While today’s headlines might be about kids being separated from their parents at the border, Francisco found a lot of his work was working against drug cartels from heavily populated cities on the Mexican side of the border. Picture: Jae C. Hong / AP
While today’s headlines might be about kids being separated from their parents at the border, Francisco found a lot of his work was working against drug cartels from heavily populated cities on the Mexican side of the border. Picture: Jae C. Hong / AP

Scary reality of ‘vampire village’

FRANCISCO Cantu grew up on the Mexican border in the scrublands of the south west United States. Influenced about what he saw as a child, he took a Border Patrol job in his early 20s. But he soon found chasing drug lords and people smugglers across the border never quite resulted in the justice he was looking for.

Below is an extract from his memoir The Line Becomes a River, detailing just how dangerous, yet ultimately, powerless his role was.


DRIVING along a small dirt road through the reservation, I was waved down by a man in a passing car. We each pulled over on the side of the road and exited our vehicles to talk. The man was tall with long hair and he stared into the distance as he spoke.

He introduced himself as Adam, telling me he lived in a nearby village with his family, a place agents referred to as the "vampire village".

He told me that strange vehicles had been passing through the village, vehicles he didn't recognise as belonging to any of the residents.

"It's a small place," he said.

"Only us Indians have any reason to visit. People don't pass through unless they're from there, unless they have family there or something."

Adam's wife stepped out of the car and joined us at the side of the road. She stood close to her husband and kept her hands in her pockets except to sweep back the hair from her face. She began to speak to me slowly, as if measuring her words.

"This morning," she said, "just after Adam left for work, a group of men came to our door.

I was alone - it was just me and my son."

She gestured at their car and her hand trembled in the air. Their son sat alone in the back seat, playing with a misshapen toy figurine. The boy wore glasses like his father and as I glanced at him I noticed how his body would occasionally seize as if struggling to contain some inner terror. Suddenly the boy began to thrash his head and then he looked out the window at us, his eyes magnified by his thick lenses, his mouth open wide as if shrieking in pain.

"The men at the door asked me for water," Adam's wife continued, "but they weren't wearing backpacks, they didn't look like normal crossers."

Francisco soon realised his limited scope as a Border Patrol agent, and began questioning just how much he could actually achieve. Picture: Ross D Franklin / AP
Francisco soon realised his limited scope as a Border Patrol agent, and began questioning just how much he could actually achieve. Picture: Ross D Franklin / AP

"How do you mean?" I asked.

"We live twenty miles from the border," she explained.

"Lost migrants pass through all the time. But these men were different, they didn't seem lost. They weren't tired, they weren't afraid, you know? They were wearing camouflage pants and they didn't have backpacks. They always have backpacks.

"You know, whenever people come to our door," she continued, "we give them water and we call the Border Patrol right away and they always just sit there, waiting to get picked up.

"They just want out of the desert. But these men got upset when I said I was calling Border Patrol. 'You better not,' they said. Then they demanded food and more water.

"I didn't feel like I had a choice, so I gave them what they wanted and they took it with them back into the desert."

"We've had break-ins before," Adam said. "While we were away. They rummage through the house, you know, like they're looking for guns or something. They leave things a mess, but all they ever take is food. And they leave the water running, they always leave the water running."

Adam's wife looked down at her feet and continued her story.

"Later that morning," she said, "I heard these noises from out in the desert, like big branches were being snapped in half or something. It was so loud it woke my boy. A couple hours after that I watched through the window as this mini-van drove into town past our house and parked next to the church. It looked like it had broke down - there was smoke coming up from under the hood and everything.

"Two men got out, a Mexican and an Indian, and they started going through the village from door-to-door. That's when I called Adam at work."

"I told her to lock up the house," Adam said. "To put the blinds down and wait for me to get home. We've never seen that van before, you know. It's still parked there, right in front of the church."

I looked at Adam and his wife. "I'll go take a look at the van and run its records," I finally said. "If you give me your number, I'll let you know if I find anything."

Soon after Adam and his wife drove off, I stopped a slow-moving vehicle with three occupants driving north from the village. The driver was Mexican and had a shaved head and a cold look about him. He was covered in tattoos, with two teardrops inked at the corner of his left eye. Next to him, a drunk and toothless man swayed in the passenger seat. I asked the man his name and he told me I could call him Michael Jackson. Everyone in the car burst out laughing. "Just kidding," he said, "I'm an Indian." Everyone laughed again, even harder.

I asked the woman in the back seat for her ID, and when she reached for her purse I stopped her. "There better not be any weapons in there," I said. She looked at me and began to laugh and everyone else laughed too, louder than before, in a way that made me sick.

I called in their records and was informed by dispatch that the drunk man had a warrant from the county sheriff for drug smuggling. I told dispatch that the man was a tribal member, and asked for assistance from the tribal police.

Back at the car I asked the drunk man to step outside and I escorted him to my patrol vehicle. "There's a warrant for your arrest," I told him. "Oh," he said, "that's okay."

"I'm going to handcuff you and place you in the back of my vehicle until we get it sorted out, do you understand?"

"That's okay," he said, swaying. I shut the man in the back seat and watched him double over and begin to weep.

I walked back to the car and asked the driver for consent to search the vehicle. The man glared at me. "Listen a**hole," I said. "You can stare at me all you want, but your buddy's smuggling warrant gives me probable cause to search this vehicle with or without your consent."

The man shrugged his shoulders. "The car's hers," he said, nodding to the woman in the back seat. "I don't give a sh*t what you do."

I ordered the man to step outside for a pat-down and the woman began laughing to herself. The driver stared glassy-eyed into the distance as he spread his legs and leaned with his arms splayed against the vehicle. As I pulled a knife from his pocket, I looked up to see his gaze fixed on the distant dust cloud of an approaching police truck.

The tribal police officer, barely 19 years old, stood at the edge of the road with the tattooed man and the laughing woman as I searched their vehicle. After the search yielded no results, I walked over to the man and threw him the keys to the car. "Be on your way," I told him. "Michael Jackson stays with us."

The woman shuffled back to the car and the man smirked at me, a glint in his eye. As the car slowly made its way up the road, I asked the tribal officer what would happen to the drunk man. "Well sir," he told me. "I just got word from my supervisor that his warrant is non-extraditable outside of county jurisdiction. He's lucky you stopped him on the res."

I shook my head. The officer shrugged. "But since he's drunk as hell I'll take him back to the station until he sobers up or someone comes to get him, whichever comes first."

It was dark when I finally drove down the dirt road that led to the vampire village. The place seemed abandoned and I saw no lights except for a lamp hanging in front of the old adobe church.

The mini-van that Adam's wife had mentioned was still there, covered in dust and surrounded by foot sign. I called dispatch to run the plates and the VIN, but the records came back clean.

Through the heavily tinted windows I could see that the back seats had been removed. The inside was covered in dirt and strewn with burlap twine and empty water jugs.

There were two spare tires and an extra car battery and patch kits and cans of Fix-A-Flat scattered across the floor. I followed the vehicle's tire sign through the empty village to the two-track that passed by Adam's house.

In the desert beyond the house I saw several places where brush had been run over and tree branches had been broken to make way for the vehicle's passage. At the end of the two-track, the tire sign turned into the open desert and the ground became rocky and hard to cut.

I inspected the ground for toe digs and kicked-over rocks with my flashlight and scanned the tangled scrub at the edge of the wash for blackened water jugs and spray-painted bundles. I stopped walking and turned off my light to listen.

I knew that the men in camouflage were out in the desert. I knew that they had emptied the broken down van and brushed their load up in some nearby wash or thicket, that they were waiting for the right time to move it again, to load it into some other disposable stripped-down vehicle. And I knew, finally, that I would not find them.

Children play together on the Mexican side of the U.S./Mexican border fence on June 22, 2018 in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Picture: Joe Raedle
Children play together on the Mexican side of the U.S./Mexican border fence on June 22, 2018 in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Picture: Joe Raedle

Before driving back to the station, I called Adam at the number he had given me earlier in the day. He was home and I could hear his son crying in the background. I told him that the van's records had come back clean, that I had followed the two-track south of his home and hadn't found anything.

I told him that he should call the station if the men came back to the house or if he heard any more strange sounds coming from the desert. He was silent for a moment and then he thanked me.

I could hear the muffled voice of his wife and I knew she was still afraid, and I began to wonder if I was doing them some grave disservice, if I should tell them that I had seen the men from the van, that they were still out there and that the men in camouflage were still out there too, and that they would all come back, that they would forever remember the location of Adam's home, that they would not forget his wife and her suspicion.

I wanted to tell him to take his young family and move somewhere new, somewhere far from the border, somewhere where his home would not be at the remote crossroads of drug routes and smuggling corridors. I stared out the windshield as I thought of what to say.

Finally, I asked Adam why everyone called his village the vampire village. He thought for several seconds and then said he didn't know. He chuckled at first and then he began to laugh and I laughed too because I wasn't sure what else to do. I laughed and kept the phone to my ear, waiting for him to say something more.

Francisco Cantu’s memoir is available now.
Francisco Cantu’s memoir is available now.

- The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu, published by Penguin Random House is available now priced $29.99.

- For more information on Francisco Cantu, follow him on Twitter @_franciscocantu

VOTE NOW: Help choose the Clarence’s cutest toddler

Premium Content VOTE NOW: Help choose the Clarence’s cutest toddler

Vote now to choose the cutest toddler in the Clarence

Daily Catch-up: October 2, 2020

Premium Content Daily Catch-up: October 2, 2020

Today's local fuel, weather, funeral, and other notices in one place

IN COURT: Eight people facing Grafton court today

Premium Content IN COURT: Eight people facing Grafton court today

Find out who's appearing in criminal court today