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Story Publication logo August 21, 2009

The Business of Human Smuggling on the Mexican Border: Two Migrants for the Price of One


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

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NOGALES, Mexico—Enrique Enriquez is a veteran of the battles fought along the border. As one of the local heads of the humanitarian immigration agency Grupos Beta, Enriquez has spent almost 15 years watching as the business of human smuggling morphed from a series of independent "mom and pop" shops into a big business.

The first time I paid Enriquez a visit, I was ushered into his sparsely furnished office and offered an orange plastic chair. He was dressed in the orange polo shirt that is Grupos Beta's uniform. With a cell phone glued to his ear, he flashed a quick smile and raised an index finger in lieu of a proper hello. He'd be with me as soon as he could; right now he was literally in the middle of a life or death situation. A teenage migrant from the state of Tabasco was lost in the desert, having been separated from the rest of his group of border crossers only hours after starting out. The boy had no food or water, and he was in bad shape. His cell phone battery was low, but he had a clear signal. He was on the Mexican side of the border, which made his situation even more perilous. There would be no miraculous rescues by the U.S. Border Patrol. The boy had called his parents, who had in turn rung up Enriquez in a furious panic.

"Where did he enter?" Enriquez asked the boy's distraught mother. "Altar? Sasabe? Nogales? What was the last city he was in?"

She doesn't know; her son isn't very smart. He is young and naive, and he can't identify his surroundings. Enriquez takes a deep breath and hangs up the phone.

"I'm sorry, but can you come back tomorrow?" he asks. "I'm a little busy."

Heading for the Border SlideshowThe next day, I return to find Enriquez in a better mood; he had managed to rescue the boy before his phone died. The whole ordeal was just another afternoon on the job, another instance of the desert swallowing up a lost soul. On that day, Enriquez was lucky to have gotten one back.

"Ninety percent of the people who cross the border are assaulted in one way or another," Enriquez begins. "And so was that boy. There are the bajadores, bandits who set upon the migrants and rob them. Sometimes the guides can turn on their people. The Border Patrol can get a little rough. And then there are the narcos."

Moving migrants across the border and into the United States has become so profitable that even Mexico's narcotraffickers have become involved. Drivers use a single twisting dirt road, rutted with pot holes, to bring their human cargo the 60 miles from Altar to the border town of Sasabe. The road, referred to by local media as the "route of death," is controlled by local narcotraffickers.

According to Enriquez, the cartels have consolidated their control over the area in the last three years. They levy a tax of roughly 50-150 pesos (about $4-$12) on every migrant shipped north; those from countries other than Mexico pay more. Grupos Beta estimates that as many as 500,000 migrants are moved through Altar on the way to the United States during the busiest years. This "tax" represents an incredible source of extra income. Once the migrants reach Sasabe, they set out for various points east and west, obscure desert outposts where the U.S. Border Patrol has a light presence. They wait for the sun to set and begin their march into the United States with the arrival of a cool night breeze.

"You have to be very, very careful on that road and in Sasabe," Enriquez warns. "They do not mess around there. They will shoot you." He proceeds to lift up his shirt, showing me numerous healed gunshot wounds. They are strange souvenirs from a career spent trying to help people. He rolls up a pant leg and knocks on his shin, creating a loud, hollow sound.

"They stabbed me in Sasabe. I'm just warning you."

"Sasabe, Sasabe, Sasabe! Two for one, two for one, two for one! Let's go, let's go, let's go!" I climb into the passenger seat as the driver does his best to fill his van before leaving Altar. It's the off-season for human smuggling, and he has to offer a discount—two humans smuggled for the price of one—in an attempt to fill up his van. He is very enthusiastic to have a gringo along for the ride—it's a new twist on a usually boring workday. He drives this route dozens of times a week, bringing migrants to the border while also serving as the middleman between the migrants and the cartels. Before leaving Altar, he must report the number of migrants traveling in his van and pay the corresponding tax. A driver who underreports his passenger manifest can face deadly consequences.

Soon the van starts to fill up with five, 10, 15 migrants. They keep their eyes cast down to the ground and are reluctant to answer my questions. One man accuses me of being an undercover Border Patrol agent. He is unconvinced by my protestations that I am simply a journalist interested in collecting migrants' stories.

The van is crowded now; people start to sweat and shift uneasily on the long metal benches that pass for seating. A short, gaunt man wearing crudely stitched sneakers and a baseball cap that features two fighting gamecocks climbs into the passenger seat next to me. He is the group's guide. I introduce myself, though he is just as shy as his clients. The driver takes his seat behind the wheel, and we're off. Less than five minutes after we leave town, we turn off a well-paved highway, and start down "the route of death" for Sasabe. The driver and the guide—once the driver empties his van at the border, the guide will take them into Arizona—both cross themselves.

Gradually, the guide starts to open up to me. He tells me that his name is Martin, that he is 23, and that this is his sixth time leading a group of migrants into the United States.

"I led my first group when I was 15. It was very easy. I didn't have any problems. But in the last two to three years, there have been fewer customers, less money," he tells me. "I've been doing this for eight years, and it used to be much easier. Today there is more Border Patrol in the area, which makes it harder, and more violence in the desert, which makes it more dangerous. Each year, we have to pay a higher tax to the narcos and be more careful about the routes we move through. You have to be very smart to be a guide these days. You have to know your routes, or you can get killed."

As we talk, the van speeds through the desert, taking sharp turns at breakneck speed, flying over small sand dunes. The worn-out shocks make the ride very uncomfortable, though the driver grins with pleasure each time we bounce around. Maybe he is an adrenaline junkie, or maybe he is just trying to make his job interesting.

While chain-smoking a pack of Marlboro Reds, Martin continues to open up to me. He claims that he will earn only $1,000 for leading his group into the States.

"No one does this job because they can; they only do it because they have to. My dad taught me how to navigate the desert, but he died when I was 16. I have seven younger siblings, and it was my duty to try and help the family. I work in the U.S. to earn dollars, and I try to return to visit my family once a year. Every time I go back to the United States, I try and lead a group to make a little extra money."

By now, we are deep in the desert, more than halfway to Sasabe. Vans returning to Altar pass us, their drivers flashing a series of hand signals. Our driver sits up straight in his seat, slowing the car. He turns to Martin and demands 70 pesos, a little more than $5. We've reached an army checkpoint, and a bribe is in order.

Our van stops next to a camouflaged Hummer. The driver leaves, disappearing for a few minutes with an army sergeant. A second soldier with a buzz cut, aviator glasses, and an automatic weapon slung across his shoulder climbs halfway into the driver's seat and gives me a quizzical look.

"Where are you from?" he barks.

"Arizona," I reply.

He isn't quite sure what to make of my answer, and he stares at me for what seems significantly longer than the minute it probably was. Finally the sergeant reappears. The driver climbs back into the van, and we're off again.

"He thought you were the guide," chuckles Martin. "He couldn't figure out what the fuck a white boy would be doing taking a bunch of Mexicans across the line. They are going to be trying to figure that out for a month."

As Sasabe gets closer, signs of civilization start to materialize. We've been driving for just under two hours. Burned-out shells of cars litter the sides of the road. Stray dogs and pigs wander in front of our van. We pull out of the desert and back onto the highway. A few minutes more and we can see the border, the fence, and the bright lights that are the unmistakable sign of the U.S. Border Patrol. The driver pulls up next to a small bodega and unloads his cargo. It's early afternoon, and the desert sun is still high. The migrants squat in what little shade is available, waiting for night to fall, for the temperature to drop, making movement possible.

The van turns around, and the driver and I stop at a liquor store to buy a case of beer for the road. We head back to Altar to load up again. Another day on the job, and a successful one at that.

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