June 27, 2003

On the Inside of the Human Smuggling Business

By R. M. Arrieta
El Tecolote

June 20, 2003 - The tragedy at a South Texas truck stop in which 19 migrants died in an abandoned airless trailer packed with more than 100 undocumented migrants, has brought more attention to the plight of migrants crossing from Mexico to the U.S. and to those who smuggle them. The incident, which took place in Victoria, Texas, has been called the deadliest migrant-smuggling attempt in the United States in more than 15 years. Earlier this year, in Nogales, Mexico, I interviewed a young man who was trying to get out of the smuggling business. The 15-year-old, whom we will call “Manuel,” was a guide, or ‘guía’. He lives in one of the poorest colonias in Nogales. He told me he was trying to get out of the business because he says it is too dangerous.

How long have you been in the business?

Three years. I started at the age of 12. I took care of immigrants in a hotel in Nogales. I got them provisions, bought water — everything they needed and I paid for the hotel. There are some people who don’t know how to take care of immigrants, so they (the polleros) would pay me to do that. I would be paid $20 per person. I was a ‘caretaker.’ Then I became a guía.

How did you become a ‘guía’ (guide)?

A neighbor showed me. He invited me to come along and I learned the first time. It wasn’t very far and I learned the signs to watch for and how to do it. (how to read the landscape). For instance, on one of the routes there is a globo blanco and un faro rojo. You have to head to the faro rojo. From there take the path to the left where you see a white globo. From there we would get to the rest area in Naco.

How much can you make?

For instance, if there are 16 immigrants — that’s $1600 for me because they (the patron) pays $100 for each one we bring. They pay the levantores (drivers) $100 for each person. The polleros get more (take a bigger piece of the pie) because they do more, make contacts in the U.S., organize the people, find the safe houses. They pay the levantadores $100 and guías $100. Caretakers get about $20 per person.

How does the smuggling business work?

A polleros es el dueño de la gente. (He runs the smuggling organization). He is the patron, he’s the one who pays the people who work for him — such as the drivers, the guides, the caretakers; and the person whose house is used as a safehouse while they wait to go wherever they are headed in the U.S. Polleros are also in charge of the contacts on the other side. The guías (guides) take the people through the desert. I was a guía.

The patron paid me $100 for every immigrant I took. The more dangerous job is that of the levantador (driver), because if they are picked up (by the border patrol) and found guilty, they can be sentenced to 30 months in jail or 2 and a half years. The money is divided between the polleros in Mexico and the U.S. for the house, provisions, guides, drivers and caretakers.

How much does it cost to get from say, from the border of Arizona (Naco, Sonora, Mexico) to Phoenix?

If you leave from Naco, they (smugglers) charge each person $1,000. Altar and Naco are not the same. Altar is desert and Naco has more brush, hierba and it’s a better area to cross. Altar is harder and there is nothing. People go through Altar because the coyotes they get know that area. If they knew Naco they would pass them through Naco.

If the pollero asks for $1,000 to take someone to Phoenix, the $1,000 has to get to Phoenix, so that the people will be released. It might be sent through Western Union. If they (migrants) want to go to L.A. it is another $600. In total to get from Naco to L.A. will run about $1600.

How is it that so many take the risk of walking through the desert or mountains?

The pollero is astute. He will tell people it takes less time than it actually does. Sometimes they treat them (migrants) badly. In Altar, you walk two nights and three days. That’s what it takes to get to the U.S. to a point where a driver will pick them up. Over there, cars aren’t used. They often use trailers. And they don’t just take small groups. They can be up to 100 and up.

So how, exactly, does this work?

The last time I took care of 16 immigrants. That time the pollero hired two guías because of the size of the group. We got to Naco at about 8 p.m. When we got to where we needed to be, we started walking all night until about 3 a.m. Then we stopped in a ‘rest area.’ Our rest area is under the trees, very well hidden so that we could sleep well so that if a helicopter or plane flew over they wouldn’t see us.

Then we got up a 6 a.m. and started walking again until 9 a.m. Then we got to the other rest area. We stayed there all day and rested until 4 p.m. The plan was that at 8 p.m. we were going to be picked up (at a point inside the U.S.) That was going to be the pickup for the first batch of immigrants.

There were two groups, one that walked faster, and the other, that was slower. I stayed behind with the slower group. So the first car picked up the first group and the first driver was going to take them to Phoenix. There were eight of them.

In the second group, the ones I ended up with, were the slow ones, the older ones, the fatter ones. When we got closer to the pick up place, one guy could no longer walk. I told him rest, and that I would lead the other people to the place where they were to wait to be picked up. I told him I would be back. It was about 2 kilometers away. So I walked with them and settled them in and told them ‘do not move away. If a border patrol comes stay quiet. Do not move. If an airplane flies overhead, hide in the underbrush but don’t move.’

So what happened?

So I left the people there and returned for the guy. He could hardly walk. He was exhausted because he was a gordito. I told him ‘we are both going to stay here. I can’t leave you. I’m not like that.’ He told me to leave him, that a helicopter would fly over and he would flag them down for help. So I asked him ‘what happens if they don’t pick you up and instead you run into narcotraficantes? They could kill you.’ He kept telling me to leave him there, He was giving up. So I got some water and wet his neck and cabeza so that his body would cool off. So we rested there. There was nothing but sand and a little brush. We both fell asleep, and when we woke up his back was red and marked and my neck as well. We had ended up sleeping on top of an ant hill. We didn’t know it because we were so tired. We finally made it to the area where the rest of the immigrants were. There were to be three pickups: 8 p.m., midnight and 6 a.m.. All the polleros worked that way in that area.

We rested all day. Some slept and others just rested, but no one picked us up. We all stayed all day until 7:30 p.m. We suffered that night. But we got that far, and we were happy. There were two cars. One for the guías, and the other for the immigrants. We were in a car. They were in a van. We were behind them and on our way to Tucson, when the van was stopped.

They got all the immigrants. The friend of mine who was driving the car got 30 months in jail. But we got to (the safe house) in Phoenix.

So the patron called and asked if they all got there and I told him only 8 got through. At first he was upset but then he said, ‘ni modo, I still got 8 thousand dollars.’

Is there any thing that sticks out in your memory in regard to your experiences as a guía?

(Manuel laughs and says) Yes, there was a 70-year-old woman who wanted to cross. She knew one of the polleros. I didn’t think she would make it, but there was one immigrant, a gordito (fatty), who said out loud, ‘forget it, we’ll never make it. She’s going to hold us back!” and he made fun of her. Well when we got on the road, we looked like WE were the immigrants and she was the pollero. She told us, ‘no mijo, I am from a pueblo, I am used to walking.’ In the end, she’s the one who made it to the U.S. and the gordito was left behind. And that is the end of my story.

This story was produced under the George Washington Williams Fellowship for Journalists of Color, a project sponsored by the Independent Press Association.

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