Desperate trek in desert

Enforcement pressure makes desolate Arizona border area a favorite

By Jerry Kammer

September 7, 2004

PEGGY PEATTIE / Union-Tribune
Eduardo Rojas (left), a migrant from Chiapas, waited in the main square of Altar, Mexico, with hopes of traveling to the United States. The small town has boomed in recent years as a jumping-off point for refugees from economic desperation.

* Migrant's trip a rare look at smuggling scheme

ALTAR, Mexico – At first look, this ragged town in the Sonoran Desert could be a funky resort. The platoons of young people prowling the dusty streets in baseball caps and T-shirts could be college kids on vacation, heading to the beach on the Gulf of California to the west.

But for the hundreds of travelers who step off buses here every day, the draw is the United States, about two hours north. They know it as el otro lado – the other side – of a three-strand barbed-wire fence that has been ripped up, sliced through or knocked down in many places by smugglers of immigrants or drugs.

The immigrants meet their smugglers in this Mexican version of Casablanca, population about 7,500. Once a gas stop on the highway to Tijuana and a quiet trading center for ranchers and grape farmers, the town has boomed in recent years as a jumping-off point for refugees from economic desperation. It bulges with $3-a-night flophouses that stack immigrants in triple-decker bunks.

Cynthia Perez has come from the city of Veracruz because she is disgusted with her earnings from a 50-hour-a week job taking care of the three children of a pair of university teachers. They paid her 600 pesos a week, less than $60.

One in an occasional series
"That is nothing," groused the 21-year-old, who said her destination was Kokomo, Ind. Relatives await her there, along with a job at a restaurant.

Four young men who have just arrived from the state of Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala, say coffee prices there have fallen so low that pay for harvesting the beans has dropped to 30 pesos a day, or about $3.

To escape such soul-shriveling frustration, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans every year entrust themselves to smugglers – also known as "coyotes" because of their toughness, elusiveness and ability to exploit the environment.

In the first six months of this year, Mexican border agents tallied 201,000 immigrants on the bruising, 50-mile dirt road from Altar through the desert to the Arizona border. And that was just between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., when they manned their sole checkpoint. There they caution immigrants jammed into vans about the dangers of the desert.


Increased border enforcement in urban areas such as San Diego and El Paso, Texas, has been a boon for smugglers who take immigrants into Arizona through the forbidding Sonoran Desert.

Hundreds of millions in cash is wired to smugglers in Arizona every year to pay the fees of immigrants who cross illegally despite the risk of death on long treks.
It used to be that smugglers were city people. Many were informal operators who did little more than point to a hole in a relatively flimsy border fence. Some formed immigrants into flying squads that would rush the San Ysidro Port of Entry, racing past exasperated U.S. authorities and bewildered tourists heading to Tijuana.

In the decade since special operations such as Gatekeeper in San Diego County have been in place, the U.S. Border Patrol has choked off the illegal free-for-all through urban areas.

The operation was a boon to smugglers, who have tripled their fees from pre-Gatekeeper days, said UCSD immigration expert Wayne Cornelius.

Gatekeeper's urban squeeze pushed the immigrants into more desolate zones. Dozens of them die north of Altar each year, baked by the sun in a landscape rimmed with mountains as jagged as lightning.

Backpacks and frijoles
But for each one who dies, 1,000 to 2,000 make it through, experts estimate. Those odds are good enough for those who live on a ranchito, where misery is a sure thing.

"Better to die of heat in the desert than of starvation at home," goes a standard immigrant line.

Juilvido Perez laid out sheets over a mattress in the courtyard of an aid center for migrants in Altar, Mexico.
The bravado is fueled by the pragmatic understanding that if they can make it past the Border Patrol, they have a good chance of finding a job. The U.S. government, so eager at the border, has shown little interest in watching the workplace.

As a result, the illegal-immigrant population in the United States has mushroomed to about 10 million, from an estimated 3.5 million in 1990, said Urban Institute demographer Jeffrey Passel.

Immigrants fall in line in Altar for the hike through the Sonoran Desert, a vast landscape bristling with cactuses and rattlesnakes. They carry small backpacks stuffed with canned frijoles and foot powder. Liter bottles of flavored electrolyte fluids fly off the shelves of small grocery stores surrounding the plaza of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church in Altar.

The Border Patrol is clamping down on this portion of the Arizona border. As the lead agency in the Arizona Border Control Initiative, it is trying to seal off the 261 miles of the Tucson sector with the same efficiency it did a decade ago in such border zones as San Diego and El Paso.

It's an enormous challenge, and the Border Patrol is pouring in more agents – many of them shifted from assignments in San Diego. There are 2,200 agents in the Tucson sector now, up from 2,000 a year ago. In 1994, there were 287.

The Border Patrol's antagonists, the smugglers, loom as legendary figures south of the border. Some win immigrants' praise and even gratitude for performing a service with businesslike efficiency.

But some abandon stragglers to die alone. Some rev them up with the stimulant ephedra, goading them toward a rendezvous with a van or sport utility vehicle that might be stashed in a nearby arroyo beneath mesquite trees or waiting in darkness near a prearranged site at a mile marker on Arizona Highway 86, 45 miles from the border.

From there, it's an hour to Interstate 10 and two hours more to Phoenix, where the immigrants are held in stash houses until their relatives wire payments to ensure delivery to points across the United States.

That is, of course, unless the immigrants are arrested by the Border Patrol. When that happens, they know that if they cause no fuss, la migra will quickly process them and return them to the border. Most will then turn around for another attempt.

Cash flow
The money flowing to Arizona has become a torrent, said Michael Turner, special agent in charge of investigations in the Phoenix office of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Turner estimates that 75 percent of the $800 million being wired to Arizona money-transfer shops each year is payments to smugglers.

Immigrants can choose from a variety of package deals.

A three-day hike to Tucson could cost as little as $800. A trip that routes an immigrant to the East Coast might run three times that.

But there's one basic rule in reckoning a smuggler's charges, said José Marinero, who was trying to make it back to a job with an irrigation services company in Phoenix. "He who walks less pays more," Marinero said.

Some immigrants, such as Bernardino Becerra, are seduced with lies about the length of the trek. "They told us we would walk 10 hours," he said. Instead, they walked 30 hours, only to be arrested by the Border Patrol.

Migrants from Los Mochis waited in a riverbed outside Altar. In the first six months of this year, Mexican border agents tallied 201,000 immigrants on the bruising, 50-mile dirt road from Altar through the desert to the Arizona border.
Becerra, a 41-year-old industrial engineer who lost a shoe-factory job that paid him about $100 a week, spoke bitterly of the deception after riding a Border Patrol bus back to the border.

Most members of the group were returning to Altar, two hours away by bus. But Becerra was giving up. He said he would return to Leon, Guanajuato, and look up the man who assembles groups of immigrants and delivers them to smugglers for a commission.

"When I arrived in Altar, they charged me $900," said Becerra, who has three daughters. That was half the fee. The other half would be due when he arrived in Washington state, where a friend who worked in a restaurant had lined up a job.

"I am going to get my money back," he vowed.

Paul Charlton, the U.S. attorney for the district of Arizona, said more resources have been directed to the state, resulting in more prosecutions in the past year. But authorities have no way to gauge how many smuggling organizations there are.

Charlton said he would welcome more help from Mexican authorities.

"I'm always pleased when the Mexican government takes steps against these groups," he said. "I applaud them for their efforts. The problem is that it's never sustained and it doesn't happen frequently enough."

Desert violence
The big money of smuggling has brewed big trouble in Arizona. Twice in the past year, rival smuggling bands have shot it out on Interstate 10 to Phoenix as one tried to steal immigrants from another.

"People around here were stunned," said Celestino Fernandez, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson. "They said, 'I drive up there all the time and I don't want to get into that.' "

Arizonans also were shocked by a spate of slayings in which the killers dumped their victims in the desert. Authorities suspect that at least some of the victims were illegal immigrants, killed because smugglers didn't get their money.

At the border town of Sasabe, Mexico, migrants often use the service of smugglers, called "coyotes," to get across the border.
Public outcry against the violence helped jolt Washington, D.C., into the Border Control Initiative. But even now, Border Patrol authorities acknowledge that the idea of sealing such a vast border is illusory. In Arizona they face a geographical challenge unknown to San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper, where they jammed the border like a goal-line defense.

In the vastness of the Arizona desert, where much of the border is a two-hour drive from Border Patrol stations in Tucson and Casa Grande, the federal government is playing a preventive defense that drops back and makes many arrests 40 to 75 miles north of the border. So while the Tucson sector comprises 261 linear miles of border, its agents patrol 90,530 square miles of desert.

The Border Patrol's Kevin Stevens, one of the architects of the Arizona strategy, describes the situation as a war of attrition, a battle of wills.

"A good portion of them will probably eventually make it through," he said. "But when they do, they are going to call back home and say, 'Boy, it was tough.' "

Stevens said that eventually, smugglers will have to look elsewhere.

In suburban Washington in mid-July, a woman named Rocío explained how the man who controls smuggling from her region of Chiapas has already reacted to the Arizona buildup.

The man, who finances the immigrants' 25,000-peso journeys (about $2,500) and charges 10 percent interest per month, arranged for her to fly to Tijuana and take a bus across Baja California to San Luis Rio Colorado, a town just across the Arizona border, south of Yuma.

From there she walked two hours to meet a ride, which took her to Phoenix and then on to relatives waiting just beyond the Capital Beltway. She now makes Big Macs under the Golden Arches.

Raw economic need propels immigration. Yet Michael Turner of Immigration and Customs Enforcement says the United States has an equally urgent national security goal in knowing whether immigrant smugglers are also bringing in drugs.

In California, where Turner used to work, "there was a real distinction between drug-smuggling groups and alien smugglers," he said. "But here there is more of a mixing. That is one of the big concerns in (the Department of Homeland Security). We see smuggling routes as vulnerable for possible terrorist activity.

"We have concerns that if you are willing to smuggle aliens and dope, what else are you willing to smuggle?"