Fresh Game

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

Of course, this service carries a price, which continues to rise as the U.S. government continues to convert the Arizona/Sonora border into a military zone.

I got to know one pollerto named Francisco, who said he was 19. Francisco was proud of his clothes: new, pressed black jeans, a clean, black-and-white flannel shirt, and a New York Yankees cap, which he doffed to display the official Major League Baseball logo sewn to its seam, proof it wasn't a knockoff like those worn by his customers.

Francisco told me he grew up in Mexico City, and now divides his time between chicken wrangling outside the bus station in Agua Prieta and inside the Hotel Regis in Nogales, Sonora, an hour's drive west. He also drives sedans full of illegals to Phoenix and Denver, on alternating weeks. Francisco said he gets paid $25 for each pollo he nets for one of three coyotes who pay him on a freelance basis. When he's the driver, he gets $300 for each carload he takes to Phoenix, and $500 for each trip to Denver.

Milwaukee-bound migrants, across the street from "The Chicken Coop."
J. Close
Milwaukee-bound migrants, across the street from "The Chicken Coop."

With Francisco's permission, I shadowed him as he made his rounds. To each group of new, potential customers, he pitched the same basic package: $500 per person to get to Phoenix, with a money-back guarantee if you're intercepted by Border Patrol. If you don't have the money on you, that's fine. You can have someone wire it to you in Phoenix once you arrive, but you'll be kept inside a house in Phoenix until the right people get paid.

After three tries, Francisco didn't have a single taker. He was in the process of telling me to get lost because I was scaring the customers when he was approached by a young man decked out head to toe in counterfeit Nike gear. The prospect said he needed to get to Chicago.

Francisco yanked his phone out, punched a number, got a quote, and relayed the news: A trip to Chicago would cost $1,400 -- including $500 up front, the rest upon arrival in the Windy City. Nike boy said that was fine. He had one brother waiting for him in Chicago, and another on the way to Agua Prieta who would probably arrive the next afternoon. Nike boy said his brother could pay the same price. Francisco jotted his cell phone and pager numbers on the back of a business card for a used car dealer in Benson, Arizona, then told the customer to check into a certain hotel in downtown Agua Prieta.

They won't charge you for the room, Francisco said. Just use my name, and call me once your brother arrives. Francisco waved for a taxi, opened the door for his customer, and handed the driver a 50 peso bill.

Then Francisco said he had to split. Before he climbed into his maroon Firebird, though, he remarked that Nike boy needed to wise up, quick, if he wanted to make it out of Agua Prieta. The fool didn't even haggle over the price, Francisco said. Also, Nike boy had revealed he was carrying at least $1,000 in cash, then let Francisco tell him where to spend the night.

Maybe he'll still have the money when his brother arrives, Francisco said, maybe he won't.

Francisco tore down a side street, and I walked to a nearby liquor store and bought a pair of 40-ounce Tecate bombas. I cracked one open and offered the other to the oldest man in a group of seven Mexicans sitting outside a hostel across from the shoe store.

The old man waved off the beer, but gestured for me to join them. There were three women and four men, all part of an extended family from Guadalajara except for the youngest woman, whose boyfriend is the old man's nephew. I noticed her hair was cut short and she kept touching it. She said she'd cut it herself recently because it's better for a woman to travel that way. She said the lot of them were bound for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to work in a beer brewery. She said it had taken them two days on a bus to reach Agua Prieta, that they'd been there three nights, and had hired a coyote to take them across the line after it got dark. She said her boyfriend was waiting for her in Wisconsin, and when she said this the shine in her eyes amid so much ugliness was like the first strong, spring sun, vanquishing the deep, dark winter that awaits her at journey's end.

I was about to ask how and where they were crossing and how much they had to pay once they were in Milwaukee when the old man sitting next to me turned his head away, murmuring to me there was danger. He flicked his hand toward the street. I looked and saw a pollerto walking across the road, smiling, staring at me, carrying a long, black-handled knife in his right hand.

I thought about that old saying -- that it's a lot better to have a gun and not need one than to need a gun and not have one. Then I felt stupid. The blundering gringo journalist, about to get yard-shanked next to a mystery-meat taco stand. I shifted my grip on the neck of my bottle so I could swing it and debated whether to stand up. The pollerto stopped three steps away.

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