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Story Publication logo August 20, 2009

The Business of Human Smuggling on the Mexican Border: Waiting for the Right Guide


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

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ALTAR, Mexico—Breakfast is a simple affair at the CCAMYN shelter: a cup of coffee and a doughnut before we leave. The doors are locked for most of the day, reopening again at 5 p.m.. The guests scatter in all directions, but most eventually make their way to the central plaza where they wait the day out. It's 7:30 in the morning, and Altar is just waking up. Pickup trucks with darkly tinted windows slowly make their way down the unpaved streets, stirring dirt into the desert air. Wild dogs stand guard in front of the neighboring houses, growling at passers-by.

There is so much paranoia in a town where the entire economy is built around smuggling people and drugs across international borders. Even though it gives off the impression of being a sleepy desert town, there is never any doubt that if you cross paths with the wrong people in Altar, things can go wrong very, very quickly.

The three men who arrived at the shelter late the night before are walking behind me, and I drop back to strike up a conversation with them. They are quick to introduce themselves, shaking hands while making direct eye contact. This will prove to be a rarity during my stay in Altar, especially among the migrant population.


It is a strange thing to introduce yourself to the man who made his first impression by masturbating next to you in the early morning hours. He has a sweet, boyish smile, which immediately puts me at ease. He is tall and wears a clean, unwrinkled shirt tucked into his jeans. A small crucifix dangles from his neck, made visible by three open buttons. His name is Uvaldo. Introductions are made, and I explain myself to the group. It's a story I will tell again and again over the course of two weeks: I am a journalist, here to collect migrants' stories. Where are they from, where are they going, how will they cross the border, what work will they look for in the United States? This is as much a security measure as it is an act of disclosure; Mexico's infamous drug cartels are well-represented in Altar, and my explanation serves as a pre-emptive strike to keep people from accusing me of sticking my nose where it doesn't belong.

The three men had been strangers until a week ago. They met while staying at a flophouse in Sonoyta, farther to the west. They were unimpressed with the guides they met there. They just hadn't felt right, so they took a bus to Altar, where Jesus, the natural leader of the group, knew of a guide reputed to be trustworthy. All three were born in southern Mexico, and they had come to trust one another for the simple purpose of self-preservation. In a place where everyone is sizing you up, trying to find a way to profit from you, it's good to have someone watching your back.

In the plaza, we find a shaded bench under the tall wall of the town church. Two pushcart vendors sell instant coffee and homemade tamales to the crowd of would-be migrants. Headhunters wearing cowboy boots and baseball caps walk by, talking on their cell phones and eyeballing us. They are looking for a signal of some kind, a sign that we are open to their sales pitch. Business is slow, and they are desperate to bring in clients for their coyote bosses.

As we sit there, watching the town's business transpire, Uvaldo starts to rifle through his bag.

"Have you read this?" he asks, "A friend gave it to me. It's practice for my English."

Eventually he brings out a tattered paperback, passing it to me gently, as though it were a full cup of coffee. Uvaldo's copy of Rick Warren's The Purpose-Driven Life is heavily underlined and features a picture of his infant daughter taped to the inside cover.

My experience in extraordinary locales has taught me that in an environment like Altar, expectations are often subverted. Once, while touring a notorious slum in Buenos Aires, a young teenager stuck a gun in my face and yanked my camera bag from my shoulder. A woman who had accompanied me on the trip immediately stepped in front of the gun, yelling at the boy that his mother would be ashamed if she could see what he was doing to a visitor. His eyes turned glassy, and he handed back my camera bag, literally begging for forgiveness as he backed away. On another assignment, I spent a week in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, home to one of the world's most notorious black markets, as well as a small Muslim community that the U.S. government has repeatedly accused of funneling money to Hezbollah. On my last day in town, I met a wholesale drug dealer, a man who claimed to move hundreds of pounds of marijuana across the Brazilian and Argentine borders on a regular basis. We were discussing the market rate of his goods when he suddenly stopped to ask me my last name. I had lied earlier, introducing myself with a false name, but this question caught me off guard, and I blurted out my real surname. He smiled reflexively, bringing a Star of David necklace from his back pocket.

I can't help but think of both incidents as Uvaldo and I discuss Warren's philosophy. He is particularly fond of the chapter titled "You Are Not an Accident." Underlined and starred is a passage that reads, "If there was no God, we would all be 'accidents,' the result of astronomical random chance in the universe. You could stop reading this book, because life would have no purpose or meaning or significance. … But there is a God who made you for a reason, and your life has profound meaning!"

I ask Uvaldo what the passage means to him.

"There are people there in the U.S. who think that I want to live there forever. But that is not the case. No! Life is too short. I want to be with my daughter here in Mexico; I only want to provide for her. That is the purpose of my life, and this trip is not an accident."

Slowly, the hours pass, though we barely move, shifting only with the shade as morning becomes afternoon. Uvaldo, Jesus, and Juan, the third member of the group, huddle up and whisper. From time to time, they cross the street to a phone booth. They call family. They call the friend who recommended the guide, trying to coordinate where and when they will meet him.

By 1:30, the pushcarts are gone, and the plaza has emptied out. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. We smoke a cigarette, we enter the church to seek the Virgin Mary's blessing, and we wait. The whole experience appears unremarkable. Nothing happens. And yet lives and futures hang in the balance. Institutions larger than any group of individuals all operate independently along the border, and a successful crossing depends on their accidental coordination, on a migrant setting out at the lucky moment when the stars happen to align.

Uvaldo and his friends must first find a guide they are comfortable with. That accomplished, they travel the unpaved desert road that connects Altar to the physical border, 60 miles to the north. On certain days, the Mexican military will set up an outpost halfway up the road, stopping all traffic to demand a bribe. Guides have a habit of delaying their trips when this happens. Once the border is reached, the guides choose their routes carefully, desperate not to cross paths with the ever-present narcotraffickers moving marijuana and cocaine. There is no sure way to know the movements of the U.S. Border Patrol, but scouts working for the coyotes are posted at certain vantage points. They keep an eye out, radioing in the best moments to risk the crossing. And there is still the desert to contend with; forecasts of a summer heat wave or a winter cold spell can speed up or indefinitely delay even the best-laid plans. Some migrants arrive in Altar and are gone in less than 24 hours. Others find themselves stranded for a week, 10 days, with nothing to do but pass time in the empty plaza, listening to the cries of the ice cream vendor selling coconut popsicles for 10 pesos.

Uvaldo, Jesus, and Juan sit in purgatory, waiting for elements beyond their control to come together so that they can move toward the promise of the north. They go through their equipment, triple-checking that they have all the supplies they need. Two gallons of water and four tins of tuna apiece. A can of deodorant, a toothbrush, and a razor—a migrant must look fresh upon arrival, or the just-completed journey will be obvious. A belt with all of the group's crucial phone numbers etched into the leather on the inside. Scraps of paper have a habit of falling out of pockets on long hikes through the desert. A jug of water stuffed with cloves of garlic. Soaking your feet in the resulting infusion is a common means of scaring of rattlesnakes.

By 4, the plaza is empty, and we have barely moved. Jesus crosses the street to make yet another phone call. Their guide should have been here by now. They think he might be in another town a short bus ride away. For the first time all day, Juan starts to talk to me. He is a shy man, short and pudgy, with silver fillings that outline his front teeth whenever he smiles.

"I had a dream a few days back," he starts. "It was awful. We were just about to cross the line, when our guide told us to hang back. 'Wait here,' he said. 'Eat something while I go up ahead to look for Border Patrol.' Three hours later, he still hadn't come back. Five hours later, he was still gone. I was tired and freezing cold, so I wrapped myself in my extra pair of pants. I started to fall asleep when a man dressed in black suddenly appeared and started grabbing at me. I reached over to warn my friends, but they were gone; I was alone in the middle of the desert."

As Juan describes his dream, Jesus comes back with word that their guide isn't in Altar. They've waited the entire day before realizing that they aren't even in the right town. Human smuggling is an elusive and imprecise business; its central agents are, by their very nature, hard to pin down. But a good guide is a valuable commodity, and when the next bus pulls into the plaza, Uvaldo, Jesus, and Juan climb aboard. Ten minutes earlier, we had talked about heading back to the shelter and trying again in the morning. Now, suddenly, they are gone, following their purpose to another border town.

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