Presidio officials worry about a new trade route for truckers. The locals saw an opportunity. – Texas Monthly
Hugo Moreno calls himself a trucker, but no English word quite describes his job. Like thousands of Central Americans, he buys used goods in the United States, brings them home and resells them. Transporting goods through Mexico can be dangerous, which is why traders such as Moreno stick together, swap tips on social media and travel in caravans. Some call themselves mancuerneros, or “heavy workers”, for the loads they carry. The Mexican government calls them transmigrants.
Moreno, 54, has a second construction job in Guatemala, but that’s not enough to support a family. For 25 years, he has been coming to the United States to buy cars to resell back home. Mexico will only process merchants like him at certain ports, so until recently, every trip Moreno made to the United States passed through Los Indios, a port of entry in southern Texas about halfway between Brownsville and McAllen. Around the start of 2020, however, Moreno heard a rumor: Mexico was opening a new transmigrating road to a small border crossing in Ojinaga that would direct truckers through Presidio on the American side. If true, Moreno would have a choice of a new route.
Presidio is an hour south of Marfa, in a desert bowl formed by the Chinati and Pegüis mountains. With more than three thousand inhabitants, it is the second largest city in the region on the American side, after Alpine. Ojinaga, a metropolis by Big Bend standards, sparkles on Mexico’s Rio Grande. Despite its natural beauty, Presidio has never really tapped into the local tourist economy. It feels far from luxury weddings in Marfa, the county seat. The town doesn’t track the number of travelers, but it has significantly fewer artists and retirees than others in the area. “We’ve always been the son-in-law by the river,” Joe Portillo, the former city administrator, told me.
For decades, officials had tried to change that. They announced beautification projects. They planned new hotels and art galleries. (Residents sometimes complained; they said authorities should focus more on water pipes, which regularly burst, or roads, which were full of potholes.) Then there’s few years ago, city leaders began to hear rumors from Mexican authorities regarding the source of incoming travelers: a proposed transmigrating route through the city. Officials I spoke to couldn’t remember exactly when or who they heard about the route, and where the rumors were coming from was always a bit fuzzy, like they were bubbling up from the ground like water from a source of the desert. “What was missing was something in writing,” said Brad Newton, a former local development officer and current city administrator.
Presidio officials were alarmed. Mexican reports on the potential new route said it would help transmigrants avoid violence in the state of Tamaulipas, which borders the Rio Grande Valley. City leaders feared the road would instead shift crime to their city. They also worried about traffic, quality of life, wait times at the port of entry, and their long-held dreams of making the Presidio a tourist town. “My biggest concern was the unregulated chaos,” Newton said.
One day in 2019, Presidio Mayor John Ferguson drove twelve hours to visit Los Indios. He wanted to get a glimpse of what the future of Presidio might look like. In some ways, Los Indios reminded him of the small border town where he lived. Both were “a bit rough around the edges as far as the visual part goes”, he later recalled. Yet he was not impressed with the transmigrating economy. Abandoned vehicles lined the streets. Worse, there had been a shooting on the international bridge involving a transmigrating manager a few months earlier. Ferguson, who moved to Presidio in the ’80s and moonlighted in a mariachi band, had a more romantic view of his city. When he returned home, he wrote a letter to Alejandro Leos, then acting director of the local American port. “Presidio and Ojinaga are kind of an oasis,” he wrote. “Obviously the question should be asked, ‘Why would we intentionally provide a means for organized crime to infiltrate our city?'”
Leos had no authority to cancel the itinerary, and like most calls from Presidio, this letter was going nowhere. (Leos has since retired and could not be reached for an interview.) As 2020 rolled around and the new route was set to debut, the mood at City Council grew increasingly frantic. Portillo, the city administrator, floated the idea of a city-run local parking lot to accommodate transmigrants and generate income. “H.” Cowan, the representative of a local mobile home manufacturer, showed up at the meetings to speak out against the plans. “I’m a citizen of this city,” he whispered during a January 2020 meeting. “I demand that you don’t spend money on boondoggles.”
In February of that year, Presidio finally persuaded Chihuahua officials to meet with them. Several arrived in the city one evening, including Melissa Franco, development manager at Ojinaga. At the meeting, it became clear that they saw the road as a way to boost the Mexican economy and weren’t particularly concerned about fears of a small US border town. The road would “explode” growth in the region, Franco said. Ojinaga is already redoing its streets.
The following winter, Mexico confirmed the new route in its federal register. In March 2021, the first transmigrants started rolling, carrying all sorts of used goods: chairs, tires, old bicycles and washing machines. Moreno soon also arrived at Presidio for the first time, eager to assess the new route.
While Presidio officials worried about transmigrants, other locals saw a business opportunity. Erick Prieto, an area car importer, had seen his business dwindle for years and was looking for other opportunities when a friend put him in touch with a senior official in Chihuahua. Along with other brokers in the region, Prieto began to prepare for transmigrants. With a partner in Ojinaga, he purchased land in the desert hills north of Presidio and began clearing it of shrubs and rattlesnakes.
When the new transmigrating road opened in March after being delayed by the pandemic and port repairs, Presidio had a parking lot, but instead of being owned by the city, it was co-owned by Prieto. The company, Servicios Aduanales del Desierto, or “Desert Customs Services”, so far sees around 120 customers a week. Locals call the compound SAD, using its Spanish acronym. Transmigrants park their used cars in a dirt lot and wait for Mexico to process their paperwork. The property has foosball tables, showers, a soccer field and private break rooms. A sign announcing SAD greets drivers in the hills north of the city:Bienvenidos hermanos transmigrantes,” it reads. “Welcome, transmigrating brothers.”
Now, as visitor numbers increase, Presidio officials are also starting to see an opportunity. Some admit they may have misjudged the new route. “I think we had a case of fear of the unknown,” said Newton, the city administrator. Transmigrant traffic resumes around Christmas, and officials feared weight workers would rumble port traffic as many residents headed south to see family. But “it never really happened,” Ferguson said this month. When he traveled to Ojinaga a few days before Christmas to visit relatives, he had no waiting time.
After more than a year of pandemic and border closures, transmigrants also help bolster Presidio’s economy, Newton said. Records from the Texas Comptroller’s Office show a 37% increase in the city’s sales tax revenue last December compared to December 2020. It’s unclear how much of that increase came from transmigrants— some of it is attributable to the end of pandemic restrictions on businesses — but Newton still credits merchants with swelling the city’s coffers. “People bring in sales tax,” he reflected, “and we see more people.”
On a recent Friday, transmigrants took place around SAD, while waiting for Mexico to finalize its customs formalities. Carlos Paiz, who had followed his father into the industry, traveled with his wife and daughter. Bladimir Quevado, who was expelled from the United States as a child and found himself homeless before becoming a transmigrating, touted the benefits of buying used Toyotas in the United States. And Moreno has prepared for the 1,700-mile journey to Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, where he has a wife and four children.
Being on the road all the time can be tough for Moreno, who hopes to retire soon. He misses his family and his wife worries about his travels. To ease their worries and keep each other company, he calls his children throughout the day: “In the morning, during lunch, in the afternoon, when I fill up with gas, before going to bed.
Moreno is less worried about safety on the new road and thinks Presidio’s facilities are better than Los Indios’. Once their paperwork was completed, he and Quevado decided to caravan south together. Moreno idled a used car near the SAD exit, giving me a thumbs up. Then he left, disappearing on the way to Mexico. The next time I spoke to him, a few weeks later, he was back in the States, somewhere in California, looking for another great deal on a used car.