Phoenix or Busted

The Valley is now the prime way station for ruthless smugglers engaged in the lucrative trafficking of human cargo -- illegal immigrants

There are women in tattered cotton shawls who kneel outside the border crossing station in Nogales, Sonora, to sell jigsaw puzzle maps of the continental United States. The maps, cut into 50 cardboard pieces shaped like states, are made in China.

One of these maps has traveled from China to Nogales to a stash house for illegal immigrants in central Phoenix, where an ever-revolving cast is being held virtual prisoners until they can pay off the men who have smuggled them to Phoenix.

Thirty men lie on the bare floor of the house or sit against the wall. Five new arrivals huddle around the map, picking out pieces of the puzzle to show where they are headed. Two are bound for Dodge City, Kansas, to work in slaughterhouses. One points to Washington state, where an assembly-line job awaits him. The last two men are off to Las Vegas. One says he'd rather go to Chicago if he can raise the extra $600 the smugglers who got him to Phoenix will demand.

Colosio waits by a pay phone in Agua Prieta just before crossing to the U.S.
Colosio waits by a pay phone in Agua Prieta just before crossing to the U.S.
Seconds after this photo was made, the three men atop the fence dropped into America. They were quickly apprehended.
Paolo Vescia
Seconds after this photo was made, the three men atop the fence dropped into America. They were quickly apprehended.

Two years ago, the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service estimated there were 400 such stash houses in the Phoenix area. The number is now 1,000, not counting cheap hotels.

"The human-smuggling business in Phoenix is booming," says James Jankowski, lead investigator for the INS Alien Smuggling Unit. "The profit is massive, and the overhead is minimal. A few loaves of bread, some bologna, a U-Haul trailer, and you're in business."

As Mexico's economy continues to stagnate, and shifts in U.S. Border Patrol policies continue to funnel illegal immigrants to the Arizona border, the southeastern region of this state has become the primary corridor for illegal immigration into the United States, with disastrous results for communities in both nations.

Simultaneously, the Valley has been transformed into the first and largest way station on the expanding and perilous underground railroad for undocumented workers eager to increase their wages by a factor of 10.

"The Phoenix area is now the transportation hub for illegal immigration all across the country," says INS undercover investigator Hector Soto, who leads agents who infiltrate smuggling rings. "We take down as many smugglers as we can, but we're overwhelmed."

So is the stash house's living room, where the 30 men wait. They wear dusty jeans, sweat shirts layered over tee shirts, and baseball caps. Disney characters, pro sports logos, and Tommy Hilfiger counterfeits are the popular fashion.

The house's dim interior is barren, except for backpacks and the jigsaw map of America, assembled in a corner. The men around the puzzle nervously wave away detailed questions about their passage to Phoenix, though all five say they came via the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora, where they hired professional smugglers, or coyotes, to guide them into this country.

Four hours by car from downtown Phoenix, Agua Prieta is separated from Douglas, Arizona, by a curved, steel fence. The bars in the fence are just wide enough to allow children in "AP" to hurl rocks and bottles at Border Patrol trucks cruising the wasteland on the other side.

Cell-phone-toting coyotes in AP quote prices of $400 to $800 for transportation to Phoenix, with custom trips available to anywhere in the U.S. for a negotiable, higher fee.

A coyote soliciting business outside the Agua Prieta bus station recently ran down this price list: Chicago, $1,400; New York, $1,500; Atlanta or Dodge City, $1,200; Seattle, $1,600; Sacramento or Denver, $1,000.

"Illegal immigration keeps increasing, and the price is going up to meet the demand," says Soto.

But with the increase in profits has come an increase in violence. In August, one crew of coyotes hijacked another's load on the way to Phoenix. The hijackers set up a buy-back meeting in the parking lot of an auto parts store at 22nd Street and McDowell. But when the two smuggling teams met in the night, gunfire was exchanged instead of money. Three people died -- one smuggler from each side and a 15-year-old girl (treated by all the smugglers as stolen property) who was shot by accident as she waited in a truck.

Two weeks after that gunfight, in a less-publicized incident, a group of coyotes broke into another crew's stash house in Maryvale and began pistol-whipping two of the smugglers inside. They demanded information about the whereabouts of a business associate who had double-crossed them. They left, seemingly satisfied, then burst into the house again that night, ordered one of the smugglers onto his hands and knees, and, in front of a house full of people, shot him in the back of the head. (The alleged killer has since been caught.)

Last year, according to Soto, stash house bullies held a gun to the head of a 15-year-old boy while his father called his wife in New York to explain that the trigger would be pulled if she didn't wire money within three hours.

"These people are no better than drug smugglers," says Soto.

The INS estimates coyotes move at least 100,000 illegal immigrants through Phoenix every month. A few stay, the majority leave as soon as their ransoms are paid or they're passed to another group of smugglers, some of whom advertise their services on Central American radio stations.

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