Special Report: Paying the Price

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MCALLEN - Right now smugglers are leading groups of people through the desolate land in Brooks County. They’re walking around the Border Patrol checkpoint “paying the price” to make the journey.

It often costs someone’s life savings. And others pay the price with their lives.

For many people who cross the border illegally through the Rio Grande Valley, Houston is the final destination.

“My oldest brother brought me to Houston,” Marcos Rivera said.

Rivera left his home country of Honduras 12 years ago. He was 16 at the time. “It was very hard. It took me 35 days to get here to Houston,” he said.

Rivera said his older brother was deported shortly after they arrived. He lives in a Houston neighborhood alone. He works as a painter and sends money back home.

“I’m the only support my family has because I’m the only one who lives in the United States,” Rivera said.

His family lives in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. His sister, Sylvia Rivera, worked as a bank manager there. He said violent street gangs would come to the bank every payday and demand half of her check.

If Sylvia didn’t pay, the gang members threatened to kill her children.

“Two months before she was coming here, the gangs killed one of my nieces in Honduras and that’s when I decided to help her escape because the gangs were asking for money,” Rivera recalled. He sold his vehicle to wire $7,000 to a smuggler. He said it was a small price to pay for his sister’s safety.

Rivera said his Houston neighborhood isn’t very safe. He said there’s a lot of crime, but it’s better than where his family lives in Honduras. He just wanted to bring his sister here for a better life, but now he regrets convincing her to come.

“The last time that I talked to her she was in McAllen, Texas. And I was talking to her for a long time and she told me, ‘Marcos it’s very, very hard. I just crossed the river and I was exhausted',” Rivera said.

Smugglers told Rivera his sister would have to walk for four to six hours around the Falfurrias checkpoint before being picked up to head to Houston.

The hours of walking turned into days.

Others in Sylvia’s group told Rivera what happened. They walked through the vast ranchland of Brooks County with his sister.

It was the middle of the summer with triple digit temperatures. On the fourth day of walking, Sylvia collapsed. Two men from Guatemala placed her under a tree to rest in the shade.

“They asked the smuggler how far they were from the pickup spot. They were going to be picked up on 201 in Falfurrias, Texas. The coyote told her it was 33 miles and she told him, ‘I’m not going to make it',” Rivera said. “The smuggler held a knife to her neck and told her, ‘It’s better for you to stay here because if you collapse ahead while walking with me, I’d prefer to just kill you so you don’t get eaten alive'.”

A Guatemalan woman named Raquel stayed with Sylvia as she slept.

Raquel said Sylvia woke up at nightfall and she began to vomit water. By the next afternoon, their gallon jugs were empty. No water was anywhere in sight.

Raquel left Sylvia under the tree.

“She said, ‘I need to start looking for help because if we stay here, we’re going to be eaten by animals. Nobody’s going to find us.’ The chopper was flying over and she was yelling and waving to them, but the helicopter never saw them,” Rivera said.

Raquel walked for two hours. She found an empty ranch house and spent the night there. The next day, two days after Sylvia collapsed, she came across a ranch hand.

“She found a rancher who told her, ‘I would like to help you but if you die on my hands, they are going to think I killed you.’ She said, ‘No sir please call Border Patrol.’ So he called Border Patrol and Border Patrol showed up,” Rivera said.

Raquel told Rivera she begged Border Patrol to go back for Sylvia.

“They just went in their vehicle and they were just driving in circles and one of them stepped out of the vehicle walking for five minutes in the brush, but he didn’t walk where she was,” Rivera said. “If he would have walked for 10 more minutes, maybe he would have found her. They didn’t let Raquel walk with them to assist in looking for my sister.”

Raquel was deported shortly after. She and Rivera are friends on Facebook.

A Guatemalan man who made it into the states contacted Rivera as well. He drew a map of the tree where Sylvia was left.

It showed a windmill not too far and a caliche road south of the tree. Rivera sent the map to the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias.

Eddie Canalaes works to find people who go missing in the brush. He said the area is somewhere on the Jones Ranch. It’s one of the largest in Brooks County.

Hundreds of water stations are placed all over the county to keep illegal crossers from dying. The landowners of the Jones Ranch don’t allow Canales to place water stations on their property.

“Just be careful where you step,” Canales said.

CHANNEL 5 NEWS was invited to check the different water stations with Canales on a different ranch. We came across evidence of traffic. “This one’s been here awhile,” he said.

Canales said it’s rare for loved ones of people reported missing to have an idea of the area they were left, yet alone a map.

“But somebody says well he was five minutes from Falfurrias, you know I have no clue. Five minutes from Falfurrias or five minutes from La Lagrita, you know the checkpoint,” Canales said. He said he did pass the map on to Border Patrol. Agents searched for Sylvia with no luck.

Canales wants to get the Texas Guard to a line search, but he needs permission from the landowners first. “The biggest obstacle is still access. You know having access and making sure that there’s access in terms of private property,” he said.

We tried to contact the owners of the Jones Ranch and were unsuccessful.

Sylvia is one of nearly 200 people reported missing in Brooks County in the past two years. Canales said all of those people have families holding on to hope they’ll be found alive or dead.

“I would like to know, for me to be at peace, and to talk to my family in Honduras and tell them what really happened,” Rivera said.

Rivera said if Sylvia’s remains are never found, he’ll always wonder whether she was kidnapped and forced into human trafficking. “And I feel a lot of remorse because I was trying to help her and I did wrong,” he said.

Rivera knows people in his home country will continue to pay smugglers, like the one who abandoned his sister, in an effort to make a better life. He wishes all of them knew what he knows now.

“The people who bring you here are high or on drugs and they threaten you. If you can’t walk, they kill you by leaving you behind for the animals to eat you,” Rivera said. “To tell the truth, it’s terrible to come to this country. We suffer a lot.”

Rivera is paying the price of his sister’s journey with guilty and regret.

In Brooks County, 38 bodies have been found so far this year; that’s more than 50 percent less than 2014.

Authorities in Brooks County attribute the drop in the number of deaths to increased enforcement along the river. They know people will continue to slip through the cracks. Some will die trying to make it north of the checkpoint.

Families north and south of the border will continue to pay the price for the lives lost.