McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Republican lawmakers and candidates have been espousing the notion that “rape trees” — spots where migrants are sexually assaulted, their undergarments are hung as “trophies” — are prevalent on the South Texas border.
But during interviews with Border Report, several border sheriffs and federal officials said they have found no evidence that “rape trees” exist.
One Democratic congressman suggested this is an exaggeration of misinformation that is being released just weeks before the upcoming midterm elections, in which several Republican women are challenging the longtime Democratic stronghold of South Texas, including two who are making “rape trees” a talking point.
U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Texas, who represents the Gulf Coast border region of South Texas, first floated the concept at a GOP women’s tour of the border wall and discussion on sex trafficking on Aug. 30 in Hidalgo, Texas.
After the discussion, she told Border Report: “We have rape trees all over South Texas, all over our southern border.”
“Every time a child or woman is raped, they take away their undergarments, their bra and their underwear and they hang it on the tree,” Flores said. “That is a rape tree and it’s all over the southern border. I ask for people if they see them to burn them,”
When asked by Border Report if she has seen the trees, Flores responded: “Absolutely. Yeah, they’re real. People here in South Texas know of them.”
GOP candidates Monica De La Cruz, who is vying for Texas’ 15th Congressional District 15, which includes McAllen, and Cassy Garcia, who is running in Texas’ 28th Congressional District, which includes Laredo, also attended the Aug. 30 discussion and tour.
On Monday, the self-described “triple threat” Latinas were part of a national media call in which the “rape tree” concept came up again.
This time, it was De La Cruz who brought it up and said the migrants are raped by drug cartel members and human smugglers known as coyotes.
“Rape trees — that is a horrific thing that happens to some illegal people coming across our border through cartel and coyotes. These coyotes leave as a trophy women’s undergarments, showing that’s where this gross violation take place. There are several different places in South Texas,” De La Cruz said.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tweeted that he’d seen “rape trees” in July after visiting South Texas. He wrote: “What’s happening at the border is inhumane, it’s evil, and it cannot be defended.”
But Border Report spoke with three South Texas sheriffs from the border counties of Maverick, Hidalgo and Webb, and all say they have never heard of such a concept, nor come across such structures.
“I don’t know where they’re getting that information. What area? It’s not in Maverick (County) that I know of and I haven’t heard it from the other sheriffs close to my area,” Maverick County Sheriff Tom Schmerber said via phone Tuesday from his office in Eagle Pass, Texas.
“That’s very disturbing,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve heard of it.”
“I would have known about that but no one has ever told me. I’ve never heard the term,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra told Border Report on Monday afternoon.
Guerra has been sheriff of this largest South Texas county since 2014 and he said that if multiple sexual assaults had happened on borderlands within the county at specifically designated locations, his investigators would have been informed by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
Guerra says the rape of migrants has always occurred along the border, but it was much more prevalent during the 2014-2015 migrant surge.
He says many migrants report to U.S. law enforcement that they were raped south of the border, especially in stash houses, prior to crossing the Rio Grande. But he said the number of migrants alleging rape by coyotes once they cross the border into the U.S. has dropped significantly with this latest surge that began in 2021.
“This migrant surge, we have not seen any of our stash houses, when we raid the stash houses and we find these females. Basically, we’re not getting any females that claim they’re being sexually assaulted only because the cartels do not want to bring that kind of heat so (smugglers) are specifically told by the cartels not to sexually assault these women anymore,” Guerra said.
Guerra said the trend they are currently seeing is that migrant women are promised jobs in northern towns but are being forced into sex trafficking once they arrive. However, he said, to his knowledge the acts are not being committed in the Rio Grande Valley on the border.
A U.S. Border Patrol spokesperson confirmed to Border Report on Tuesday that this “rape tree” concept has been talked about for decades, but they have no knowledge of a specific location, adding that if they did, they would have multiplied forces there to prevent future attacks.
“The concept of a rape tree that’s not something new. That’s an old concept that’s been in the Patrol for years, decades,” the spokesperson said. “Rape trees was a concept I’ve heard in Laredo and the northern ranches and in various locations throughout the Rio Grande Valley and Southwest border, but for me here in the RGV, I’ve never been able to verify that’s in fact happening.”
There have been multiple references to it over the years in media articles with suggestions that it first originated in the El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, area, as well as Sonora, Mexico.
In 2013, Brooks County Sheriff Urbino ‘Benny’ Martinez was quoted in a U.S. News article talking about rape trees and the sexual assault of migrants in his county, about 60 miles from the Mexican border.
Martinez was present at the Aug. 30 GOP women’s roundtable discussion. He did not talk publicly about rape trees, but didn’t dispute it, either. And he said there are many migrants sexually assaulted in his remote ranchlands.
Calls from Border Report to Martinez went unanswered.
Also at that Aug. 30 border meeting was Othal Brand Jr., an outspoken Republican whose father was mayor of McAllen for years, and who himself ran unsuccessfully for the post.
Brand’s mouth fell open when Flores told the panel about “rape trees.”
“Tell me where that tree is. I’ll cut it down,” Brand said. “I never heard about that before. How braggadocios!”
Brand owns vast amounts of borderlands in South Texas and is the president of the Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3, where the tour was held.
Several law enforcement and Border Patrol officials said undergarments, for men and women, are easily found along the border, especially right by the Rio Grande. Many change into dry clothes and discard the wet ones in the brush, on the ground, or hang them on carrizo cane or trees.
The Border Patrol spokesperson added that clothing is sometimes used as markers in the thick brush.
“Their clothing is wet and they strip off the clothes they crossed with and get into a cleaner set of clothes and they just discard everything in those areas,” the Border Patrol spokesperson said.
“I’ve seen bras and panties on trees, along with male clothing as well. A lot of time in the brush, guides will use clothing as markers as they’re walking through the brush just kind of like little signals or guides for other groups that are coming behind them,” the spokesperson said.
The Border Patrol spokesperson confirmed that if a specific location, or a tree, would have been used to commit rape, then the sheriff of that county would be in the know.
The spokesperson said they also would have surged additional manpower and technology to the area.
“If there’s an area we know that migrants are being robbed or assaulted on their way — because that’s a reality that they face — we will increase the number of manpower or add cameras, technology, something to be able to prevent that from happening,” the agency spokesperson said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report on Tuesday he has asked longtime law enforcement on the ground about “rape trees,” and they have told him they have heard about it, but have never come across a tree nor a specific rape case relating to a tree.
And he questioned the timing of this information just weeks before the upcoming elections.
“I’ve checked around and I think the only time I hear from this issue is from Republican candidates about these ‘rape trees.’ I cannot confirm or deny that they do exist or not. We do know that there are sexual assaults — no ifs or buts. But whether they hang undergarments on trees after the sexual assaults, I don’t know about that,” Cuellar said via phone from Washington, D.C.
Garcia is Cuellar’s GOP opponent. She has not mentioned the concept of rape trees at these events, but she hasn’t said it was incorrect, either.
Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Homeland Security Appropriation Committee, said the committee would have been made aware of additional funding and resources needed to combat a so-called “rape tree” problem along the Southwest border.
“There are assaults we know that. But whether they put them in ‘rape trees.’ I think I hear that more from our Republican candidates,” Cuellar said.
Cuellar sent Border Report a photo of an area in Eagle Pass, Texas, where multiple clothes had been discarded by migrants who crossed the river.
Border Report has been in the same area and seen countless articles of discarded clothing scattered just feet from the river — areas where multiple migrants have crossed from Piedras Negras, Mexico.
“I don’t know their motives, whether they’re trying to whip up fear or lack of information but if you talk to the border sheriffs that live there and work there,” Cuellar said, “it looks like local law enforcement and Border Patrol say something different.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com