some brokers in Mexico believe a formal announcement—designating the Presidio Port of Entry for transmigrante traffic—could happen sometime in February.

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.