Border Travel Blog: Crosses In Reynosa
May 29, 2012

Photo by Peter O'Dowd
This cross in Reynosa, Mexico, along the banks of the Rio Grande is a memorial to migrants who have died while trying to illegally cross into the United States.
REYNOSA, MX -- A large white cross sits along the banks of the Rio Grande in Reynosa.

It stands as a testament to the migrants who’ve tried to illegally cross the border into Texas, one massive cross on a white foundation, surrounded by its smaller versions. It’s been neglected for a long time; the smaller crosses collapsed over time, maybe toppled by the wind or lack of upkeep.

It’s a good example of how the conversation has changed on the border. Five years ago, few border issues were as scrutinized as the question of illegal migrant deaths. Since then, death continues to dominate the news of our shared border, but these days, it’s in the form of Mexican nationals dying on their own soil.

Our guide is a friend of a good friend, someone trustworthy in this city where I know very few people. For the past four years, Reynosa has been the kind of city that led to travel warnings by American diplomats.

Its city hall has come under grenade attack; in fact, the city closed off the main street in front of city hall to traffic and erected vehicle barriers. The Americans closed down their consulate here in 2010. Bombs have exploded in its marketplace. Shootouts in the streets have left narcos and cops alike, dead or injured.

It’s the kind of Mexican border city where people do speak of the government wielding control but in the same breath, they’ll speak of the power wielded by one of two cartels; first the Gulf Cartel, then the Zetas, then the Gulf Cartel again.

The cross here stands as a legacy for those migrants who managed to cross the border into the U.S. and then died here, usually of exposure. In Brooks County, Texas, 33 bodies were found last summer alone. In Arizona last year, 192 bodies were found; nobody knows how many actually died.

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The discourse of these deaths has faded in recent years as murder at the hands of violent gangs surpassed death by exposure. It’s worth noting that one of the single worst incidences of migrant deaths in the U.S. was in Victoria, Texas, 2003 -- 19 dead.

My colleague here in Reynosa notes that when the Zetas controlled Reynosa, they targeted migrants bound for the U.S., levying a tax of sorts on all migrants trying to pass through the area. At times, the Mexican military would rescue dozens of migrants being held against their will, their journey north ending short of the border line. In some cases, as many as 50 people would be rescued.

Here in Tamaulipas, graves were found holding as many as 75 would-be migrants bound for the U.S.

My colleague picks up one of the fallen wooden crosses, fingering it gently.

“It’s become difficult to talk about those deaths when so much has happened here even before they left Mexico,” he said.

He placed the wooden cross back on its side. “It’s ugly, but there’s so much more to worry about now.”

Stay tuned for our Fronteras Desk series on the Mexican Elections.