Fresh Game

From all points south, they flock to a Sonoran bus station called "The Chicken Coop"

Agua Prieta, Sonora

The sign outside reads Terminal de Autobus, but locals on both sides of the border call the Agua Prieta bus station "The Chicken Coop."

Situated next to an industrial park on the windswept outskirts of town, past the point where paved roads surrender to the desert, the station itself is a cube of concrete, about the size of a convenience store, containing a ticket counter, a snack booth and a few cracked plastic chairs. Out back, surrounded by a chain-link fence, is a dirt lot where all the buses arrive full, with passengers standing in the aisles. But the buses leave practically empty.

That's because this forlorn outpost five kilometers south of the Arizona border is the last sanctioned stop for more than 1,000 travelers a day who come from cities, towns and villages throughout Mexico and Central America. These people don't have tickets home. Their backgrounds are different, their motivations vary, but their intent is common and focused: They're going to the United States, immigration laws be damned.

Some may die in the desert, thirsty and lost. Some may be robbed and murdered by borderland bandits who prey upon dislocated souls. Some will be caught and dumped back into Agua Prieta, where they will become crack heads, marooned in a low-rent boom town and smuggler's hive where drugs come easy and cheap.

But most of the migrants who flock through The Chicken Coop will make it to their final destination, any way they can.

One year ago, Agua Prieta had 120,000 permanent residents. Now the number of people in "A.P." on any given day is estimated by the local government to fluctuate between 200,000 and 220,000. The U.S. Border Patrol recently reported an average of 1,000 apprehensions every 24 hours in the Douglas area this year. Agents in the field say at least that many are evading capture.

Those that are caught in the desert are simply herded onto buses by the hundreds, driven to the border, and off-loaded through a deportation gate in a recently erected, three-mile-long steel barricade separating downtown Agua Prieta from downtown Douglas, Arizona. Once back in Mexico, the determined immigrants simply rest, make collect calls to the U.S., and wait for nightfall to play another round in a perpetual game of hide-and-seek.

It's a laugh or cry situation, and hanging around The Chicken Coop last week, I mostly laughed. Three or four times an hour there, the border tells the same cruel joke.

A bus pulls into the station, hydraulic brakes squealing and hissing, and rapidly disgorges a hundred or so dirty, tired people, many of them wearing so many layers of clothes they totter down the steps like Frankenstein's monster. The typical attire is two pairs of jeans and two denim jackets layered over a counterfeit Tommy Hilfiger sweatshirt and a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers tee shirt, with a New Kids on the Block stocking cap tilted on their head.

Others, slightly better equipped, carry water bottles and nylon Barbie or Marlboro Club day packs.

Most of these pieces of fresh meat clearly have no good idea what to do once they're off the bus, and they've been on the road for days, if not weeks, so they just plop down in the dirt in the fenced-in yard or the streets outside the station. And then, sometimes for hours, they'll just sit there, in huddled masses, nervously looking back and forth.

That's why they're called pollos -- chickens -- and the bus station their coop.

Usually there are a few taxis outside The Chicken Coop, and a ride to downtown Agua Prieta costs only 40 pesos (about $4.20). Usually a few groups of new arrivals will pool coins and cram into a taxi until the driver frantically signals no more. The cab takes off toward the border, oftentimes with doors still open and limbs flailing, its chassis crunching against its rear tires and trailing a cyclone of red dust.

Signs outside the station direct those who land in the Coop with no money toward the nearby maquiladoras, where they can work on assembly lines, cranking out circuit boards, televisions, Velcro, and other U.S.-bound products, earning less than a dollar an hour, plus two meals a day.

Across the street is a clapboard taqueria advertising sleeping space beneath its roof for 70 pesos per person, per night. Nearly everyone in Agua Prieta with space to rent has turned his home or business into a hostel, and builders are throwing up concrete block casa de huespuedes (guest houses) anywhere there is space, and as quickly as possible. Building codes? They don't need no stinking building codes.

Next to the bus station is a store selling two basic necessities for crossing the open desert -- shoes and water -- and next to this store is where the pollertos (loose translation: chicken wranglers) park their mid-'80s muscle cars, which are uniformly adorned with shiny gold rims.

The pollertos are easy to spot among the chickens. They're the young, slick dudes with pagers and cell phones dangling from their silver-studded belts. Pollertos are marketers who make their money recruiting business for the coyotes, professional smugglers who herd chickens through the desert -- or beneath it in one of the web of underground tunnels that have been used to transport narcotics from Agua Prieta to Douglas for decades. Once across, the chickens are transported to Phoenix and points beyond. Anywhere a chicken wants to go in the United States, a coyote can get him there, via Douglas and Phoenix.

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