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.

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.

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.

I tried not to look scared. It didn't work. The pollerto kept smiling.

"Oh," he said, looking at the knife as if he was surprised to suddenly find a blade in his hand. "Is this scaring you? No problem." He passed it to the old man, who let it fall in his lap.

"You're a problem," he said. "Who are you? Why are you here, asking questions?"

I told him I was just a tourist.

"This is not a place for tourists," he said. "There are no tourists here."

I told him he was right. Obviously, I'd made a mistake. He nodded and kept smiling. I stood up with my beer, wished the old man good luck, and walked away.

As I slid into a taxi, I noticed a new bus had pulled into the station. The "Futura" line 3 o'clock from Ciudad Obregón. The company's slogan was painted on the side: Bienvenidos a la Futura!

Welcome to the future.

Contact David Holthouse at his online address: david.holthouse@newtimes.com

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