The Shadow Catcher: A U.S. Agent Infiltrates Mexico’s Deadly Crime Cartels
Moderator: Sergio Troncoso
Born to Mexican-American migrant workers, our country's immigration woes tug at Hipolito Acosta's heart. As an undercover federal agent, he spent years infiltrating drug- and human-smuggling rings and saw firsthand what many migrants face coming to the U.S. He recalls sucking down exhaust fumes when coyotes crammed him and a South American child into the back of an old, beat up Chevy Nova. Smugglers packed him into the back of a U-Haul with immigrants, traveling thousands of miles with little food or water. He chronicles the experiences his first book, The Shadow Catcher. 10-10:45 a.m., Navarro Classroom, Navarro Campus.
Interview with Hipolito Acosta
By Michael Barajas
Can you briefly talk about your history, how you rose through Border Patrol and INS to start leading these undercover operations?
I was born in West Texas, and I grew up in a small town by the name of Redford. I come from a large family. We had a small farm there, but we traveled up in the farm fields, going north. We made our rounds every year, which was very common back then.
You write that it was a sort of a typical Mexican-American migrant farmworker family.
Yes, exactly. I grew up right along the U.S.-Mexico border. I graduated high school when I was 15. I don't know if I was real smart or if they just wanted to kick me out. It was an interesting time. I joined the Navy when I was 17, spent four years in the Navy. I got out and ultimately joined the U.S. Border Patrol in Marfa, Texas. Then after a year I kind of wanted a little more action, I wanted a different flavor in law enforcement. I had gotten into a smuggling case there in Marfa that I found very interesting and I wanted to pursue criminal investigations going after smugglers. I took a position in Chicago, transferred up there, and I spent a good portion of time, some five or six years, up there. That's where my criminal investigative career really took off.
This first book deals with an early part of my career with a small number of cases that I did back then. I'm hoping to have another book come out in the future to cover other parts of my career.
You write about these tense situations, like when you were smuggled by coyotes. What's the most dangerous or tenuous situation that you recall?
One of the things that surprised me early in my career was crossing the river. When I'd sneak back into the U.S. from Juárez, although I was a young agent in real good shape, I wasn't really expecting the waters of the Rio Grande there to be so strong. I felt myself being pulled by the currents, and that was a kind of panicking feeling. The other thing was when I got smuggled from Tijuana to San Diego and ultimately to Los Angeles. I got placed in the trunk of a 1968 Chevy Nova. That was a very difficult situation, because I didn't have any control over where I was headed. I had no control over the vehicle. I couldn't even see where I was going. You might recall there's this master counterfeiter by the name of Newton Van Drunen that's mentioned in the book. The second time that I arrested him in November 1981, his driver took off trying to evade arrest, and I was in his way. I got hit, and I got dragged about 30 yards by the car. It injured my back, and it's something I've suffered all my life with.
I recall something about you being in a Juárez jail?
I was working a case on a smuggler by the name of Carlos Dominguez. And I had actually led the arrest of nine of his drivers the day before in El Paso. I ended up going back into Juárez because Carlos Dominguez hadn't come across. I took a chance and met up with him and got back into his confidence. Ultimately we went to do a heroin deal with individuals that turned out to be Mexican cops. Me and another agent were arrested with Carlos Dominguez and his guys and put in a Mexican jail there in Ciudad Juárez. We were actually placed in the same cell with Carlos Dominguez and all his cohorts, and while we were in there the officials decided to tell them that we were agents of the American government. Of course, that created a lot of tension inside the jail. I had a good feeling that if we did not get ourselves out of that particular situation – well, things were getting real tense because Carlos Dominguez was being encouraged by all the people with him to pounce on us inside the jail. There were quite a few of them, and just two of us.
The guards blew me off. But I finally talked to the guy in charge of the jail that night. I said, “You know what's gonna happen if you keep me in this jail in the same cell. They're gonna beat us to death.” I told him, “If we get killed inside the jail, it's gonna be on you. It's gonna be big problems for you.” He basically told me I could go to hell. And so they put me back in the cell briefly, but apparently he listened. A little while later, we got placed in a different cell, away from those guys that wanted to kill us.
The book suggests the US conducted these various undercover operations without the knowledge or blessing of the local authorities. What was the reaction of the Mexican government when they found out?
Well, we're talking about a different era. Certainly things were sensitive. We respect the sovereignty of Mexico, but we also realized that there was a lot of activity that was ongoing and that officials in Mexico knew what was going on. There was a lot of them that participated in those activities, whether narcotics trafficking or human smuggling. It wasn't a secret. So, in many situations, I wasn't going to inform the Mexican authorities that we were working in Mexico. And I understand that there's a lot of sensitivity in doing that. The incident of me being arrested in Ciudad Juárez reached the level of the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City. But they were able to work it out quietly. If that incident happened today, I think it would be huge. The Mexican government and their representatives are very sensitive about their sovereignty, very concerned about it. In my experience, though, they often used it as a way to stop our investigations.
What's the difference between coyotes, smugglers, and how they operated back when you were working and now?
Well, there were parallels back then with human smuggling and narcotics trafficking. There was some overlap between human smuggling and drug trafficking. There was a sharing of guides – a guide that smuggles in people usually wasn't gonna refuse to carry some dope – and there was a sharing of stash houses. But the cartel control wasn’t so pervasive back then. Human smuggling is now almost completely controlled by the drug traffickers, the cartels. Back then there was some separation. There's a lot of violence now associated with narcotics, and that has in turn carried over into human smuggling. Certainly, human smuggling was dangerous back then. But now, you see what happened last year, with the massacre of 70 or so Central and South Americans in Matamoros, people supposedly kidnapped by the cartels and massacred. I understand in southern Mexico, human smugglers don't move without paying off the cartels that control those areas as well. There's a lot more control, and a lot more violence. That's not to say there wasn’t violence back then. But it wasn't like it is now.
Some of the more poignant parts of your book deal with your emotional reaction to being smuggled alongside immigrants, particularly children. How did that affect you?
I grew up on the border, so I had a lot of interaction with people that came from Mexico. But then to be an officer for U.S. Immigration, and to be in the back of a U-Haul, or to be in a small hotel room in Ciudad Juárez where people are talking about their dreams, their aspirations – you might recall this kid I wrote about in Ciudad Juárez that said when he got to the United States he was gonna join the U.S. military because he would be wiling to give up his life for what he saw in the United States. That's real strong talk. Then to see a six-year-old bouncing around with you in the back of a U-Haul talking about being able to go to school, learn English, that kind of stuff, it's heavy. Maybe it's my nature, but when you see something like that, it hits you. But at the same time, I was an agent. I knew that at the end of the day, when we got up to Chicago, I was gonna have to arrest them.
There's a lot of mixed emotions there. There was never any question of what my responsibility was as an agent. But at the same time, I had strong feelings for those people.
In retrospect, is there any sort of emotional conflict now that you don't shoulder that responsibility as an agent?
Well, I took the oath, I knew what my responsibilities were. I don't get to decide which laws to enforce, or get to change them. But those were people seeking a better way of life, for the most part. There were definitely times when I arrested individuals and I wished them well. I knew they were merely seeking a better way of life.
What needs to be done to fix the immigration system?
Well, that would take us at least two beers to get through. But, honestly, and I'm pretty upfront about this, when people talk about a broken immigration system, I get tired of the little clichés that are used. Like, saying we won't do anything until the border is secure. Those are catch-all phrases that, in my view, just avoid really looking at the problem. We increased our border security immensely. When I came in, we had 1,800 agents throughout the country. Now we have more than 20,000. People are still coming in because they can get hired by businesses [here]. When we talk about a broken immigration system, what we've had is broken leadership. We have let this problem happen by neglecting the issue. We increased border security, but no interior enforcement to enforce the law for employers to actually be held accountable to. Corporations throughout the U.S. hired countless undocumented people and got away with it. We've gone from the early 2000s, where we had 2 or 3 million undocumented immigrants living here, where we've increased border security and yet we have anywhere from 10 to 15 million undocumented immigrants. How can we say we're not going to take some type of action until we secure the border? We added thousands of agents in the meantime.
So, what do we do now? The bottom line is we have to be realistic. We're not gonna deport 10, 12 million people. We need to know who's here, and come up with a reasonable solution to get them out of the shadows. The only practical solution is going to be coming up with some way to identify the folks, getting them in a situation where they can obtain documents to work, and hopefully prevent us from having the same situation 10, 20 years down the road.