U.S. Border Patrol agent Ramiro Cordero has spent nearly two decades working on the border in Texas, part of the El Paso sector team responsible for intercepting migrants and drug smugglers flowing in from Mexico.
On most Fridays, Cordero sheds his green uniform and gun belt, packs the bed of his tan F-150 pickup truck and sets off with his wife across the international bridge.
Weekends find him on his ranch in Moctezuma, deep in the state of Chihuahua, tending the pecan orchard, wrestling calves for branding or building a pit fire for freshly butchered pork barbacoa.
Cordero, 46, grew up in Mexico and hopes to retire there soon. He is one of a substantial group of border agents — more than half of whom are Latino — whose family connections are in Mexico, whose professional loyalty is to the United States, whose history straddles both sides of the border.
“It’s not unusual to see,” he says, naming at least four friends and family members from Ciudad Juarez, south of El Paso on the Mexican side of the border, who have joined U.S. federal law enforcement. “Border communities are very close. The ties are very, very close.”
America’s southwest border area has always been a land of its own, a place that is neither Mexican nor American, but a vibrant fusion of both.
But years of drug violence in northern Mexico and the political rift between the U.S. and Mexican governments have strained those ties — for some border residents, to the breaking point — making Cordero’s choice a bold one. It’s also evidence of the personal bridge-building some border residents must do to reconcile their American reality with their Mexican roots.
Cordero has always blended in well with the tough law enforcement culture here in El Paso sector.
He says he never removes the gold Border Patrol ring he wears on his right hand. He doesn’t favor leniency for migrants who cross the border illegally. His uniform, he says, must “always be pressed.” He prefers Fox News and supports President Trump, whose verbal attacks on Mexico have opened deep wounds among Mexicans.
But he grew up in Ciudad Juarez on a block of Avenida del Charro — Cowboy Avenue — near a rodeo arena less than a mile from the other side of the U.S. border. He moves fluidly between Spanish and English, knows the words to the ballads of beloved Mexican crooners Antonio Aguilar and Juan Gabriel and eats menudo religiously on Sundays.
So his dream for a new beginning at midlife, retiring to a ranch in Mexico, also represents a homecoming.
In many ways, Chihuahua is as much his home as Texas.
Cordero, a native of Arizona who moved to Mexico at a young age, began his career as a border agent in 2000. It was the year that illegal immigration from Mexico was peaking and the agency reported more than 1.6 million apprehensions at the Southwest border — a 50-year record that holds today.
Border communities are very close. The ties are very, very close.
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Ramiro Cordero
He patrolled the line east of El Paso before there was an 18-foot steel border fence, before Sept. 11, before agents routinely brought machine guns on day patrol, when he alone apprehended between 15 and 30 crossers per shift.
Both his nationality and his commitment to Border Patrol were questioned once, after his eldest brother, a former U.S. customs officer, pleaded guilty in 2010 to smuggling migrants illegally through an El Paso port of entry.
But Cordero was not implicated in his brother’s crime, and today, he crosses the border both ways with a SENTRI pass, for those known and trusted on both sides.
As Cordero approached the Zaragoza international bridge one recent Friday afternoon, his work cellphone rang.
“U.S. Border Patrol, can I help you?” he said into the phone. “¿Qué pasó, Brenda? Okay, mira, do me a favor. Shoot me an email with that. The only problem is that I won’t get back to it till Monday. Reason being, I’m getting ready to cross south.”
Mexico’s Highway 45 cuts through Ciudad Juarez — past maquila assembly factories and strip malls — until the city gives way to the Chihuahuan Desert.
The toll road is a major artery for goods headed north to the U.S. market, including auto parts and aerospace components. It’s also a key drug corridor.
About 120 miles south of El Paso, Cordero turned onto a dirt road twisting through mesquite and creosote and the half-abandoned pueblito of Moctezuma.
Rancho San Isidro stretches over 8,000 acres belonging to his father-in-law, Victor Cardona, who raises cattle and pigs. The sun was nearly gone behind a white curtain of rain in the west by the time Cordero and his wife, Claudia, arrived.
To the east, Cordero’s brother-in-law Miguel Cardona and two cowboys pushed some 60 head of Brangus cattle over a hill toward a corral where Cordero, ready to work, positioned himself to close the gate.
He waited with a Coors Light and a cigarette. The wind whipped up and the rain moved over the ranch. The storm poured a deafening shower on the tin roof of a carport and outdoor kitchen. Cordero, his in-laws and the cowboys drank more Coors and waited for the rain to pass.
“I think life is simpler here,” Cordero said. “Not that I wish I was in his shoes or his shoes,” nodding to the cowboys, as they did the muscular work of taking the hair off a slaughtered pig. “People live just a simple life. I truly envy that life. Here, what is there to worry about?”
One of the cowboys built Cordero’s house, and it still needs a coat of paint outside and tiles on the roof. It’s a do-it-yourself, one-story, three-bedroom home with tile floors, concrete counters and cabinets that hang a little cockeyed.
Now that the house is almost finished, he has several times invited his fellow agents to make the somewhat nerve-racking drive down the drug corridor highway to his little piece of paradise.
“Hardly anyone wants to come down,” he said.
The closest place to buy groceries and beer is Villa Ahumada, famous for its drive-in quesadilla joints, notorious for its role in the drug war.
In 2008, gunmen brutalized the town of 12,500 people, killing the police chief, two officers and three residents. The entire police force quit. In 2015, a Juarez Cartel leader was arrested with a semiautomatic rifle and $20,000 on him; when Mexican federal investigators searched his ranch, according to news reports, they found more high-powered weapons, ammo, numerous vehicles and two Bengal tigers.
In May, criminals sprayed a state building in Ahumada with bullets, killing one state police officer and wounding three others.
Since the era of extreme drug violence began in the early 2000s, Daniel Benavidez, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council union, said he hadn’t heard of any agents living in Mexico.
“They may well be targets if they did retire there,” he said.
The two most prominent attacks on U.S. agents in Mexico were the 1985 kidnapping, torture and murder of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, and the 2011 gunning down of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent Jaime Zapata.
But Cordero knows he has the power of two governments behind him.
“There has always been an understanding, even among the most dangerous criminals, that they should stay away from U.S. agents,” said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The few times something has happened, the U.S. and Mexican governments have responded with enormous force.”
Cordero also has the confidence of his own training. “You know, this is all I need,” he says, brandishing a large pocketknife. “If somebody is going to kidnap me, somebody’s going down with me. I’m not going down alone. And I am confident that I can probably disarm him and can have him eat his own rounds.”
Saturday began at 7 a.m., first light.
Cardona heated lard in a copper pot on a propane flame. He fried the pigskin to make crispy chicharrones — a side dish to the red cow-stomach menudo simmering inside the house. In-laws began arriving to celebrate the annual branding of the calves.
Cordero pulled some PVC pipe from the back of his truck and set about repairing the outdoor kitchen sink.
At noon, everyone headed over to the corral. Claudia found the branding irons, one for Cardona and each of his five children.
Cordero doesn’t rope. But when the cowboys had each calf by the hoof and neck, he watched for a chance to grab its underbelly with two hands and in one swift motion take it to the ground — knee on the neck, knee on the ribs, foreleg curled and secured.
Cordero got kicked multiple times, but took down all but two of the 15 calves, some weighing 400 pounds.
“He takes off his uniform, and he completely transforms,” Claudia said. “He tries to wrestle down the cows like they were criminals. It’s work but it’s not stress.”
After working from dawn till dark, Cordero, his in-laws and the cowboys and their families drank beer, danced banda and sang along to Mexican tunes.
“I mean, it’s strange, right?” Cardona said of his brother-in-law’s decision to make a home on the ranch. “People usually like to come for a weekend or a vacation. But he works like we do. He works like he belongs here.”
On Sunday, when the family was gone and the cleanup was done, Cordero and his wife packed the truck and said goodbye to Cardona and Claudia’s father.
Awaiting them at home were chores for the week ahead: shopping at Food King, making lunches of chicken and pasta alfredo from a packet, cleaning the backyard pool. Cordero would soon be back at the office, answering nonstop calls about border enforcement, drugs, illegal immigration.
At the end of the ranch road, Claudia made the sign of the cross. Cordero turned north.
Villagran is a special correspondent.