Heavy Traffic

Border drug lords get rich while attorney Mike Barclay gets worn out defending the poor smugglers

 Rogelio Sanchez Brito drove his red Ford pickup south to the Millennium Hotel in the Mexican border town of Ojinaga, where he turned it over to a man he'd never before seen. Brito, young and nervous, waited at the hotel for two days before his truck was returned, loaded with 300 pounds of marijuana hidden in its tires and beneath the floorboards in tape-wrapped bundles. For his first attempt at smuggling drugs and delivering them to a dealer in Odessa, Texas, he was to earn $4,000. Had it not been for a drug-sniffing dog named Rufus, he might have made it.


The desert is cool on most starlit summer evenings in the Texas Trans Pecos. The open, vast valleys feed the breezes that are but one of many pastoral qualities in the Alpine-Marathon-Marfa-Presidio region. This area just north of the Tex-Mex border is peaceful and isolated, the nearest Wal-Mart 80 miles away in Fort Stockton, the closest shopping mall a three-hour drive to Odessa.

To the immediate south, however, another world, dangerous and deadly, thrives. On the border, away from the serenity and soft city lights, it is dirty business as usual.

Mike Barclay came to the Tex-Mex border to retire but instead has found new passion in defending "mules" and "coyotes."
Gail Diane Yovanovich
Mike Barclay came to the Tex-Mex border to retire but instead has found new passion in defending "mules" and "coyotes."
Seventeen immigrants were found in this poorly painted Ryder truck about nine miles west of Pecos.
Jon Fulbright/ Pecos Enterprise
Seventeen immigrants were found in this poorly painted Ryder truck about nine miles west of Pecos.

Along the Rio Grande River, which marks the winding line separating the United States and Mexico, smugglers of drugs and illegal aliens are on parade.

On this night alone, local Border Patrol and Drug Enforcement Administration officials make six drug seizures and arrest 42 undocumented immigrants. They confiscate 1,340 pounds of marijuana, two and a half pounds of cocaine and one loaded pistol. A few miles away, fellow agents attempt to stop four alien "backpackers"--smugglers who walk drugs across the river and into Texas--but they disappear into the rugged foothills and avoid capture, leaving behind 400 pounds of marijuana. At a checkpoint near Presidio, 12 additional drug smugglers are taken into custody.

A few nights earlier, agents stop a suspicious-looking moving van just west of Pecos and, after removing a wall of furniture stacked in the rear, find 17 undocumented immigrants--men, women and several children--who were to be delivered to a "stash house" drop-off in Dallas. In the truck, agents found just two gallons of water for the dangerous two-day trip.

Despite the collective efforts of the region's law enforcement--Border Patrol, Customs, DEA, U.S. marshals, park rangers, local sheriff's and police departments--the illegal flow continues along the 420 miles of border they are assigned to watch over.

"We aren't stopping it," says Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson. "On the best of days we might just slow it down a little. If someone tries to tell you the situation is getting better, he's blowing smoke. Actually, most of what we catch is by accident."

Dodson and his six deputies patrol the state's largest county. Stretching across 6,128 square miles, it is roughly the size of the state of New Hampshire. The official assignment of DEA agents stationed in the region is to "disrupt and dismantle." Mostly they can only disrupt. There is too much money, too many smugglers and too much rugged geography involved.

At the federal courthouse in Pecos, the Western District docket is so crammed that visiting judges from New York, Vermont and Mississippi have been asked to help with the caseload. The 90-bed Pecos jail stays filled to capacity while detention hearings, arraignments, indictments, jury trials and plea bargains drone on in nearby courtrooms. Records for the past three years indicate that no fewer than 500 criminal cases, the majority of them smuggling-related, are filed in Pecos annually.

"I was on the bench there for eight years," says U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson, who now presides in San Antonio, "and by the time I was ready to leave, I thought I'd put everybody in the world in jail. Truth is, I hardly made a dent."

Mike Barclay knows well that sense of hopelessness. Barclay, an Alpine-based defense attorney, has lost track of the number of traffickers he's represented since moving his practice from Dallas in the early '80s. He is quite familiar with the smugglers' determination. "The situation," he says, "is not getting better--and it won't get any better."

Barclay, 73, came here to ease into retirement, weary of the urban life and the violent crimes he was hired to defend. Today, however, there is little leisure time for the colorful, gifted litigator who many now refer to as "the dean of West Texas trial lawyers." It is not unusual for him to have as many as a dozen cases at a time on the always-crowded Pecos court docket.

Nevertheless, Barclay throws himself into each case, passionately working for his clients--most of whom are demonized by the press and public, as they are integral parts of the drug trade.

Barclay defends the middlemen who are the nightly targets of the Trans Pecos law enforcement agents, the "mules" who transport the drugs and the "coyotes" who move human cargo from abject Mexico poverty to the promise of minimum-wage jobs in the United States. While the drug lords and slave traders wait safely on their ranches and in plush villas, counting their money, and the U.S. dealers ply their trade in hiding, the smugglers are the high-risk takers, usually desperate and destitute men from the poverty-stricken Mexican border towns.

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