Murder on the Pipelines: Drug Cartels Turn Texas Oil Routes Into Killing Zones

By Joe Carroll July 23, 2014

Ranchers and farmers aren’t the only ones in danger. Oilfield workers fear assault, or worse, from smuggling gangs that can demand money, valuable drilling gear, or the keys to their vehicles. Weatherford International (WFT), a Swiss company that helps oil explorers drill wells and hook them up to pipelines, warned crews in south Texas as far back as 2010 to be wary, especially when traveling state highway FM 755. A Weatherford pamphlet at the time called the road “a main corridor for drug and human trafficking.” The road cuts through the county in which the Vickers and Osburn reside.

The Tepeguaje Ranch includes an idyllic, shady hunting camp that can accommodate about a dozen lodgers. Osburn worries that the rising tide of violence along the smuggling routes will scare off deer and dove hunters, who pay big money to lease the ranch for a few weeks a year. Hunting leases are a major source of income for ranch owners in this part of south Texas, especially after a multiyear drought made it tougher to raise cattle.

With oil explorers expected to drill tens of thousands of wells in the Eagle Ford over the next decade, smugglers’ travel options will only increase, says Border Patrol Agent Robert Fuentes, a Chicago native stationed 20 miles from Mexico. Every rig site needs a new road carved out of the clay to make way for equipment and crews, and the opening of Mexico to foreign explorers from the U.S. and elsewhere will mean many more roads.

Photograph by Eddie Seal/Bloomberg
U.S. Border Patrol agents work on horseback in a field near Carrizzo Springs, Texas on July 3

For the time being, a struggle for dominance among cartels on the Mexican side of the border has caused the amount of marijuana moving into the U.S. to dip, says Chief Patrol Agent Rodolfo Karsich. But while the drug lords have diverted manpower and resources to combat rivals, the carnage along the pipelines continues unabated. It’s gotten so bad around Vickers’s ranch and the nearby town of Falfurrias that the region was singled out for special mention in a state-commissioned study of the border situation by retired U.S. Army General Barry McCaffrey and retired Major General Robert Scales: “Decaying human remains litter the landscape.”

Eighty miles southeast of Fuentes’s outpost, currency shops with gaudy, flashing signs touting peso-to-dollar exchange rates dot the streets of Laredo, Tex., close to the international bridge coming from Mexico. Sandy Leyendecker, who operates an animal hospital in this arid border city of a quarter-million people, lives on a 650-acre ranch 45 minutes outside of town.

Leyendecker moved to the ranch in 2003 after a divorce. She keeps 20 head of cattle, though her real passion is breeding whitetail deer and black bucks. So far, she’s been lucky. She has never come across a human body on her land, with damage limited to wrecked fencing and lots of trash.

Photograph by Eddie Seal/Bloomberg
A dirt road runs along a barbed wire fence on Dr. Michael Vickers' ranch located south of Falfurrias, Texas on July 3

Still, the cartels that oversee the smuggling routes frighten her. “You can’t get out here without a weapon,” she says.

During a ride around the ranch, she keeps a rifle on the dashboard of her truck, with nine bullets stuck into a Velcro sleeve on the butt.

Leyendecker says three separate paths run though her land, including an electricity transmission line that stretches from the Rio Grande to San Antonio. Each is favored by a separate coyote. A fourth smuggling route is likely to open as soon as the intruders notice a pipeline that was installed a few months ago to connect a neighbor’s natural gas wells to a larger conduit. ”They haven’t found it yet,” she says. “But they will.”