BY GABE SEMENZA – GSEMENZA@VICAD.COM
Houston’s Erika Mendez will never listen to her father sing again. She’ll never watch him dance and smile, or cradle her mother during family celebrations.
Pedro Mendez died Jan. 2, 2008, during the worst bus crash in Victoria County history – a revealing rollover that injured 46 others. The father of five was 57.
“Every time I see a bus I remember that day,” said Erika Mendez, 28, during an interview in downtown Houston.
The bus crashed only a half-mile from where 19 illegal immigrants suffocated to death on U.S. Highway 59.
The wreck revealed other troubling facets to the Fatal Funnel, the oft-dangerous South Texas stretch formed by two highways – U.S. highways 59 and 77 – that lead from Mexico through Victoria.
Only after a bus crashed were these lingering dangers understood. Lax regulation, insufficient border staff and a legal loophole allowed the bus – built to sub-par standards – into Texas. A deeper look shows other mom-and-pop buses also are used as fronts for drug and human smuggling rings.
At 7:15 p.m. Jan. 1, 2008, the bus left Monterrey, Mexico, later passed through the Laredo checkpoint and crashed at 4:15 a.m. Jan. 2 in southeast Victoria County.
Mendez died. Carlos Rodriguez, a 56-year-old Victoria man, and 45 others suffered injuries ranging from severed limbs to road abrasions.
The bus, a 2005 Volvo owned by Houston-based Capricorn Bus Lines, should not have gained entry to Texas highways.
Built in Mexico, the Volvo didn’t meet U.S. safety standards. The narrow wheelbase and weak window design, for starters, made the early-morning rollover a disaster. When the bus tipped, passengers were ejected through unsafe glass.
“Before the Victoria crash, no one realized these vehicles did not comply with U.S. safety standards,” said Debbie Hersman, a National Traffic Safety Board investigator who studied the crash.
The bus lacked Texas registration. The Texas Department of Public Safety cited the company a dozen times for this leading to the crash.
‘A scam on the traveling public’
Federal investigators found bus owners bypassed registering the bus in Texas, which requires inspections that can reveal manufacturing flaws, by doing so in California. This West Coast state offers an easier road to registration.
With California paperwork in hand, the bus owners operated in Texas, which recognizes registration from other border states. Later, the company swapped its California registration for Texas registration.
“I would call it a scam on the traveling public,” said Jim Cole, a local lawyer who represented Rodriguez, Victoria’s sole victim.
At least 22 other bus companies gained access to Texas highways by using similar methods, Hersman said.
Evidence exists many more buses did the same.
The Dallas man, unnamed in federal documents, who helped Capricorn Bus Lines obtain California registration helped many others – as many as 50,
according to Hersman’s investigation.
While the bus that crashed in Victoria is sidelined, Capricorn still operates at least one other bus imported from Mexico and registered in California, according to federal documents.
The company purchased three other Mexican buses from 2006 to 2007. While the company maintains the buses are no longer in use, Hersman can’t
verify the claim and doesn’t know how rampant the problem is.
“We know about this bus only because it was involved in an accident,”she said.
The bus that crashed in Victoria first passed Laredo, the busiest checkpoint in the United States. More than 3,000 buses cross north there each month.
But only two federal inspectors, who examine buses, in part, for mechanical problems, are stationed there. When the Capricorn bus crossed in January 2008, federal inspectors were absent.
The Laredo checkpoint is incapable of inspecting all buses during high-traffic periods, federal investigators found.
The checkpoint lacks permanent Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration inspectors, a permanent facility and a ramp by which to properly inspect the undercarriage of buses. Inspectors work out of a converted RV.
Even so, bus companies sidestep safety and legal monitoring by frequently changing their names and paint color, which makes the job of tracking unsafe buses even more difficult.
The Bush Administration killed a 2002 proposal that would have required buses to display labels that ensure they are built to proper standards. Thus, federal inspectors at the border can’t determine if buses entering the country are fully safe.
Passengers are similarly left in the dark.
‘What can you do?’
Dozens of passengers boarded international buses – some headed to Houston and others to Mexico – at a busy makeshift terminal outside a Refugio
restaurant early this month.
“If something is going to happen, it’s going to happen,” said Amparo Martinez, 63. “I’ve never had a problem on a bus.”
Martinez, like every passenger interviewed, spoke only Spanish. He uses the mom-and-pop bus system because of ticket price – $40 instead of $80,
the amount charged by established companies.
Martinez traveled from Monterrey to Houston. Jovita Avila, 55, traveled to Mexico.
“Once a month, I go see my aunt. She has cancer,” Avila said. “Everybody knows about the crash. What can you do? We just try to take care of each
Buses cause Avila slight concern, she said, but certain drivers worry her.
The federal government fails to adequately screen bus drivers, said Cole, the Victoria lawyer.
Roberto Cruz, a 42-year-old Houston bus driver, fell asleep at the wheel during the January 2008 crash. Federal inspectors are charged with checking for driver fatigue at the border.
Cruz’s driving history is alarming. His convictions, according to state documents, include:
Driving under the influence – three times Traffic accidents – four times
Following too close
None of Cruz’s convictions – from September 1991 to November 2000 – occurred in a commercial vehicle. He obtained his commercial driver’s license in 2007.
Cruz could legally drive a bus because a federal statute, passed to disqualify drivers with troublesome histories, did not become effective until after his convictions, and the statute is not retroactive.
For his part in the crash, Cruz received a driver fatigued charge and a commercial driver’s license violation for driving a bus into Mexico. His license restricts him to intrastate travel.
While Cruz no longer works for Capricorn Bus Lines, according to the company, he still possesses a license to drive a bus. It’s unknown whether Cruz drives today for another company.
Drug and human smuggling
Buses crossing the border are another valve in the oft-dangerous pipeline that steers crimes from Mexico to Victoria and on to bigger markets.
Some international mom-and -pop buses are used as fronts for drug and human smuggling rings – crimes traceable to drug cartels.
Houston Drug Enforcement Administration agents busted a major drug smuggling ring in April.
Agents tracked drugs and money to the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, seized $4.5 million in cash and 1,413 kilos of cocaine – a drug load worth
The buses traveled from Monterrey to Victoria and on to Houston.
“And those were only the buses we were able to identify that had dope on them,” said Violet Szeleczky, a senior Houston agent. “There is probably
a lot more.”
At the same time, Houston Federal Bureau of Investigation agents dismantled the five U.S. bus companies involved in the ring, she said.
Both agencies collected evidence that led to 81 indictments.
Drugs were stowed in bus gas tanks, luggage and storage compartments.
Illegal immigrants are smuggled in similar places.
They are caught on buses at the border, said Rick Pauza, a Laredo Customs and Border Protection officer.
While the federal government does not track the number of illegal immigrants caught specifically on buses, they are found regularly in buses traveling on inland Texas highways.
“On a daily basis, we catch illegal immigrants on these buses once they’re beyond the border,” said John Lopez, a Rio Grande Valley sector U. S. Border Patrol spokesman. “We catch someone who is an imposter or with counterfeit documents. We catch people who have no documents. We find illegal immigrants in any part of a bus – hidden in compartments, bathrooms, luggage racks, even inside luggage.”
Pedro Mendez, the Houston man who died in the Victoria crash, used the bus to visit family in Monterrey.
His daughter copes with the troubling aftermath. Erika Mendez and her four siblings refuse to ride a bus, she said.
She blames Cruz, the bus driver, for her father’s death. She struggles still to understand why he had to die.
“I would expect my father to at least come in my dreams, hug me like he would always do,” she said. “Why doesn’t he?”
To see a special online presentation of this story and previous installments of our Fatal Funnel packages, click here.