Migrant's trip a rare look at smuggling scheme

By Jerry Kammer

September 7, 2004

LOS ANGELES His name was Hector, and he came from the Mexican state of Veracruz. At least that's what was on the Mexican identification card that got him through security screening at Los Angeles International Airport last spring and onto Southwest Airlines Flight 2211 to Baltimore.

But he was really Arturo from Honduras. The ID was a voter's credential from Mexico's Electoral Institute that belonged to someone else.

Maybe the original owner had lost it, or maybe it was stolen. Maybe he had sold it. Somehow it had fallen into hands skilled at manipulation, and now it bore Arturo's photo below the seal of Mexico.

The fraudulent ID was part of the expensive smuggling package that delivered Arturo, 38, and five cousins from their weary farmlands near the town of Juticalpa to another planet called Long Island, New York. The airport checkpoint, their first contact with U.S. federal officials, was their Ellis Island in the shadow land of illegal immigration.

With the understanding that his full name would not be disclosed, Arturo told the story of the journey that took him by bus, boat and car across Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, of encounters with Mexican police who demanded bribes and about the hooded border bandits who pounce upon immigrants as they prepare to enter the furnace of the Arizona desert southwest of Tucson.

Arturo's story offers a rare look into an efficient international smuggling band, part of the lucrative trade that every year transports several hundred thousand Latino immigrants across the Mexican border.

Most immigrants are poorly educated and unskilled refugees from rural poverty. They pour themselves into the crucible of jobs at the lowest reaches of the American economy, often working more than a year to repay loan sharks or relatives for their journey. The relatives usually are already a part of the vast illegal work force in the United States.

"My brothers say their life is a struggle; sometimes it's just work and sleep," Arturo said. "But for us, from Honduras, it is better."

Arturo said five brothers and a sister are already in New York, along with uncles, aunts and cousins. His parents and a sister remain in Juticalpa, where they depend upon the money the others send every month.

This man for whom the life of New York's working poor would be an upgrade has a strong back, a warm smile and a fourth-grade education. He has a wife and two children, 11 and 7, who will be able to live decently with the money he plans to send them. He also hopes to save the $15,000 it would take to bring them north.

It is for them that he left the few rolling acres that the family owns, a place where he had spent his entire life growing, picking, cleaning and drying coffee beans.

A series of shocks has bled the economic life from the land.

A glut in the international coffee market has hammered prices so much that "some years it doesn't even make sense to pick it," Arturo said. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed thousands and swept away the cattle upon which Arturo's family had depended.

There's hardly any work in Juticalpa, Arturo said, and what there is usually offers daily pay of 50 lempiras a little less than $3.

So Arturo hopes for the luck of a brother who makes $6 an hour in a glass factory by day and $5 an hour over a restaurant sink by night.

"I will work two jobs, if God permits me," said Arturo, who on the night before leaving Honduras was given a tearful send-off by his Pentecostal church. He had been too nervous to sleep.

The journey from Juticalpa began in mid-April with a bus ride to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. There, Arturo and his five cousins met the first of the five smugglers who would hand them off, relay style, on a three-week trip to Los Angeles.

None of the smugglers he described fit the popular image of the "coyotes" as ruthless and vulgar.

Arturo said they were pleasant men all Mexicans except for the first one, a Honduran who guided them to the Mexican border. And they didn't like to be called coyotes.

"They want to be called 'guides,' " Arturo said. "They say they provide a service. They say they are helping people."

His relatives on Long Island had wired him $2,500 half the smuggling fee so he could begin the journey. They would send the other half to Los Angeles, after receiving word that the men had arrived there. The total cost for the six cousins: $30,000.

Those who can borrow from relatives are lucky. Others seek out freelance lenders known as prestamistas, Arturo said. The prestamistas are careful to get signed notes declaring that the immigrants will lose their property unless they repay their loans at an interest rate of 10 percent per month.

At the Honduran Embassy in Washington, D.C., spokesman David Hernandez estimated that 650,000 Hondurans have come to the United States most of them in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch settling primarily in Los Angeles, New York, Houston and Miami.

Although the U.S. government granted about 90,000 a "temporary protected status" after the hurricane, many more are here illegally, Hernandez said.

Arturo's story makes clear that he and his cousins signed on with a well-oiled smuggling operation. The deal included all transportation and meals, plus a limited guarantee to get them past the Border Patrol.

"They said they would cross us (over the border) up to five times," he said.

But first they had to reach the border. They took a bus across Guatemala and a boat across the Umacinto River to Mexico, where a Mexican guide had two cars waiting. That allowed them to avoid Mexican immigration authorities who check the buses.

From there they drove across Chiapas state to the city of Villahermosa, where there was another handoff and where Mexican policemen shook them down, perhaps alerted by the backpacks that marked the men as immigrants.

"They said, 'If you don't give us money, we won't let you pass,' " Arturo recalled. He surrendered $54 worth of pesos. The police took $35 more from cousin Edgar, a 30-year-old whose Honduran home is so remote that he had only six months of schooling and struggled to print his name.

Well north of the Guatemala-Mexico border, they switched to buses and continued to Veracruz, where their photos were taken and neatly laminated over the images of the original owners of the voter identification cards. There, as elsewhere, they stayed in houses, where there were beds for some and foam cushions for others.

Then, with yet another guide, they boarded a bus for the boisterous border city of Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

It was there that the smuggling organization first showed its capacity to circumvent the Border Patrol. The guide informed them that la migra had too great a presence along the Texas border. So they boarded another bus, heading west on a 20-hour drive to Altar, a little town in the state of Sonora.

The economy there has boomed with smuggling dollars since 1994, when the Operation Gatekeeper buildup around San Diego pushed immigrant traffic toward Arizona.

A night later, after sleeping in triple-decker bunks, they were crossing the border. It was the evening of May 3, and the moon lighted their path through dry stream beds and over mountains.

The heat was terrible, Arturo said. They rested most of the day and then walked all night. They stopped twice to fill their water jugs at windmills built by local cattlemen.

Arturo said they neither saw nor heard the Border Patrol, which has trumpeted its buildup in the area through which the men crossed. The patrol's Tucson sector reports that it has been detaining slightly more than 2,000 people a day, nearly twice the rate of a year ago.

Yet no one disputes that many groups make it through the gray-green vastness, where much of the border is marked by a three-strand barbed-wire fence with gaps so big that many immigrant groups are driven across, in vehicles that are stolen in Tucson or Phoenix.

On the third night of their march, they had a rendezvous with a van waiting to take them to a house in Phoenix. There they learned that because of the heightened migra presence at Sky Harbor Airport, they would be diverted to Los Angeles.

So on May 6, they and six other ilegales climbed into a van for the drive. Once in Los Angeles, they shed the clothes that had been battered on the three-week trip to the north and dressed in new shirts and pants bought for them by the smugglers for the flight east.

None of the men spoke English. Arturo didn't even know how to say "thank you." So they couldn't understand the flight attendant who asked passengers to wear their seat belts "low and tight, the way Britney Spears wears her pants."

Nor could they speak with the Southwest Airlines agent in Baltimore, who handed them new boarding passes for Flight 146 to he Long Island town of Islip.

The irony of that last leg of the journey probably went unappreciated: Only Arturo's ticket had been paid for. The other men, who had never been on an airplane before that day, were traveling on free tickets the smugglers had earned from Southwest's frequent-flier program.