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Border Bloodshed: Murder Rate Rises Along Texas Oil Routes


There's been a steady rise in deaths in the badlands of the U.S.-Mexico border. More than 5,500 bodies have been recovered over the past 15 years, many of them along oil pipelines. And U.S. Border Patrol fears it's going to get worse. Wherever the pipelines go, violent crime seems to follow - from beatings to sexual assaults to murder, carried out by Mexican drug cartels laying claim to the pipeline roots.

Bloomberg News reporter Joe Carroll recently wrote about these killing zones. He explains that pipelines stretch across thousands of acres of private ranch land - areas not patrolled by law enforcement.

JOE CARROLL: The pipelines themselves are actually - for the vast majority of the mileage they cover, they're invisible. They're underground. But the law requires pipeline operators to clear the ground above them, to basically mow it. And the reason for that is so that you can do aerial inspections to make sure nothing is blown up or if there is an accident, so you can get to it quickly.

So you have to cut down trees and bushes and then start digging a trench. You know, if there's a leak, crews can get to it right away. And that's great for the pipeline operators, and it makes perfect sense.

The problem that the ranchers have is that you've basically just carved a highway right through their land. And at nighttime, these become the killing fields. You know, someone doesn't have to be drug smuggler, you know, in his enemy's territory to get killed. They could just be a migrant who wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time or, you know, the victim of a gang conflict. This is where the mayhem happens.

CORNISH: And you cite a Texas state commission report on the problem that says - and this is a quote - decaying human remains litter the landscape. Who are these victims?

CARROLL: You know, it's often hard to tell who they are. Most folks coming over the border aren't carrying ID. Folks come from all over the world, really. We think of most of the folks coming across the border as Mexican or Guatemalan and Honduran. And that's a certainly a big part of the population, but one of the - one of the shocking things was how many folks from other parts of the world are making that trip, whether they're Chinese or West African, you know, East Asian, South American.

CORNISH: So help describe what this black market business is. Why has this crime kind of gathered in this area?

CARROLL: Well, it's really - when you're talking about pipeline routes that snake up through all of south Texas, it's a transportation business for the Mexican, you know, narcotics cartels. They don't care if they're smuggling cocaine or marijuana or human beings. If you're going to smuggle anything through there, you pay a fee.

And if you don't, you're trespassing - as far as they see it - on their territory. And if you're trespassing, they're not going to fine you. They're going to punish you in another way. So these pipeline right-of-ways are really unpoliced secret highways for the cartels.

CORNISH: What has been the response from U.S. border control?

CARROLL: They're pretty overwhelmed. I mean, they saw - you know, in South Texas about seven or eight years ago, there was a big discovery called the Eagle Ford Shale. That involved a huge construction binge of pipelines to get the oil and gas of there. And they saw an upsurge in this sort of activity.

And now you've got an incredible increase in oil and gas drilling because of new discoveries in Texas. And there soon will be more drilling in Mexico because they're opening of their oil industry to foreign companies. And that's going to mean more pipeline routes, and law enforcement in Texas is pretty certain that's going to mean more violence.

CORNISH: Over the course of your reporting, what did ranchers and people in the area tell you about the kinds of things they've seen?

CARROLL: You know, a lot of these folks who grew up down there - and then there's folks who bought land and moved in there - they did because they wanted the ideal sort of rural lifestyle where they raise some cattle or have some hunting ground. And instead what they find is they walk out the door in the morning, and there's human remains, you know, 100 feet from the doorstep. And this happens every single day for some of these folks.

And it wears them down. You know, they're scared at night. Everybody to have ever met who lives on a ranch in south Texas is armed all the time, whether they're driving a pickup truck around the ranch to check on their fences or even if they're sitting in the living room at night watching TV. They're in the middle of nowhere. They're too far for law enforcement to get to them quickly, so they have to protect themselves. So firearms are ubiquitous.

I have spoken to families with young kids who have tried to stick it out, and they've ended up moving into town. They just - it was just too many encounters with dangerous groups, you know, on their own land. But then it is Texas, so there's an awful lot of folks who are just going to stay on the ground. They're not going to be chased off their land.

CORNISH: Joe Carroll - he is an energy reporter for Bloomberg News. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

CARROLL: My pleasure.

CORNISH: Joe Caroll was discussing the surge in violent crime along the oil pipelines in Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.