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Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Getty Images Photos: Guillermo Arias/Bloomberg, Guillermo Arias/AFP, Erin Clark/The Boston Globe, Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call.

Unwitting border area residents are being roped into smuggling contraband for transnational criminal groups that have operated throughout the pandemic despite border closures, as the fight over routes is again resulting in the slaughter of civilians in Mexico.

Why it matters: The cartels smuggle drugs and even people through legal ports of entry, in hidden car compartments or commercial trucks, undeterred by any border wall or COVID-related closures. Now criminals are bloodletting to control the corridor to at least one crossing.

The latest: Last Saturday 19 people were killed, four of them suspected cartel members, and two women kidnapped across the border from McAllen, Texas, in Reynosa, in a rare attack on civilians. Victims include a 19-year-old nursing student, shopkeepers and a bike mechanic.

  • Authorities are blaming two Gulf Cartel splinter cells that are fighting over the area near the Pharr, Texas, bridge.
  • It’s the seventh busiest port in the U.S. and the fourth busiest on the border with Mexico, the U.S.’ largest trading partner.
  • Controlling the corridor to the crossing allows cartels can move drugs like cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and meth to U.S. buyers in South Texas and beyond.
Expand chart
Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Between the lines: The outbreak of violence comes as both governments hold advanced discussions on when and how to safely reopen the border.

  • Its closure to “nonessential” movement because of the pandemic has hit businesses that rely on customers from both sides of the border. The closure was just extended at least until July 21.
  • Essential travel, like crossing for school or doctor visits or the return home of U.S. citizens or permanent residents, continues.
  • One of the myriad ways cartels have kept their businesses running is using some of those people as “blind mules.”

How it works: Criminal organizations advertise purported courier jobs on Facebook, looking for people with cars who can still go through the ports of entry.

  • The ads claim the job is to legally move money between exchange houses, according to the Homeland Investigations branch of ICE.
  • The cartels request an “interview” with “job” candidates in places like Ciudad Juárez, and while they talk the contraband is stashed in the distracted person's car.
  • The goods are picked up on the other side if the unknowing mule crosses undetected.

For perspective: Despite the pandemic, violence in Mexico has not receded, especially in areas disputed by cartels both near the border and in southeast Mexico. Homicides continue their trend towards historic highs.

  • President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has announced a federal investigation of Saturday’s attack.

Go deeper

Del Rio bridge camp empty following Haitian migrant surge

A boy bathes himself in a jug of water inside a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 21 in Del Rio, Texas. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The last migrants camping under the Del Rio International Bridge, which connects Texas and Mexico, departed on Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced during a White House press briefing.

Driving the news: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, had arrived to the makeshift camp after crossing the southern border seeking asylum. Roughly 1,800 migrants will now head to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing centers.

Texas border crossing will partially reopen

A Border Patrol vehicle drives along a section of the southern border wall on Sept. 23 in Del Rio, Texas. Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The border crossing in Del Rio, Texas, where thousands of Haitian migrants arrived in recent weeks, will be partially reopened on Saturday afternoon, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said.

Driving the news: Trade and travel operations at the Del Rio Port of Entry will resume for passenger traffic at 4 p.m. on Saturday and cargo traffic will resume on Monday morning.

Photos reportedly show Border Patrol whipping at migrants from horseback

Photo: Paul Ratje/AFP via Getty Images

New photos reportedly show Border Patrol agents whipping at and charging their horses at migrants in Del Rio who were attempting to make their way to an encampment under the international bridge, where thousands of Haitian migrants have sought refuge trying to seek asylum.

Our thought bubble, via Axios' Russell Contreras: The images of Border Patrol agents on horseback charging at Haitian migrants drew an emotional response online since the Border Patrol has a troubled and violent history against communities of color.