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Story Publication logo July 19, 2009

Drug Cartels Imperil Immigrants in the Desert


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

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Reporting from Altar, Mexico — On a cloudless afternoon in northern Sonora, migrants and drug runners lounge in equal numbers under scattered mesquite trees, playing cards or sipping water. The sun climbs high and the temperature rises well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In such heat, nothing, human or otherwise, moves more than required.

Known as La Sierrita, this otherwise unremarkable patch of Mexican desert is a final stop for those looking to enter the U.S. illegally. The Arizona border is only a 40-minute walk north. As soon as the sun sets, everyone here will be gone.

It is not difficult to distinguish between those trying to smuggle themselves and the burreros looking to haul marijuana or cocaine. The former wear ill-fitting pants and keep their eyes cast toward the ground. The latter dress head to toe in black, a curious fashion choice for a trip through the desert. Some wear ski masks.

Angel de Jesus Pereda, the local coordinator for the governmental immigration agency Grupo Beta, approaches one of the burreros. With a weary sigh, he asks the man to stand up, lift his shirt, and turn around. The man complies; Pereda finds no weapons. He tells the young man to be careful in the desert. The man spits and turns back to his card game.

"My specific mission is to look for and protect migrants, to try and convince them to turn back," Pereda said. "There isn't anything I can do about guys like that. They might just be moving drugs, but they might also be planning to assault the others."

It was not always like this; migrants and drugs once occupied separate worlds. But tougher border enforcement has pushed the groups into the same obscure parts of the desert. The close company adds a new element of danger to migrants' already perilous journey, and may be responsible for a drop in immigration and economic decline in towns that depend on the migrants.

"The burreros sit there together with the migrants during the day and then attack and rob them after they move on at night," said Pereda, sliding into his government-issued pickup truck. "That's one reason why they have the masks."

Tighter space

Before arriving at La Sierrita, a migrant looking to cross this section of the border must pass through Altar, also in Sonora state. Once a sleepy agricultural outpost, Altar has reorganized its economy around human smuggling. Rows of stores sell backpacks, canned goods and electrolyte-infused soft drinks, while headhunters slip up behind the shoppers, whispering that they can arrange for a competent guide and a safe journey into the U.S.

During busy years, as many as half a million migrants pass through this town of 10,000, according to Grupo Beta. But fewer are coming through, and Altar is hurting.

Arrests in the Tucson border area were down by nearly a third between October and April, according to U.S. border officials. The Mexican government reports a 25% dip in its emigration rate. The recession is largely to blame, but analysts in the U.S. say the lack of jobs offers an incomplete explanation for why immigration in the region is apparently dropping. Mexico's drug cartels have become a more formidable presence here, taxing the coyotes and threatening their human cargo as they make their way to the border.

As drug smuggling groups find their profits pinched by tighter border enforcement, they have moved into human smuggling, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. And with good reason: The average migrant pays about $1,300 to $1,800 to be smuggled past the bolstered Border Patrol as well as fences, surveillance towers and other new security measures. What once was a wildcat operation with marginal profits has become big business.

"It's always been a cat-and-mouse game with the narcos," said Danny Rodriguez, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector. "As we seize more firearms and narcotics, they rethink their business. They are improving their operations while we improve ours."

The residents of Altar worry about the local economy, and talk of little else. The town's entrepreneurs are convinced that the cartels have scared off much of their client base.

A flophouse, one of dozens scattered throughout the town, sat empty, three blocks off the central plaza. Its four tiny rooms resemble prison cells: concrete walls and tightly arranged bunk beds. Guests pay about $3 a night for a plank of plywood and a tattered blanket. A pit-bull puppy is leashed next to the open-air shower.

"When we're full, we'll have 100 migrants staying here at a time," said the manager, who, like many businesspeople here, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "This year, we haven't had more than 40 people in a single day."

Early on a recent workday, a man and his wife set up their pushcart in the central plaza, offering instant coffee and tamales to the migrants waiting to head to the border.

"I used to make 1,000 pesos [about $75] a day; now I make about 100," said the husband. "I used to work with a coyote, too, getting people across the border. Not now, though; it's too dangerous."

Risking retribution

The plaza empties by 1 p.m. Those who remain seek refuge under sparse shade. They are mostly migrants stranded for another day. A few are headhunters.

"Five, 10 years ago, I would bring trucks of migrants into the U.S. through the Papago reservation," said one headhunter. He wore cowboy boots and a beat-up baseball cap, and carried two cellphones attached to his belt. "I had to pay $100 per truck to the Indians. They didn't ask me any questions. I brought people, marijuana, cocaine . . . It was all the same to them. But you can't do that anymore."

Nearby, drivers get impatient as their rusted, seatless vans languish half-empty.

"We're leaving, we're leaving, we're leaving, 2 for 1, 2 for 1, 2 for 1, let's go, let's go, let's go!" they shout.

Before making the trip, these drivers say, they must tell a local representative of the drug cartels how many people will be inside each of the vans, which are marked with stenciled numbers. They pay 1,500 pesos -- about $110 -- per head, depending on the migrant's country of origin. Cartel members wait along the road, taking careful inventory. Vehicles without authorization or with more passengers than reported risk violent retribution.

"In the last two to three years, there have been fewer customers, less money, and I don't plan on doing this much longer," said a guide who goes by the name Martin. A slight man lacking his two front teeth who looks almost sickly, Martin chain-smokes Marlboro Reds.

"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."

The vans creak with the weight of up to 30 people, and prepare to move out along an unpaved road known locally as "the route of death."

If all goes well, two bumpy, uncomfortable hours later the vans will arrive in the border town of Sasabe. The migrants and their guides will disembark and make their way to remote ranches such as La Sierrita.

Stories of trips gone wrong are legion. "There are stories you hear all the time, about trips that end in violence," said Marcos Burruel, who runs Altar's only free shelter for migrants. "If you haven't paid the correct tax, they will stop you, make everyone get out, drive the van to the side of the road and burn it."

Whispers of bloodshed along the road and its surrounding areas move from one migrant to the next, straddling the fine line that separates anecdote from urban myth. But they are credible enough to give some people pause before leaving Altar.

One migrant tells of a friend of a friend whose group witnessed a shipment of marijuana while waiting outside Sasabe for nightfall. Cartel members held them for a week, he said, keeping them from making phone calls while the drugs were rerouted. Another migrant speaks of chauffeurs murdered for underreporting the numbers they carried.

"It's no surprise that the presence of the cartels is affecting business in Altar," said David Kyle, sociology professor and research director of the Gifford Center for Population Studies at UC Davis. "A migrant has historically calculated risk by considering the classic dangers of random crime and the desert environment. Those aren't so different than the risks against him in Mexico, so they can be rationalized. But not criminal syndicates. The nature of that risk is probably unacceptable to most, because the fear isn't that they just go after you, but that if you cross them, they are powerful enough to go after your whole family, your whole village."

Back at La Sierrita, two migrants leave a card game and seek out their own patch of shade. They lie on their backs, tired and sunburned, surrounded by liters of warm water and an empty bag of potato chips. Nearby, proprietors of a tiny bodega drink cold beer and keep an eye on the burreros and the noisy card game. Everyone does their best to mind their own business and watch their own backs.

Cartel members are expected by sunset. The burreros need their loads before they can set out for Arizona.

In the increasingly complex structure of operations here, the cartels are the border's executives. The burreros are the employees, and the migrants represent a hybrid of client and product.

Each group has its own goal. None trusts the others. A prison-yard tension hangs over the desert.

Once they cross the line, they will part, each to a new set of perils. First, they wait together for darkness.

This article is part of the Los Angeles Times' Mexico Under Siege series. It also ran in the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, and The Huffington Post.

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