Editor’s note: Graphic image of human bones are included in story. Please view with caution.
As John David Franz got within miles of his family’s 1,000-acre ranch in a vast and desolate part of South Texas recently, he saw two Border Patrol agents in a truck on the last county road leading to his property.
They told him they were tracking 10 migrants who had been spotted in the area — a popular spot for migrants to try to circumvent the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias. They told him to call the station if he came across the migrants.
As he drove away, Franz, 59, shook his head thinking of the treacherous terrain these migrants were walking. Although it was still midmorning, the temperatures were already in the 90s and the cloud cover overhead that day would make it particularly hard for migrants on foot to navigate a course to the north through the dense and treacherous country.
It’s a course that could have them walking 20 to 30 miles in a northwest arch to evade agents and to hook up with their guides at a highway north of the checkpoint. And it’s a course that often puts migrants straight through Franz’s property.
“The thing that impresses me the most about the immigrant situation is how you’ll see signs of traffic, of people going through the most desolate places,” Franz said. “To see and understand that hundreds, thousands of people are making the trek through that kind of country is hard to imagine.”
He spoke as he drove his king cab 70 miles northwest of McAllen to a modest homestead that he calls “camp” – where he and his family celebrate holidays, hunt some and go to relax.
Franz and his wife, Annette, bought this ranch in 1996 as a place for rest and respite, but they’ve come across many lost migrants on the property over the years. He also demonstrated how tough the terrain can be, and even showed where his young son found decomposing bones of one lost man.
- One woman broke into the back door of a trailer they have in a field on the property and she lived inside for eight days after her group of migrants left her. She ate all the canned goods, “but cleaned it very well,” Franz said.
- One cold December evening when it was sleeting, his youngest son, Steven Franz, came upon a 67-year-old woman with her 9-year-old granddaughter covered in only a garbage bag. They came out of the brush when he went to open one of five locked iron gates that lead to their property. The shivering pair had been left there by their coyotes because the elder woman couldn’t keep up, she told them.
- One man from Puebla, Mexico, hid in the trees for three days convinced a lion was chasing him, he told them. It wasn’t a lion, but a bull that was mooing in mating season, Franz said.
- And about 10 years ago, while on a kids’ exploration through his family’s 7-mile-wide ranch, Steven found a blue backpack and came across a human skull. He fetched his parents, who found bones and human remains scattered in an area. A Mexican identification card for Humberto Del Angel Hernandez, from the Gulf Coast city of Madero, Mexico, near Tampico, was found in a pair of blue jeans found by the backpack.
It appeared the victim died sitting at the base of a mesquite tree. He had eaten several cans of food from his backpack. Franz speculates that he might have been bitten by a snake, or become dehydrated lost in the thick brush.
“It was October. If he had been here three to four months it could have been the summertime when he was walking through here and he was only a half-mile from our camp. That’s the sad part about it. If he could have made it to camp there’s shade, there’s water there,” Franz said.
The Franz family called the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, and sent copies of the identification card and remains to the Mexican consulate, in hopes that they could notify the man’s family. But they don’t know whether that ever happened.
‘They’re risking death’
Franz, who is bilingual, is a lawyer in McAllen and served as mayor of the border city of Hidalgo for 22 years. He has been assigned by the courts to defend several migrants in human trafficking cases. He says he has compassion for those duped into paying thousands of dollars to coyotes with no clue as to the punishing and brutal terrain they will be expected to traverse. But he doesn’t empathize with the drug-runners, who he says threaten this rural countryside and take advantage of unsuspecting migrants.
The grandmother, for instance, told them she and her granddaughter had each paid $3,000 to a guide to take them north to Denver, where the girl’s mother lived. They had no coats, food or water. As the weather got brutal and the grandmother faltered in the sleet, the coyote took off with the group and left them to fend for themselves among the prickly pear, coyotes, bobcat and wild hogs.
She asked the Franzes to call Border Patrol and they drove her to a spot on the highway where agents took them in. The grandmother told them they were returning to Mexico rather than trying to cross this terrain.
As a lawyer, Franz understands the legal ramifications if his family were to help the migrants. So they give them an option: Keep walking or let them call Border Patrol agents.
“We say, ‘You have to keep moving. You can’t stay here.’ But we warn them about the dangers of proceeding because it’s really tough. They’re risking death if they continue walking alone in this environment,” Franz said.
Mountain lions, coyotes and wild hogs
The area where the ranch is located in western Brooks County is surrounded by other ranches and is about 7 miles from the nearest county road. There are five locked gates on various unmarked dirt roads that must be opened to get on the property, and a four-wheel–drive vehicle is needed to travel on those roads.
There are a couple of oil pipelines that run north to south on their property, and the coyote or transporter guides tell migrants to follow the pipelines and to meet up with them at Highway 285, north of Falfurrias.
But it is not a straight shot by any means. And the coral snakes and rattlesnakes, prickly pear cactus, thorny brush and mesquite trees, mountain lions, coyotes and wild hogs can cause a migrant to steer off direction in the blink of an eye.
Finding one’s way north would require a compass, thigh-high snake boots and several gallons of water, supplies that Franz says the guides don’t give migrants.
“There is no straight shot. Someone who doesn’t know the area is going to get here and say, ‘Which is the path of least resistance?’ and get lost,” he said.
Aerostat surveillance equipment is located high in the sky and Franz says that if migrants walk in the open, on the pipeline easement, then they will have a greater chance of being spotted. So they tend to stay hidden in the brush, which can take an hour to walk just 1 mile.
Ladders and water ponds
Franz says regardless of what they do, coyotes will drop migrants and force them to walk through their ranchland. So to minimize damage to their fences, the Franzes have built wooden ladders throughout their property to help migrants climb up and over their eight-foot fences.
“If you don’t set up crossing points, they’ll just try to scale the wires and pull it down,” Franz said.
Evidence of migrants climbing other fence areas can be seen – wires that are pulled down and need to be replaced. And while that is costly and irritating, Franz says he feels for these people.
“If they’re here looking for work, trying to reunite with family, then I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing,” Franz said as he hiked through thick brush. “But I can’t comprehend how someone from the interior of Mexico or Central America finds themselves in the middle of something like this.”
Franz says the coyotes drop off the migrants without any cellphones or navigating equipment. Only the guide has a cellphone, which he uses to ping off his location once in a while.
As a lawyer, Franz said he has interviewed witnesses who have testified that they were raped in the brush by guides, or even beat up and shot. He says witnesses also have told him that the guides often are on drugs and that is what enables them to keep marching the group when it’s 100 degrees out.
And he speculates that the many springs and stock ponds on his property – set up for wildlife and game hunting – have probably been the water source for many groups.
There also are gallon jugs of water Brooks County volunteers leave at the county road. But he said migrants can’t carry many jugs of water because they weigh too much and unless they are walking on that course, they might not come across it.
After leaving Franz’s ranch on Sept. 12, he came across his closest neighbor, Sylvia Chavez, in an group of homes closer to Encino, Texas. Chavez did not want to be filmed or photographed but said she encountered a man hiding in her barn about three weeks ago.
“He didn’t have a backpack or anything. And he wanted to keep walking north. I told him if he goes that way, he could die,” Chavez said.
Ultimately, he allowed her to call the Border Patrol and they came and picked him up.
But Franz and Chavez say that many continue north. The two neighbors wonder just how many get lost and end their lives in this part of South Texas.
And as he drove back to McAllen that day, Franz pondered what might have happened to the 10 migrants the Border Patrol agents were tracking near his ranch that morning.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.