Border Backlash: A Firsthand Account of Trump's "Emergency"

Brian Karem travels to sister cities in Texas and Mexico to investigate Trump's controversial plan

Mi amigo, una ciudad esta aqui." My friend, there is one city here.—Jose Sepulveda, a 42-year-old resident of Laredo, Texas who has friends and family living in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

He said his name was Raul, though others called him “Ruley.” He said he was 27, but looked 19. The baby face and smile helped provide a comforting cover for his less than innocent intentions. “Pues, I have the best weed, ese,” he told me as he showed me a stash. Of course he did. They all do.

Street dealers have been common along the border probably before there was a border. The more popular area for procuring and ingesting nefarious chemicals and plant derivatives used to be Boys Town, the legal red-light district in Nuevo Laredo. Anyone could purchase any pleasure in Boys Town, and drugs came with the deal. It was a modern Sodom. Only God didn’t rain havoc on Nuevo Laredo and Boys Town, the drug cartels did.


Prior to the cartel wars, the city was a popular international tourist destination. Only after enjoying its wilds would many of the more experienced world travelers venture into the United States, and the relative safety of Laredo. Americans, on the other hand, usually visited Laredo first before dipping their toes into the Mexican wildlife. Nuevo Laredo was the bad boy younger brother—the yin to Laredo’s yang. Laredo was the dutiful older brother who remained loyal to the father—or in this case, Uncle Sam. For years, an Airforce base, (now the site of the Laredo airport), also provided the ultimate and most potent symbol of Laredo’s safety—The U.S. government.

“In this city, you can walk outside at night and you’re safe. That’s not the case across the river in Nuevo Laredo,” Laredo Police Chief Claudio Treviño Jr. said. “We have a lot of law enforcement in the area, and we work together at the local, state and federal levels. Our crime rate is down, and the quality of life here is better than many places in the country."

According to Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) statistics, murders have decreased by 36 percent in Laredo in the last ten years. Robbery and assault are down by nearly 50 percent. The biggest crime problem, according to the chief, local reporters and residents, are the number of cars stolen in Laredo and taken across the border.

“The drug cartels use a lot of stolen cars,” Trevino said. Still, a task force with local, state and federal law enforcement has helped drive auto theft numbers down some 88 percent since 2009. “Clearly, when we work together, we can and do make a difference,” Trevino explained. “To say there’s a crisis on the border just isn’t true. Not here. Not in Laredo.”
Boys Town was a modern Sodom. Only God didn’t rain havoc, the drug cartels did.
At the height of Laredo’s illegal immigration problem in the mid-1980s, the Border Patrol apprehended more than 140,000 people annually. Those numbers slowly fell, and then spiked again in the mid-1990s. But since the turn of the century, the number has dropped significantly. In 2017, the Border Patrol apprehended just 25,000 illegal immigrants; in 2018, it seized fewer than 33,000 people crossing illegally. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s website, President Trump wants to build approximately 55 miles of wall or fences in and around Laredo— to stop the incursion of as few as 68 people crossing the border illegally per day. 

Spending billions of dollars to accomplish that doesn’t sit well with border politicians, who say the money would be better spent elsewhere. Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz and other local politicians bristled at a recent Trump visit to the Rio Grande Valley. Saenz told the Laredo Morning Times he felt “disenfranchised” at Trump’s lack of communications with those who live on the border.
“I give him credit for bringing up border problems,” Trevino said of the president. “But he’s not addressing the problems down here anymore than anyone else has. It would help if someone listened to those of us who live here,” he said. Jorge Pedroza is one of those locals who lives with the complex issues on a daily basis. When I met him, he was walking across the Rio Grande into the United States near the Laredo water plant. 
To say there’s a crisis on the border just isn’t true.
For many years, this stretch of the river near the Jefferson Street plant was one of the most popular places for illegal immigrants to cross in the Laredo area. Here, the Rio Grande is shallow enough that most people merely walk instead of swim across the border, and tall cane, weeds and brush gave those walking across the river excellent cover. Immigrants sometimes crossed hand-in-hand in broad daylight and still avoided capture. The running joke among Border Patrolmen back then was if you caught someone three times during a shift and didn’t see them when the shift ended, that meant somebody got through. The ultimate goal for many of these men, women and children were the train yards, where they could hop a fast-moving freight train out of town. Sometimes a desperate man or woman jumped a moving train and missed. Some died. Some had both of their legs severed and somehow survived.
By the end of January 2019, there was just a trickle of people crossing at the shallow area in front of the plant. The Border Patrol has gotten up to speed on brush management in the last 35 years, and someone now trims the grass, cane and brush along the river, thereby destroying cover and providing a clear line of sight. A paved road near the water’s edge also gives the Border Patrol greater access to the river. The combination of these preventative measures has had an effective impact on decreasing the numbers of those crossing the river there.

Pedroza is one of those who still does. He lives in Nuevo Laredo, and said he crosses illegally during the day to go to work for his uncle and often returns to Mexico at night. He was taken aback when I informed him the U.S. government planned to build some 50 miles of wall or fence in and around Laredo. He couldn’t understand why. “What if Trump builds the wall here?” I asked. The man looked up and down the river, then at me with tired eyes. “I guess I’m gonna be late for work, homes.”

Others on the river also expressed surprise at the prospect of being greeted by a wall when they finally got to the United States. “I would know I’m at the right place,” an older man from Nicaragua told me. He wanted asylum. I pointed him in the direction of the downtown bridge where he could plead his case. “There are hundreds waiting there,” the man told me. “I was there. I could starve before someone helps me. I help myself.”

On that day, some 20 people with their luggage dutifully waited adjacent to the border in sight of a U.S. Customs agent on the International Bridge. “This is as far as they can go,” the Customs agent informed me. “We have to wait until there’s room to let them in.” Those waiting for asylum that day included two senior women from Georgia, Eurasia, who spoke to me in French and Italian. They were tired and hungry, and said they had been persecuted by their government.

Asylum seekers from other countries including Cuba, Mexico, Honduras and Kenya offered similar tales of government-, economic- or gang-related persecution.
We’re capitalists, amigo. You want the drugs and we want to make money selling them.
The nearly two dozen people sat quietly on the Mexico side of the bridge for days, afraid to leave the line to go to the bathroom or eat while they waited to apply for asylum. Some of them paid hefty amounts of money to make it this far—up to $10,000, they said. Without a possibility of working to make more money, waiting at the border often eats up whatever funds they have left. But waiting in Nuevo Laredo is a dream compared to other Mexican cities. Its proximity to the United States guarantees a certain degree of safety and a far healthier lifestyle than those who dwell in Monterrey, a larger city south of Laredo where the poorest neighborhoods consist of groups of 100—300 or more people living in shacks made of hammered-flat tin cans creatively integrated with cardboard, crates, wood planks, steel rods, umbrellas and plastic bags.

In the past, these residents bathed, defecated, urinated and brushed their teeth in a communal sewage lagoon. The water ran off in concrete trenches down the mountain and mixed with rain and a variety of other organic and inorganic substances only to become a water source for the residents living further down the mountain slope.

Nuevo Laredo was different, and by Mexican standards, affluent. Restaurants and tourist shops lined Avenue Guerrero, the main street leading to the old International Bridge. Street vendors offered authentic Mexican cuisine while restaurants such as the Cadillac Bar and Grill offered an upscale, comfortable experience. Nuevo Laredo nightclubs enticed tourists to enjoy a variety of music and dancing. For everyone else, or at least for the after-party crowd, there was always Boys Town. But the cartel wars destroyed most of the tourist revenue, and that economic loss is reflected in the nearly deserted streets of Nuevo Laredo today. The Cadillac Bar is long gone. Most of the popular nightclubs near Avenue Guerrero have shuttered their doors as well. And while the drug violence has lessened in the last decade, it still continues. A day after President Trump appeared in south Texas in January, Mexican authorities found 20 people murdered in a remote area north of Nuevo Laredo relatively close the U.S. Border. Police say the drug dealers tried to burn many of the victims found left in the open.
I get seen with a gringo reporter by the wrong people—even one from Playboy—and we’re both dead.
My drug dealing guide Raul, who agreed to talk with me in a local Nuevo Laredo bar only after I provided him with some Playboy swag and bought him a beer, said the gangs continue to be extremely violent—in Mexico. He called his gang “The New Generation.” The Zetas, the most violent cartel in Mexico, ran the drug business in the area for years, and was responsible for much of the mayhem that made Nuevo Laredo so unsafe that some locals have families in the U.S. who haven’t seen them for a decade. When I asked Raul to take me to the mass murder scene, he shook his head. “Muy peligroso,” he told me. “I get seen with a gringo reporter by the wrong people—even one from Playboy—and we’re both dead.”

In recent years, the Zetas have fought amongst themselves while rival gang kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán is behind bars. “’Vatos locos,’ homes,” Raul calls the gangs. “Crazy guys.” And what, according to this young dealer who knows how to handle a handgun, but is technically illiterate, are the “Vatos locos?” That part is easy. “Pendejo. We’re capitalists, amigo. You want the drugs and we want to make money selling them. People get killed in this business because there’s so much money and you don’t have to go to school to make it.”

According to Raul, the best way to make the most money by shipping large quantities of drugs to meet the high American demand is through the busiest points of entry. Laredo happens to be the largest inland port of entry into the U.S. “The amount of truck traffic is huge,” said local KGNS television anchor Ann Hutyra. “It dominates the local economy.” Thousands of trucks cross the border daily and most railroad traffic from as far away as Mexico City comes through Nuevo Laredo and Laredo.

Airline flights, scant as they are into Laredo, are usually filled with independent truckers who pick up loads at the border and drive them all over the interior of the United States. Once the trucks pass the border checkpoint, the drivers are free to deliver anything anywhere.
Bribes and threats keep the drugs flowing—on both sides of the border.
It is very easy for drug dealers to use the trucks to ship drugs all over the U.S. with a relatively low cost to the dealers and a high rate of return on the investment. The cartels have been known to pay off who they can while threatening and killing those they can’t bribe. Bribes and threats keep the drugs flowing—on both sides of the border.

“It’s just our cost. We figure it in when we charge you gringos for your drugs,” Raul explained to me. “We even tip off Customs sometimes—let them make a bust so you think you’ve stopped us. ”As for directly bribing U.S. officials, Raul said nothing. But American corruption is well documented. In the late 1980s, the cartels notoriously shipped tons of cocaine using Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) buses that wouldn’t get stopped at the border.

Law enforcement on this side of the border knows well what they’re up against. They only manage to stop a small fraction of what enters the United States. “If you ask these agents, you know they only catch four or five percent. Or maybe 10 percent,” Hutrya explains.

Trevino echoed these thoughts. “Without a doubt. Do drug dealers bring across their drugs other ways? Yes. They do. Will a wall stop any of it? Very, very little of it,” Trevino said.

Hutrya, who has covered a wide variety of drug busts in her 15 years in Laredo, said large trucks aren’t the only way dealers move their goods. “There are so many ways. Cargo trucks. A Honda or a Ford. Body carriers who carry them on busses. Drugs are shipped and flown in. There are drug tunnels. How much would a wall would stop this? Not much.”

Raul put it another way. “What if I told you I ship my stuff in a truck. I pay a one-time fee and I got a good chance of getting my stuff to the right destination deep in your country where someone who pays me gets the drugs. One trip, vato. Now what if I want to move my product myself across the river? Hey cabron, then I got to get a vehicle, pay security and I only get it to the river.” That, Raul contends, also gives rival gangs a chance to ambush them. Shipping by truck reduces costs and danger.
The president’s plea for a border wall, according to Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley, includes more than $800 million “to screen every vehicle entering the U.S.” Border Patrol officials say that may not be enough money and isn’t practical. “Imagine the traffic jams on either side of the border. That would destroy economies on both sides of the border,” one official explained. “It’s just not realistic to stop and scan every truck.”

When it comes to smuggling in Fentanyl, the issue becomes even more problematic. “What if I could put it yogurt cups or jello cups. I could hide enough in a purse or backpack to make a lot of money,” Raul told me. When I asked if that was indeed how it was done, he said, “I just said, ‘What if?’ There a lot of ways to bring in drugs, pendejo.”

Presidential claims of massive human trafficking and a humanitarian crisis also appear unsubstantiated. 

The Zetas are infamous for human trafficking in Mexico, but Raul says the gangs do little business in the U.S. Tales of “blue tape” and “turning left” appear to be presidential hyperbole. Crime statistics in the United States and Laredo do not back Trump’s claims. But there is a real humanitarian crisis on the border.
“The humanitarian problem is those people waiting on the border trying to do it the right way,” a Customs agent explained. “They suffer through a lot to do it right and I have to hold them here until I get the okay to send them across.”

Raul sees it differently. “Hey, your country is full of shit, cabron,” he said. “Trump, he takes los ninos from their parents. That ain’t right. I go to prison if I get caught doing that. Or I’d get shot. ‘Te voy a matar.’” He makes his hand into a gun and points his finger at his head.

South of Laredo, located on Espejo-Molina Road, are the cities of Rio Bravo and El Cenizo. Both sit near the banks of the Rio Grande. El Cenizo backs right up to the river. At the water’s edge, there’s a small city park where children swing and look at horses grazing along a placid, empty Mexican border—hardly the site of a national emergency. In the early 1980s, shady real estate developers opened up the two areas as subdivisions, selling to the area’s poorest residents plots of land without running water, electricity, paved roads or sewage treatment.

“You know the saying, ‘Shit rolls downhill’?,” a Webb County Sheriff’s deputy once told me. “I’m going to show you the bottom of the hill.” He showed me Rio Bravo and El Cenizo.

More than 35 years later, both are independent cities. “The only thing I think that ever made national news there was when it was reported El Cenizo did its city council meetings in Spanish,” Hutrya said.

These two small cities represent what the federal government has long ignored when it comes to a crisis on the border: generational poverty, a lack of healthcare and infrastructure, and underfunded, overcrowded schools.“If you look at the problems, poverty is the big issue here,” Hutrya explained. “Webb County is one of the poorest in the nation. Education is a big problem. Overcrowded schools. Those are the big social issues. Is border security a problem? Yes. Is illegal immigration an issue? Yes. But the real emergency is helping people deal with their daily lives.”
Is border security a problem? Yes. Is illegal immigration an issue? Yes. But the real emergency is helping people deal with their daily lives.
Residents long for a federal government which spends money on improving lives in the area, not on building walls which cannot feed, teach or help in everyday life. Outsiders and residents who know the area say it is remarkable how safe the Laredo area remains despite the overwhelming poverty. “I am happy to say it’s one of the safest in the country,” Trevino reiterated. “There are just good people trying to live their lives.”

It has been 35 years since a police officer died on duty in Laredo. Victor Serna died in 1984 on a domestic disturbance call. It wasn’t gang violence. It wasn’t Middle Eastern terrorists. “We have gangs. I’m not going to say we don’t,” Trevino explained. “But we always have had them. We deal with them. The gangs aren’t a national emergency.” Trevino smiled at the next question. “I can’t remember a time where we had problems with Middle Eastern terrorists.”

Rancher Joe Villareal, who works a ranch near the Rio Grande south of Laredo, is one of the few people in the area who supports building a wall. “You don’t want to hear what I have to say,” he began. “We run across dead bodies on the ranch every once in a while. You know how we find ‘em? Buzzards circling. We think it’s cattle, and we get there and it’s a person.” Villareal produces two pictures taken during the last three years that show eerie evidence of the dangers involved when illegally crossing the international border, particularly in remote locations. Exposure, dehydration, starvation, death caused by fire ants, scorpions, wild boars, bees and bullets are all possibilities.

“A wall out here where there’s hardly any patrols would be a good thing,” Villareal explained. But while he supports the wall as a means to help keep dead illegal immigrants off his ranch, he isn’t sure it rises to the level of a national emergency. “The Vietnam War which was a real national emergency,” he explained.
In Mexico, there are similar sentiments from law enforcement. “What do you need a wall for?” Nadia Salinas, a Mexican customs official, asked me. “We got a river.” A Nuevo Laredo city official put it another way. “If you want to put up a border wall on the river, why not do it on the Nueces River? That was the original border.”
What do you need a wall for?...We got a river.
An undivided Laredo was once the capital of the Republic of The Rio Grande in 1840. After the end of the Mexican-American War, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo established the international boundary at the Rio Grande instead of the Nueces River, several families moved to the Mexican side of the border and founded Nuevo Laredo. Ever since, people have come back and forth to visit the families who left.

“It was a ritual. People would take the weekend and go across the border to visit family. They’d shop together. They would have a barbecue and go to church together,” Hutrya said. “Not anymore.”

New international bridges, including the World Trade International Bridge for commercial traffic, and the Columbia-Solidarity International Bridge some 20 miles north of town, have helped increase international traffic through Laredo of all kinds of goods, both legal and illegal. The economic impact is enormous. There has been a nearly three-fold increase in Laredo’s population in the last 35 years. Infrastructure lags far behind the development, but the devastating economic collapse in Nuevo Laredo, coupled with the explosion in commercial traffic on the U.S. side of the border, are the driving forces behind a thriving local Laredo economy.
What is an American? “Just look at anyone living in Laredo. There you are.”
With the influx of truck traffic, Laredo today looks more like Mexico, Missouri along I-70 than Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Fast food restaurants, roadside hotels and large service stations that offer showers, food and baby powder abound. Convenience stores are now seemingly more prolific than the old Ice Houses and authentic neighborhood restaurants.

All this growth hasn’t enabled Laredo to shake its past. “People do get the wrong idea,” Trevino maintained with a sigh.The Laredo police department is located on the site of the former Air Force base. Its offices are similar to those of police departments in rural northern Florida. There is an atmosphere of relaxed professionalism, not only in the architecture but in the people who inhabit the offices. Laredo has advanced quickly since the 1980s, when the police department seemed more like something out of the Orson Welles movie, Touch of Evil.

“We got a call the other day. Someone saw a guy on CNN say that the drug cartels are ‘tagging’ property,” Trevino said as he produced a video clip that included a claim from a CNN analyst on a panel show that park property on Laredo’s riverfront had been tagged by drug cartel members. Trevino nearly laughed.

“That’s not how we do things, ese,” Raul the low-level dealer claimed.

“Drug cartels usually don’t work that way,” Trevino said in agreement.

Everyone agreed the cartels are more interested in making money than making graffiti art.

“We heard about this,” KGNS television anchor Ann Hutrya said with a smile.

“We heard that comment and that was a surprise to us. We went down there with our cameras and got the police to meet us and we couldn’t find anything there.” No graffiti anywhere in the park.

“But see, that’s how it gets started,” Trevino explained.

“Laredo is a nice, beautiful place," Hutrya said. “The problem is that it gets a bad name because little tidbits get blasted all over the media; it makes Laredo seem like a scary unsafe place and it isn’t.”
You people will never understand the border. It’s not like any place else on earth.
The view from the park in downtown Laredo provides an unobstructed view of the Mexican border. As at least two dozen people I spoke with during my week there said: “Why would you want to build a wall here?"According to the Cato Institute, Trump’s proposed wall hasn’t even been thoroughly researched—a conclusion many who live on the border share.

“President Trump’s wall would be a mammoth expenditure that would have little impact on illegal immigration. But perhaps that’s not the point. The campaign’s goal was to plant an image in voters’ minds of what making America great again would look like. The president’s goal may now be to create a symbol, an illustration of a nationalism that says to the world that although people of all kinds may want to come here, America was created by and for Americans.”

But what is an American? “Just look at anyone living in Laredo. There you are,” Trevino said. “I’d like to be an American too,” Raul explained as he sipped a Tecate.“Raise a family. Be safe. Learn my kids to read. Everybody wants to be an American.”

As we sat drinking, Raul offered me cocaine, readily producing an eight ball. I declined. We drank another beer at a Nuevo Laredo hole-in-the wall as I enjoyed some menudo and watched a guitar player serenade a young couple in the courtyard. Five or six older gentlemen watched a soccer match on a beat up television hanging off the wall. “It’s okay,” he said as he thanked me for a Playboy keychain and hat, which along with the beer, got him talking. “You people will never understand the border. It’s not like any place else on earth. Los Estados Unidos no entienden.” We will never understand.

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