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, drives them home, and resells them. Transporting freight across Mexico can be dangerous, so merchants such as Moreno stick together, trading tips on social media and traveling in caravans. Some call themselves mancuerneros, or “weight workers,” for the loads they carry. The Mexican government calls them transmigrantes.
The 54-year-old Moreno works a second job in construction in Guatemala, but that isn’t enough to support a family. For 25 years, he has been coming to the U.S. to buy cars to resell back home. Mexico will process merchants like him only at certain ports, so until recently every trip Moreno took to the states went through Los Indios, a port of entry deep in South Texas about halfway between Brownsville and McAllen. Around the start of 2020, however, Moreno heard a rumor: Mexico was opening a new transmigrante route at a small border crossing in Ojinaga that would direct truckers through Presidio on the U.S. side. If that was true, Moreno would have a new route to choose from.
Presidio sits an hour south of Marfa, in a desert bowl formed by the Chinati and Pegüis mountains. With more than three thousand residents, it’s the second biggest city in the region on the U.S. side, after Alpine. Ojinaga, a metropolis by Big Bend standards, glitters across the Rio Grande in Mexico. Despite its natural beauty, Presidio has never really tapped into the local tourist economy. It feels far from the luxury weddings in Marfa, the county seat. The town doesn’t track how many travelers come through, but it has noticeably fewer artists and retirees than others in the region. “We’ve always been the stepchild down 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 for new hotels and art galleries. (Residents sometimes complained; they said officials should focus more on the water pipes, which were regularly bursting, or the roads, which were potholed.) Then, a couple of years ago, city leaders started hearing rumors from Mexican officials about a potential new source of incoming travelers: a proposed transmigrante route through the town. The officials I talked to couldn’t recall exactly when or from whom they heard about the route, and the provenance of the rumors was always a little fuzzy, as though they were bubbling up from the ground like water from a desert spring. “What was missing was anything in writing,” said Brad Newton, a former local development official and the current city administrator.
Presidio officials grew alarmed. Mexican news stories about the potential new route said it would help transmigrantes avoid violence in the state of Tamaulipas, which borders the Rio Grande Valley. City leaders feared the route would instead shift crime to their town. They also worried about traffic, quality of life, wait times at the port of entry, and their long-held dreams of making Presidio a tourist town. “My biggest concern was unregulated chaos,” said Newton.
One day in 2019, Presidio mayor John Ferguson drove for twelve hours to visit Los Indios. He wanted a glimpse into what Presidio’s future might look like. In some ways, Los Indios reminded him of the tiny border town where he lived. Both were “a bit rough around the edges as far as the visual part,” he recalled later. Still, he wasn’t impressed with the transmigrante economy. Abandoned vehicles lined streets. Worse, there had been a shooting on the international bridge involving a transmigrante handler just months earlier. Ferguson, who moved to Presidio in the eighties and moonlights in a mariachi band, had a more romantic vision for his town. When he got back home, he wrote a letter to Alejandro Leos, then the acting local U.S. port director. “Presidio and Ojinaga are somewhat 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 didn’t have authority to cancel the route, and, like most of Presidio’s pleas, that letter went nowhere. (Leos has since retired and could not be reached for an interview.) As 2020 rolled in and the new route was set to debut, the mood in city council grew increasingly frantic. Portillo, the city administrator, started pitching the idea of a local, city-run parking lot to accommodate transmigrantes and bring in revenue. “H.” Cowan, the representative of a local mobile home manufacturer, showed up at meetings to denounce the plans. “I am a citizen of this town,” he huffed at one meeting in January 2020. “I demand you do not spend money on boondoggles.”
In February of that year, Presidio finally persuaded Chihuahuan officials to meet with them. Several arrived in the city one evening, including Melissa Franco, a development official in Ojinaga. At the meeting, it became clear that they saw the route as a way to boost the Mexican economy and were not particularly concerned about the fears of a small U.S. border town. The route would “detonate” growth in the region, Franco said. Ojinaga was already redoing its streets.
The following winter, Mexico confirmed the new route in its federal registry. In March of 2021, the first transmigrantes started rolling through, carrying all types of used goods: chairs, tires, old bicycles, and washing machines. Moreno soon also arrived in Presidio for the first time, eager to assess the new route.
While Presidio officials fretted about transmigrantes, other locals saw a business opportunity. Erick Prieto, a car importer in the region, had watched his business dwindle for years and was looking for other opportunities when a friend connected him with a high-level official in Chihuahua. Along with other brokers in the region, Prieto began preparing for transmigrantes. With a partner in Ojinaga, he bought a plot of land in the desert hills north of Presidio and started clearing it of shrubs and rattlesnakes.
When the new transmigrante route opened in March after being delayed by the pandemic and port repairs, Presidio had a parking lot—but instead of being city-owned, it was co-owned by Prieto. The business, Servicios Aduanales del Desierto, or “Customs Services of the Desert,” so far sees around 120 customers a week. Locals call the compound SAD, using its Spanish acronym. Transmigrantes park their used cars in a dirt lot and wait for Mexico to process their paperwork. The facility has foosball tables, showers, a soccer field, and private rooms for rest. A sign advertising SAD greets drivers in the hills north of town: “Bienvenidos hermanos transmigrantes,” it reads. “Welcome, transmigrante brothers.”
Now, as visitor numbers grow, Presidio officials are starting to see an opportunity too. 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. Transmigrante traffic picks up around Christmas, and officials worried that weight workers might snarl port traffic right as many residents were heading south to see family. But “that never really did transpire,” Ferguson said this month. When he drove to Ojinaga a couple of days before Christmas to visit relatives, he didn’t have any wait time.
After more than a year of pandemic and border shutdowns, transmigrantes are also helping bolster Presidio’s economy, Newton said. Records from the Texas comptroller’s office show a 37 percent increase in the city’s sales tax revenues last December compared with December 2020. It’s hard to determine how much of that increase comes from transmigrantes—some of it is attributable to the end of pandemic restrictions on businesses—but Newton still credits the merchants with boosting city coffers. “People bring sales tax,” he mused, “and we’re seeing more people.”
On a recent Friday, transmigrantes milled around SAD, waiting for Mexico to finalize their customs paperwork. Carlos Paiz, who had followed his father into the industry, traveled with his wife and daughter. Bladimir Quevado, who was deported from the United States as a child and ended up homeless before becoming a transmigrante, extolled the benefits of buying used Toyotas in the States. And Moreno prepared for the 1,700-mile drive back to Santa Cruz del Quiché, Guatemala, where he has a wife and four children.
Being on the road all the time can be hard for Moreno, who hopes to retire soon. He misses his family and his wife worries about his trips. To assuage their concerns and keep himself company, he calls his children throughout the day: “In the morning, during lunch, in the afternoon, when I’m getting gasoline, before I go to sleep.”
Moreno worries less about safety on the new route and thought the Presidio facilities were better than those in Los Indios. With their paperwork done, he and Quevado decided to caravan south together. Moreno idled a used car by the SAD exit, flashing me a thumbs-up sign. Then he was off, disappearing down the road toward Mexico. The next time I talked to him, a few weeks later, he was back in the States, somewhere in California, looking for another great deal on a used car.