Still a hundred miles short of the border, the main highway down into the far southern boot-tip of Texas seemed smothered in night–an extraordinarily humid, suffocating night. The stifling humidity of the extreme eastern borderland between the U.S. and Mexico forms a hidden subtext in the news, a hand-behind-the-curtain in the border’s crimes and woes. Soupy, steamy resistance suffuses human interaction–at times gracefully and poetically, but at times chokingly, greasing the world with sweat–and, on certain dark nights, escalating into the seemingly fantastic, or the horrific.
A few miles inland the Texas brush country starts drying out into crisp, crystalline vistas of rolling ridges, but along the eastern coast of the state the lonely main highway, spelunking down into the deepest southern corner of the border, roughly traces the swampy shores of the Gulf of Mexico. Steaminess soaks everything–but hides invisibly in the news, the ghost in the machine.
I pulled off quickly into the blackness beside high weeds when a blue light flashed in the back windshield, close up, looking angry in the black velvet–but the state trooper only wanted to tell me the small bulb over my license plate was out–and maybe break the monotony way out there, for we chatted awhile, etched as silhouette cut-outs in the headlight glare beside black towers of swamp weeds. This threw me into full awareness of the night sounds. A cacophony of living things was screaming from the road ditches: a dampness full of frogs, bats, bugs, and presumably bigger things in pursuit. Something nearly as long as my hand kept trying to light on the trunk of my car in the headlight glare, with oblong gossamer wings and a strange brown tail curled under exo-skeleton segments, like a nightmare flying scorpion–though evidently it was harmless, bumping the car delicately, light-drunk–as the trooper and I jawboned about the border far ahead.
Here, less than two hours north of the international fault line rumbling in the news, he spoke vaguely–almost in awe–about the explosions in Mexico on the other side–as if recounting a terra incognita from legends, a Beyond, never to be seen by ordinary hobbits, out past the Mountains of Mordor. He was no redneck xenophobe but was himself Hispanic; the distance remained. Once I crossed over the international bridge at Brownsville, I asked him, how dangerous was it going to be driving on the myth-cloaked highway farther south, into the depths of near northern Mexico, through an area that had become (not to put too fine a point on it) massacre country.
That highway, like the one we were on, paralleled the steamy coast 20 miles or so inland, but with a different reputation. In a period of over a year in 2010-2011, Mexican Federal Highway 101 had been ravaged so often by gangs of gunmen–in a meltdown too anarchic for precise identifications–that it became the Highway of Death, a name that titillated news consumers as far away as Singapore.
But now it was September 2011. The Highway of Death, with its cooling massacre sites and excavated mass graves, had fallen out of the news. Did this mean I could risk driving it, at least by day?
The trooper could only describe a misty dreamscape: "You hear about the bombed-out vehicles on the side of the road, the ranches confiscated [by cartel thugs]," he said, but was only guessing. Later, even at the border itself, in conversations mostly or entirely in Spanish, people on the U.S. side of the line talked to me with the same vagueness and faint awe. This distancing can be seen along much of the border's 2,000-mile length: "I don't go over there any more, even to see family." You know in advance it probably isn't going to be as bad as the U.S.-side fantasies say, and that crusty retirees from Peoria still plunge down through Mexico in their Winnebagos, unharmed–but the point is the cleaving apart, the way the border has become a cliff, the Rio Grande a Styx, obviating updates from over there in the Great Darkness. This is the other kind of border fence, invisible, requiring no congressional approval: the post-millenial precipice at the gates, as the tumult laps past what was supposed to have been the buffer zone, and the drawbridge chain goes clanking up, as soundlessly as the seep of the humidity.
The real dangers are always a surprise. I got so pleased with the sound of my own voice that I talked to the trooper too long–while my car was left running. I had driven a thousand miles with never a peep from the heat gauge and didn't think how that accumulated stress had now collided with the unknown, hitting a geo-belt of damp air so thick that ordinary summer night temperatures could work black magic. Fifty miles down the road, as I was once again enclosed by dark solitude, the dashboard suddenly went crazy with red warnings, while steam–and not just figurative steam this time–poured from under the hood. The radiator hose had previously been dried out by two years in Arizona, and apparently now humid reversal was too much. For hours more I had to baby the car into Brownsville–a few miles at a time, repeatedly pulling over for long periods and letting the engine cool, then a few more creeping miles–just about all night–while in between sitting in the hot car with the night sounds coming in from the weeds, as I caught catnaps with the windows up (muggings do happen), and got to know desperation.
The car had a thermometer for outside temperatures and it wasn't a sweltering night–77 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, room temperature–but napping in a sealed space I learned quickly how large amounts of water in the air can change everything. Each time I drifted off to the edge of sleep the black velvet strangler swooped in, a murderer's pillow on my face, jerking me awake. I gave up and paced outside, hearing in the cacophony a strange little violin. Many people may not know–when they hear a peculiar tweeting on such soaked nights in those parts–that it's not a bird or a bat but the Rio Grande chirping frog, a tiny thing, seldom seen–making a plaintive sound as if asking a question, but creepily never specifying the request. A dream zone of bird-frogs and scorpion-bats rose around me out of half-sleep and stress, like the essence of the border, the edge of the known world.
The meltdown in Mexico hadn't come out of nowhere–but the origins were veiled, not seen originally as predictors. Their common denominator wasn't gang warfare but something vaguer–a gradual buildup of strange, non-combative disasters, seeping through a Mexico of growing crowds. In September 2003 the same roadside where I slept had watched the rumbling passage of a Kenworth tractor-trailer packed with over 70 illegal immigrants. The exact number was never known because an hour up the road the driver finally stopped, responding to screams and bumpings behind the cab–and, upon unlocking the trailer, found 19 people dead or dying, basically cooked–as the survivors leaped out past the horrified custodian, drenched in sweat, vomit and bodily fluids untold, to then flee into the drenched night. This was the Victoria Incident, named for Victoria, Texas, where the trailer was opened (and was left when the driver panicked at the sight, taking off in the uncoupled truck cab). The news of this incident, too, echoed around the world–but underneath, the Victoria case never seemed to make much sense.
The night had not been that hot–only about 78 degrees Fahrenheit, and though sealed into the trailer (an old refrigerator unit), the victims were not in there very long. How could they die?
You had to be there, meeting the frogs, to understand.
In the crowding that was catching up with Mexico almost imperceptibly in those days, a slightly lesser horror had occurred in the same Brownsville-Victoria stretch the year before, in 2002. Again, people-smugglers were getting too rushed, too heedless, too greedy, too prone to ignore the loose ends–and they shut eleven clients (seven men and four women) into a freight-train gondola used for hauling grain, planning to pull them out safely after only an hour–except that the Border Patrol showed up and the occupants went to Iowa–to be found there, as skeletons, months later when freight workers pried open the hatch.
This hardly seems the stuff of massacres–not like the later spectacles of 2010 and 2011 that I was going to investigate, the mass murders of dozens of people at a time by throngs of pistoleros, who weren’t doing it by accident. But the run-up was of a piece. Something had been growing that could never quite be identified–a pressure, a heedlessness and discontrol–the indefinable vapor of chaos–disastrously concrete only in its effects, invisible as the humid air.