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 (CVX)
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.
Photograph by Eddie Seal/Bloomberg
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 (FJTA4:BZ),
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 (GM) 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
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.
Photograph by Eddie Seal/Bloomberg
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.http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2014-07-23/texas-mexico-oil-pipelines-offer-cover-for-smugglers-violence#r=discussed