Update, July 24: Adds details of police investigations of deaths throughout.
Linda Vickers fed her horses and was walking back to her house on a secluded Texas ranch when she saw her German shepherds tussling over what looked like a sun-bleached volleyball. When she got close enough to scatter the dogs, her stomach turned: Their toy was a human skull with a shock of red hair, its flesh and lower jaw missing.
What was left of the dead woman lay just yards from Vickers’s front door, obscured by thick stands of oak and mesquite on the 1,000-acre MV Ranch, about 75 miles north of the Mexican border. The victim’s name, home, and intended destination remain mysteries, but two things are certain. She died violently: Her shinbone couldn’t have been fractured naturally in such soft, sandy soil. And she was traversing one of the oil pipeline rights of way that Mexico’s drug cartels have turned into smuggling highways and killing grounds. “Somebody beat her up and left her to die,” says Michael Vickers, Linda’s husband.
The Vickers ranch is crossed by a steel pipe as thick as a man’s calf. It delivers crude oil from a cluster of south Texas oilfields known as the Vicksburg Fault Zone to refineries in the subtropical waterfront city of Corpus Christi. Like thousands of miles of similar pipelines sprawling across the U.S. Southwest, it has been seized upon by traffickers and smugglers as a good way to evade police and the Border Patrol agents who watch the state highways.
These corridors are unmonitored because they stretch across thousands of acres of private property, and law enforcement authorities don’t have the resources to patrol them. This makes them ideal execution sites for errant couriers, business rivals, informers, and unwitting migrants who stray into the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Border Patrol finds an average of one corpse a day in the badlands near the U.S.-Mexico border; in the past 15 years, the toll has reached 5,570, exceeding all U.S. combat deaths for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. While the Border Patrol says it doesn’t break out what proportion of the dead have met their end along the pipeline trails, anecdotal evidence suggests the figure is high. Authorities say beatings, kidnappings, and rapes are rising as pipeline networks expand and new conduits are installed to handle surging oil and gas output from the Eagle Ford, the largest shale oil formation in the U.S.
The mayhem is about to get worse, according to the Border Patrol, now that Mexico has opened its energy industry for the first time in 75 years. Chevron declared its intent to drill for Mexican oil in May, when it disclosed talks with the national oil company, Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex. Less than four weeks later, Pemex Chief of Staff Carlos Roa said lawmakers were close to finalizing rules governing foreign ventures that are expected to pump $30 billion annually into new wells, pipelines, and processing plants. Many of those pipes will carry Mexican oil to U.S. refining centers and ports such as Corpus Christi and Houston, at the same time creating an ever-widening matrix of black market trade routes.
State laws require pipe operators to clear wide paths through the vegetation, allowing aerial inspections and letting work crews reach damaged lines quickly in the event of an explosion. Some pipes are owned by companies that lease space on them to oil producers, and others are directly owned by the energy explorers. The pipes are generally underground, but the paths atop them can be more than 100 feet wide.
In south Texas, such rights of way often present smugglers with the only easy byways through snake-infested, thorny bushes and razor-sharp grasses. The footpaths are too vast for either the pipeline owners or border agents to monitor constantly. And ranchers have learned that fences pose no deterrent.
For Michael Vickers, a 64-year-old veterinarian, the wave of violence has been overwhelming. In the past two years, 216 corpses have been found near the pipeline pathways within a 15-minute drive of his doorstep. It’s certain that many more haven’t been found: The wild, unforgiving terrain and fauna hide much evidence. “The wild hogs gobble up a lot,” he says.
His wife, Linda, a 57-year-old Texas A&M University-trained range scientist, never leaves the house without her Public Defender, a pocket-size .45-caliber handgun made by Forjas Taurus, or her pack of dogs—three muscular German shepherds and their leader, a silent, imposing Portuguese cattle dog-Italian mastiff mix named Tinkerbell. Michael packs a larger version of the same handgun, called the Judge, plus a .380-caliber pistol with a laser sight tucked in his shirt pocket and a .22-caliber handgun with a 30-round clip that he keeps within reach as he tours the ranch, looking for signs of encroachment. Two rifles stretch across the backseat of his Chevy Silverado.
Less than 100 yards from where a pipeline right of way passes near the main gate of the family’s property, Michael Vickers finds a “crawl hole” under the fence. Smugglers and immigrant guides have learned that the top of his galvanized metal fence is electrified, so they go underneath it. A further 20 feet along the fence line, someone has chopped a 3-foot-by-2-foot passage, just the right size for squeezing through while backpacking 80-pound bales of marijuana. Ribbons of torn cloth are tied to the fence at various points—marking a trail for allied smugglers.
Some people traverse these routes without malice. Still, it’s usually impossible to discern mild-mannered migrants heading to Houston and points north from the hired guns hauling anything from cocaine to marijuana to methamphetamine. In any case, no one comes this way without explicit permission from—and having paid a fee to—the cartels.
A Guatemalan man who froze to death on the ranch in February during a rare south Texas cold snap was probably a migrant, judging from the identification found with him, Vickers says. Like most corpses that have lain in the brush for more than a few hours, his eyes were plucked out by the crested caracara falcons that locals call Mexican eagles, for their resemblance to the bird on Mexico’s flag.
Tattoos that signal gang affiliations typically serve as the best indicator of which organization a smuggler works for. Since last summer, Vickers and his neighbors say they have been finding more and more trespassers (living and dead) sporting a large pistol tattooed across one hip, the mark of the Hermanos de Pistoleros Latinos, a Texas prison gang linked to the Gulf Cartel. That’s a troubling development: This area has been Los Zetas territory for years. An all-out turf war would turn an unimaginably bad situation into a catastrophe, Vickers says.
Follow the same Corpus Christi-bound oil pipeline from the Vickers’s property to the other side of Highway 281, and you reach the Tepeguaje Ranch, a Manhattan-size spread of scrubby grasses and oak trees. In a spotless white denim jacket, white cowboy hat, and sunglasses, ranch manager Ronnie Osburn looks the part. “All I ever wanted was to be a cowboy,” he said. After a few indifferent semesters at college, he abandoned his studies to pursue his passion.
Thirty-three years later, the interior of Osburn’s Chevy pickup truck practically clanks with weaponry, including a .40-caliber Beretta and two AR-15 rifles. The ranch faces a constant struggle to keep its 200 cattle from wandering into highway traffic because of the damage wrought on fencing by smugglers who follow the pipeline or a second right of way beneath a high-tension power line. In one four-mile stretch of fence, Osburn counts 189 separate repair jobs. Several holes have opened up since he patrolled the area a day earlier. Empty water jugs are everywhere, discarded by drug and migrant smugglers eager to travel as lightly as possible.
Early last year, Osburn came across the body of what was later determined by police to be that of a teenage girl perhaps as young as 14 years old, partially eaten by buzzards. The condition and location of her clothes indicated she’d been raped before being murdered and thrown aside, police say. Osburn’s jaw clenches when he talks about it. Like Vickers, he keeps a thick portfolio of color photos of the gore, in part because visitors are disinclined to disbelieve the extent and viciousness of the butchery around him.
“It’s continuously getting worse every day,” the 63-year-old says. “When I’m setting, watching TV, I have my gun with me. When I get up to go to the bathroom, I have my gun with me.”
Michael Vickers has had to shoot over the heads of men who demanded the keys to his truck. Last summer, his wife used a gun and the family dogs to fend off five men who were trying to wrench open the kitchen door of the house.
Ranchers and farmers aren’t the only ones in danger. Oilfield workers fear assault, or worse, from smuggling gangs that can demand money, valuable drilling gear, or the keys to their vehicles. Weatherford International, a Swiss company that helps oil explorers drill wells and hook them up to pipelines, warned crews in south Texas as far back as 2010 to be wary, especially when traveling state highway FM 755. A Weatherford pamphlet at the time called the road “a main corridor for drug and human trafficking.” The road cuts through the county in which the Vickers and Osburn reside.
The Tepeguaje Ranch includes an idyllic, shady hunting camp that can accommodate about a dozen lodgers. Osburn worries that the rising tide of violence along the smuggling routes will scare off deer and dove hunters, who pay big money to lease the ranch for a few weeks a year. Hunting leases are a major source of income for ranch owners in this part of south Texas, especially after a multiyear drought made it tougher to raise cattle.
With oil explorers expected to drill tens of thousands of wells in the Eagle Ford over the next decade, smugglers’ travel options will only increase, says Border Patrol Agent Robert Fuentes, a Chicago native stationed 20 miles from Mexico. Every rig site needs a new road carved out of the clay to make way for equipment and crews, and the opening of Mexico to foreign explorers from the U.S. and elsewhere will mean many more roads.
For the time being, a struggle for dominance among cartels on the Mexican side of the border has caused the amount of marijuana moving into the U.S. to dip, says Chief Patrol Agent Rodolfo Karsich. But while the drug lords have diverted manpower and resources to combat rivals, the carnage along the pipelines continues unabated. It’s gotten so bad around Vickers’s ranch and the nearby town of Falfurrias that the region was singled out for special mention in a state-commissioned study of the border situation by retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey and retired Major General Robert Scales: “Decaying human remains litter the landscape.”
Eighty miles southeast of Fuentes’s outpost, currency shops with gaudy, flashing signs touting peso-to-dollar exchange rates dot the streets of Laredo, Tex., close to the international bridge coming from Mexico. Sandy Leyendecker, who operates an animal hospital in this arid border city of a quarter-million people, lives on a 650-acre ranch 45 minutes outside of town.
Leyendecker moved to the ranch in 2003 after a divorce. She keeps 20 head of cattle, though her real passion is breeding whitetail deer and black bucks. So far, she’s been lucky. She has never come across a human body on her land, with damage limited to wrecked fencing and lots of trash.
Still, the cartels that oversee the smuggling routes frighten her. “You can’t get out here without a weapon,” she says. During a ride around the ranch, she keeps a rifle on the dashboard of her truck, with nine bullets stuck into a Velcro sleeve on the butt.
Leyendecker says three separate paths run though her land, including an electricity transmission line that stretches from the Rio Grande to San Antonio. Each is favored by a separate coyote. A fourth smuggling route is likely to open as soon as the intruders notice a pipeline that was installed a few months ago to connect a neighbor’s natural gas wells to a larger conduit. ”They haven’t found it yet,” she says. “But they will.”