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.
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.
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 smugglers.
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.