CULBERSON COUNTY, TX – Culberson County is one of the Lone Star State's largest. It's three times the size of Rhode Island, and has just several thousand residents. Sheriff Oscar Carrillo knows why the drug cartels have begun to exploit it.
"It's all about geography," Carrillo said.
Culberson's border proximity and interstate highway make the county a destination route for both human and drug smuggling.
"We've got Mexico on the south end of the county. We have New Mexico on the north end of the county. We've got major corridors coming through here," Sheriff Carrillo explained.
Culberson County has treacherous terrain. It's hot, there are wild animals, and it's remote, which is why it's become so popular with the cartels.
CBN News rode with Sheriff Carrillo to find out what makes the journey so dangerous. The migrants, often young men who've paid smugglers thousands of dollars, are typically dropped off at the Rio Grande River. They are told to walk what could be days to a designated pick-up spot along a highway.
"They have no clue where they're at. They have no GPS. They have no compasses. They have no flashlight," Carrillo said.
Those kind of situations lead hundreds to die near the US-Mexico border each year. In Culberson in 2021, the sheriff recovered 30 bodies – up from the normal one or two. The main culprits are heat and dehydration. The day we joined him, a call came in for another. This one was some 20 miles from Van Horn, the county seat.
The body had likely been in the wilderness for several days. It was identified as a male who was born in 1994. Because he had identification, the hope is that authorities will be able to easily connect with family.
State law obligates the sheriff to investigate all deaths. That means examining the body and personal effects. This young man had a Crucifix and had left behind a written prayer. Working with Border Patrol, Carrillo and his deputy transferred the body to an ambulance. The body will be autopsied, and his family in Guatemala notified.
"It's really an index of desperation," Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute, says of such deaths. He sees various reasons these migrants attempt the dangerous journeys. Worldwide, migration is up dramatically, thanks in part to the impact of the COVID pandemic. Economics and danger at home also push migrants to leave.
"It's not simply that people are coming seeking a better life. It's also that people in many cases are seeking just a bare life. A bare existence," Corbett says.
He adds that the broken US asylum system is often driving migrants straight to the cartels.
"If people need to cross, they'll work with less than savory folks to make it happen and that involves criminals. That involves human smugglers, and sometimes those folks are also connected to cartels," he said.
Sheriff Carrillo sees the smuggling throughout his county – people crammed into vehicles or waiting on a highway for a pick-up that often doesn't come. Their debris – water bottles, clothing, and backpacks – can be found along the road and off in the scrub. He's also beginning to see them in town.
"When they get to this area, they're out of money. They're out of water. Their plan has fallen apart," Carrillo said.
Border Patrol has seen it, too. The agency has installed rescue beacons and 911 signs hoping to provide medical help before it's too late.
Still, with the numbers of both deaths and apprehensions climbing, and questions swirling around Title 42, Carrillo is not optimistic.
"We see the writing on the wall," he said. "We're experiencing it now and we're anticipating a big increase."
That could mean a very busy summer for the sheriff, his deputies, and all law enforcement here.