Phoenix or Busted

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

He likes to listen to hard rock music while working at the central Phoenix car wash where he's been employed intermittently since he was 15. He repeatedly travels back and forth between Phoenix and his home in Culiacán, Sinaloa.

Colosio likes the money he can make more than Phoenix culture. "I don't know how you say it in English, but the people are racistas in Phoenix. I don't think they like Mexicans much there."

Still, he can make $80 a day at the car wash, as compared to $40 a week in Culiacán. Plus, he has family and friends in Phoenix. His mother, ex-wife and son live here. He stays with them, so he can send more money back home to his brother and sister, who are struggling to pay school fees. Colosio knows he wouldn't starve if he stayed in Culiacán, but he wouldn't be able to buy his designer clothing, either. He's driven to cross less by desperation than ambition.

Detained by the Border Patrol, a group of a dozen UDAs sits in the scrub along the highway between Douglas and Bisbee.
Paolo Vescia
Detained by the Border Patrol, a group of a dozen UDAs sits in the scrub along the highway between Douglas and Bisbee.
A warning sign put up by the Mexican government advises travelers to watch out for venomous animals (the wording at the bottom translates to "National Program for the Protection of Migrants").
Paolo Vescia
A warning sign put up by the Mexican government advises travelers to watch out for venomous animals (the wording at the bottom translates to "National Program for the Protection of Migrants").

Colosio's hope is to eventually save enough money in U.S. wages to buy a home for his mother so his whole family can live together.

Trouble is, he misses home when he's in Phoenix, and so he keeps going back and forth.

"It's all routine, now," he says.

But it's still not easy.

Colosio got lost in the desert for three days a few crossings back, and he's hired coyotes to get him to Phoenix since. As soon as night falls, a smuggler will come for him at the hotel and drive him outside of town to a spot in the desert where there is no border fence.

From there, he must traverse the desert alone for 30 minutes to a road where a taxi will take him to Tucson, where he will contact another coyote who will drive him to Phoenix. If he makes it, he must pay $800.

The past two nights, he hasn't made it. Border Patrol agents have caught him and dumped him back in Agua Prieta.

He's tired of playing hide and seek, he says, but hopes tonight will be the night. A torturous dust storm that rose with the sun this morning will make it hard to dodge the cactuses when he runs. Colosio is undeterred.

"I'll go every day until I reach the end," he says.

He shoulders his Nirvana knapsack and fades into the wind-ripped night.


Way station or not, few Valley residents recognize the daily effects of illegal immigration. In Agua Prieta and Douglas, the impacts are as catastrophic as they are ubiquitous.

Thousands of people sleep on the streets of downtown Agua Prieta each night, or in gutted, graffitied buildings along the border fence. Others pool resources and rent a room in a casa de huespedes (guest house), where a small sleeping space goes for $2 to $4 a night, more if there's hot water.

Curio shops that once catered to gringo tourists now sell bottled water and shoes, or have converted to luncherias that offer cheap, all-you-can-eat specials where men and women toting jugs of water and plastic sacks full of clothes stuff themselves before attempting to cross the desert. Agua Prieta is full of life, and one-half of it wants nothing more than to leave.

A strikingly different vision of life in Agua Prieta covers one wall in the office of the city's mayor, Vicente Terán Uribe. Painted 25 years ago by Terán Uribe's father, it depicts an idyllic landscape where a man bales hay alongside his diligent, pink-cheeked children. Cattle graze beneath a pale blue sky.

A stout man with a ruddy complexion and slick, jet black hair, Terán Uribe is fond of referring to himself as the Mexican James Bond. He arrives for an interview with two bodyguards in cowboy hats who are considerably more threatening than the furry, stuffed gorillas on the shelves above Terán Uribe's desk.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration once included Terán Uribe on its list of the top 20 narcotics traffickers in Mexico -- an allegation Terán Uribe denies. In any case, he is immensely popular in AP -- in fact, the DEA designation probably helped ensure his election.

Last month, Terán Uribe postured as something of an international rabble-rouser as well, issuing public bulletins, and TV and radio advertisements encouraging the thousands of migrants who use Agua Prieta as a staging area to demand formal deportation hearings if they're caught on U.S. soil.

"These people have every right to be here, and they have to go around like criminals," says Terán Uribe. "These are people who want to work, want to live better lives and send money to their families. They cross to the U.S. and it's the same. They must live hidden lives. It's not right."

The goal of Terán Uribe's call to action is to create a logistical nightmare for already stressed U.S. immigration courts. He blames U.S. immigration policy for turning his city into a refugee camp.

"Agua Prieta is the Kosovo of Mexico," he says.

Street crime is off the charts. Drug abuse is rampant. Orphanages are full of discarded children. Streets are full of garbage and human waste. Tourism has been nullified by the tired, huddled masses on every littered corner.

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