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Story Publication logo August 19, 2009

The Business of Human Smuggling on the Mexican Border: Sniffing Out the Real Migrants


Once a sleepy agricultural town, the entire economy of Altar, Sonora is, at this point, based on...

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ALTAR, Mexico—I hadn't yet taken 10 steps off the bus when I made eye contact with someone for the first time.

"Are you going north?" he hissed, walking quickly toward me. "Let's go. Let's go," he implored.

A strange way to be welcomed someplace, no doubt, though the question is the only one of any real import here, and it often takes the place of a proper greeting. Sitting just 60 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border, Altar, in Sonora state, is a place unlike any other. Once a quiet community of farmers and ranchers, this dusty desert town of 8,000 is now one of the most important staging points for the movement of undocumented workers. Migrants from all over Mexico and various Central and South American countries come here to find a guide who will take them through the dangerous desert crossing and into the United States.

The entire economy of Altar is based on the business of human smuggling. Rows of shops sell all the materials necessary for the border crossing. Backpacks, canned goods, and electrolyte-infused soft drinks are sold everywhere. Headhunters who work for the town's coyotes pass the day looking for new customers. Their job is to spot Altar's newest arrivals and sell them on a guide who knows the way into Arizona. They are fast talkers and hustlers, willing to promise anything to drum up business.


It is a disorienting sensation, arriving in Altar. The town feels like something out of an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western. When you step into the central plaza, dozens of strangers assess you, wondering what exactly you are doing here, while contemplating the ways a profit might be generated off your presence. A bodega selling cold beer and potato chips only adds to the effect; it features a slot machine that plays the theme music of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly over and over again.

During the hot spring and summer months, most business transactions take place during the morning hours. By the time I arrive, it is 3 in the afternoon, and the plaza has nearly emptied out for the day. Dogs lie about on patches of cracked earth, too lazy to react to the flies that blanket them. Migrants sit under what little shade they can find, clutching their backpacks and staring off into the horizon. They are waiting. Maybe they are short of the money needed to pay for the trip and are hoping for a family member to arrange a wire transfer. Perhaps their guide told them that the Border Patrol is out in force today and it is best to wait until tomorrow.

This is the pattern of life here. For the migrants in Altar, passing the time in silence, preferably in one of the few patches of shade, is the day's main activity. Some even sleep in the plaza, though others prefer to pay rent at one of the town's flophouses. More plentiful and affordable than motels, they are communal rooms densely packed with rows of bunk beds. A migrant's 40 pesos ($3) rents a piece of plywood and a tattered blanket rather than a proper mattress.

With my bags in tow, I make my way to the Community Center for the Assistance of Migrants and the Needy (in Spanish, Centro Comunitario de Atención al Migrante y Necesitado). CCAMYN is Altar's only free shelter. It is supported by the local church and run by Marcos Burruel, a remarkable man who once worked as a quality-control supervisor at the Tecate beer factory in Baja, Mexico. He was charged with smelling each batch of the freshly brewed product to ensure that nothing was off. One profession would seem to have little to do with the other, though Marcos found the common link.

As he explains it, "There are many different types of people who come through Altar and this shelter. There are the very good, the good, the normal, the bad, and the very bad. My job is to determine who is who and to protect the people that need my help."

Marcos never turns away anyone who comes asking for a free meal. But visitors looking to spend the night and enjoy the comfort of a real mattress and an actual bed sheet must first make it past his discerning nose.

A migrant's first stop upon arrival at the shelter is a wobbly plastic chair in front of Marcos' desk. Other than a crucifix hanging from the far wall, the room is free of decoration. In quick succession, Marcos asks his guests a series of questions. Name, age, marital status, and hometown are all registered before he delves deeper.

"Did you already try to cross? Yes? And the Border Patrol caught you and shipped you back? How many people were in your group? What was the cost of your guide? And the narcos … how steep was the tax—how much did you pay them before you were allowed to leave Altar? What about the driver who drove you up to the border—how much did he charge?"

Marcos knows the answers to each of these questions before he asks them. How his guest responds, however, allows him to differentiate between a migrant in need of help and a lying stranger, someone who has come to the shelter with an ulterior motive. It also presents a great opportunity for me to learn how Altar works.

The first man Marcos interviewed went by the name Orlando, and he didn't conform to the migrant stereotype. Sporting a gold tooth and an expensive-looking watch on his left wrist, he answered every question confidently. Nevertheless, he was told he could only stay for dinner. After Orlando left the room, Marcos explained.

"He's a coyote, here looking for customers," he said. "I try never to turn away anyone who asks me for food, but he definitely will not spend the night."

Next up was Jose. Born in the state of Hidalgo, he claimed to have been caught and deported by Border Patrol that very day.

"And how much was the tax you had to pay the narcos?"

Jose was confused. "What tax?" he asked.

"The narcos, the mafia ... no one gets in those vans if they don't pay the tax first. How much did you have to pay them?"

Jose looked at his feet, and after a pause, responded.

"Five hundred pesos," he answered cautiously. His response was a question as much it was a statement.

Marcos shook his head, sure that a real migrant who had crossed recently would know that the tax is much higher. "You'll have to leave after dinner," he said.

Antonio followed, and it was instantly clear that he was the real thing. An older man carrying a beat-up backpack, he had a week's worth of stubble and walked with a pronounced limp. The question-and-answer session seemed to be going well, until Marcos paused, leaning forward slightly.

"And how many beers did you drink today?" he finally asked.

Antonio was clearly startled. "None," he replied.

"With respect, I know you've been drinking today. How many beers?"

"I haven't had anything to drink," Antonio reiterated.

"Listen. It's a rule. You can't have alcohol in your body and stay here. I have an incredible sense of smell. It's a gift, and I thank God for it every day. I can smell beer on your breath. I know you've been drinking. Just tell me: How much have you had to drink today?"

Antonio relented. "Two beers," he said, "I've had two beers today."

"Well, then," answered Marcos, "I'm sorry, but you can't stay the night."

Of the six men he who filed through, only one was given permission to sleep at the shelter.

"We don't have many resources; we have to be selective about who we help," Marcos would later explain. "I have to protect those who need protection, and I have to offer help only to those who are truly migrants. Those are the people this shelter is meant for. It's not too difficult to spot a real migrant. He will come here with his backpack, he'll be dirty, and he will have trouble walking, all because of the desert. And he'll tell you that all he wants is to go home, that he doesn't want anything more to do with the United States."

After a quiet dinner, I am shown to the dormitory. The sun has set, and Marcos is preparing to leave. The shelter has no room in the budget to hire a night watchman, so guests are locked inside until sunrise. As I lay on my bed, three additional guests are admitted. They file in quickly, the door closing behind them. No one makes eye contact or acknowledges anyone else's presence. Everyone keeps one hand on their bags as they drift off to sleep.

The bed is clean, if a bit uncomfortable. A single spring pokes upward from the middle of the mattress. Trying to avoid it, I sleep on my side. It's a battle fought in vain, though; an unfortunate shift results in a sharp stab to my lower back. The sleep had been shallow and uneasy, anyway, and I am now fully awake. There is no clock on the wall, but the window frames a pitch-black desert night, the sky clear and filled with stars. It must be about 3 a.m.

The room is rather cramped, mostly because of the number of bunk beds stacked together. One of the migrants snores loudly. He fills the rooms with the sound of a motorcycle failing to start again and again. In the bed next to me, another migrant is masturbating underneath his blanket. With his climax, he releases a deep sigh, sounding as though a priest has just exorcised him.

I lie on my back, allowing the spring to dig into me. I'll just have to wait out the rest of the night. There is no use going back to sleep after witnessing a thing like that.

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