Nogales, Sonora

Sacha Feinman, for the Pulitzer Center
Photo by David Rochkind

Their stories are infinite in variety. Jose Arturo Romero got separated from his group and was left to fend for himself in the middle of the desert, picked up by the Border Patrol after four days of what had seemed like aimless wandering. It was his third attempt, and he had yet to make it the 60 miles to Tucson. Dehydration and the near-death experience be damned; he was ready to try again. Jorge Flores had been successful in his one and only crossing 22 years earlier. More than two decades later, an entire life came undone in Raleigh, North Carolina when he ran a red light and was found to be driving without a license. Some are trying to get to their families in New York or Chicago, believing that opportunity awaits if they can just complete the journey. Others have no one to call on and no idea what to expect once they finish moving.

The stories vary save in a single detail; each narrator hired a "pollero", or guide, to bring them across the border and safely install them in the U.S.

These days, human smuggling to the U.S. is a big business, one that has undergone a profound transformation over the last 10-15 years. What were once "mom and pop" enterprises only found on the U.S/Mexico border have been replaced by far more sophisticated brokers who now interact with the country's deadly narcotraffickers.

The hiring of a pollero represents a remarkable moment in a migrant's journey. Life savings, not to mention lives themselves, are given over to a total stranger. And there is no criteria by which one might judge which guide is trustworthy and which is trouble.

"It's luck, picking a pollero. Luck and faith in God," advises Melvin Castañeda, a 34 year old migrant from the state of Sinaloa. "There are a few little things that can help. Never pick a young guide, for example. Older guides have been around longer and know better how to get around. And they don't walk as fast. But luck; that is really all you have."

"The border crossing is more dangerous today than ever before," says Enrique Enriquez, the local coordinator of the governmental agency Grupo Beta. Working to provide medical attention and travel advice for would-be crossers, the organization's members are in a unique position to testify on the dangers facing migrants looking to smuggle themselves across the U.S./Mexico border.

According to Enriquez, increased security measures by the U.S. Border Patrol has resulted in an equal but opposite reaction on the Mexican side. While U.S. authorities have militarized the border in an attempt to bring order to the region and stem the flow of undocumented workers in to the U.S., their actions have made the journey more dangerous for migrants.

"Polleros are pushing these groups further and further into the most deadly regions. The Border Patrol is a stronger presence along the most obvious routes, so the polleros have to travel into the most inhospitable areas, routes that are controlled by the narcotrafickers. The polleros are forced to pay taxes to the narcos, and they put the migrants in a much more dangerous situation."

As Enriquez sees it, this interaction between drug smugglers and people smugglers is a relativly new development. "We have really only started to see it in the last 2-3 years. As the narcos have gone and consolidated their total control of the border, they are more visible in the migrant buisness."