When Border Patrol agents caught up with Laura Escobar-Lopez last month, she had just hopped off a freight train she rode from Laredo to Robstown, Texas, they said.
She was an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and the smugglers she paid to get her over the line and deeper into the U.S. put her on the rails. They told her to get off each time the train came to a stop, hide in the brush, and then jump back onto the train once it got moving again.
The goal: to get around the highway checkpoints that are increasingly drawing a tight noose around illegal immigration in southern Texas.
As President Trump’s border wall, faster deportations and coronavirus border restrictions continue to bite, smugglers are looking for new ways to get their customers into the U.S. and to their destinations in the interior. They are packing trucks full of migrants, stuffing people inside spare tire compartments and tucking them underneath SUV seats.
Riding the rails has always been an option, but it has become a rising and dangerous trend particularly around Laredo, said Rafael Garza, special operations supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector.
“They’re just trying to slip through the cracks,” he told The Washington Times. “They’re just trying to exploit everything.”
Jumping onto trains already in motion makes it tougher for migrants to get caught but is incredibly dangerous.
“It doesn’t seem like they’re moving fast until you get right up there, and it’s the fastest thing,” said Victor Manjarrez Jr., a former Border Patrol sector chief who is now a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.
One man had part of his foot severed this summer while trying to jump onto a moving train.
Other migrants are pushed by smugglers to climb down into grain hoppers, which are railway cars designed for hauling coal or feed and are tricky to get out of without a rope ladder.
It’s so dangerous that agents consider each person pulled from a grain hopper to be an official rescue case.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the risks are even higher. Migrants are stuck in tight enclosed spaces with others for hours at a time, hardly ever with masks.
In September, agents found 11 people inside a grain hopper near Hebbronville, Texas, with a temperature topping 100 degrees.
The agents were able to get 10 out, but one was unconscious and twitching. Figuring they didn’t have time to wait for the fire department, one agent went in, wrapped a rope around the man’s waist and pulled him out. EMTs performed CPR until they felt a pulse.
“The man, who was subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19, survived. Fortunately, I did not contract the virus,” the agent said in an account released by the Border Patrol.
Things don’t always go well for the smugglers.
In an incident last year, Pedro Arciniega was serving as the foot guide, smuggling seven migrants in a grain hopper on a train from Laredo.
As the train pulled into Robstown, the migrants climbed up a rope ladder out of the grain hopper, but Arciniega wasn’t able to pull himself out.
He ended up calling 911 and reporting himself stuck, and Border Patrol agents swooped in and nabbed him. He pleaded guilty to alien smuggling and was sentenced to 27 months in a federal prison.
The most horrifying incident took place nearly 20 years ago but still sticks in memory along the border.
Eleven migrants climbed into an empty grain hopper at some point in northern Mexico or southern Texas and were sealed in from the outside. They never made it out alive. At some point in the hours or days thereafter, they died of dehydration and hypothermia. Their bodies were discovered months later during a rail car check at a train yard in Oklahoma.
It took months of effort and hundreds of agents working parts of the case, but authorities managed to piece together what happened and brought charges against one of the smugglers who organized the trip, and against a Union Pacific Railroad conductor who sold schedule information to the smugglers.
Prosecutors said the smugglers lost track of the car, made only halfhearted efforts to track it down and never bothered to report it to the railroad.
Mr. Manjarrez said smugglers, who often run both people and drugs across the border, chiefly use the trains for people. The risk of losing control of a shipment of valuable narcotics is too high, and humans have usually paid at least part of their fees.
Plus, he said, trains can get groups through checkpoints quickly, freeing up guides to go back and get more groups.
Laredo has become a hot spot for illegal border activity in recent months, setting off a new round of cat-and-mouse games for Border Patrol agents and smugglers.
As agents tightened inspections at a key highway checkpoint north of Laredo, it constricted the main pathway for people to get deeper into the U.S. Migrants began to backlog in and around Laredo as smugglers kept them holed up in stash houses while waiting for an opportunity to head out.
“We are catching those loads, so they are holding on to those bodies a lot more,” said Mr. Garza, the Border Patrol’s special operations chief in Laredo.
Stash house seizures rose, and so did attempts to find new pathways beyond the highway.
That could account for the renewed focus on trains, and Mr. Garza said the Border Patrol is putting an additional focus on the railways.
The railway companies cooperate with the Border Patrol, and sometimes their employees are the first to report suspicious activity that leads to rescues and arrests.
The migrants don’t cross the border on the trains. The risk for capture is too high, given Customs and Border Protection officers’ border inspections.
Instead, they sneak across the border by swimming or floating across the Rio Grande. Smugglers then help them jump onto the Kansas City Southern freight line heading into the interior of the U.S.
Kansas City Southern says it works closely with CBP to try to stop the migrants.
A spokesperson said the trains are checked again in a rail yard north of the border and then at Hebbronville, the first stop for freight trains running from Laredo to Corpus Christi.
“Frequently, these checks are performed by CBP and KCS at the same time. KCS and CBP are in constant communication and coordination on this issue,” the spokesperson said. “CBP and KCS coordinate closely to intercept trespassers on the KCS right of way and their occasional boarding of trains beyond the border, and who are safely removed when that happens.”
Although freight trains are the standard, agents have reported nabbing illegal immigrants using Amtrak, too.
In October 2019, agents in Del Rio, Texas, arrested eight Ecuadorians trying to board the train en route to San Antonio. The migrants were paying $8,000 apiece.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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