Phoenix or Busted

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

In just the past year, the city's 125,000 permanent residents have been matched by a floating population of another 125,000 who linger on any given day, waiting to cross.

One of the men eager to help them, for a stiff price, is peeling the foil from a gum wrapper he then uses to roll a joint. He lounges on a park bench in Agua Prieta's town square.

"It's my day off," says Tony Montana, a coyote who got his broken English from a year in a Denver jail, and assumed his name from Scarface, Brian De Palma's 1983 cinematic celebration of narcotics trafficking.

Having lost one round in a never-ending game of hide and seek, these UDAs are herded back into Mexico.
Paolo Vescia
Having lost one round in a never-ending game of hide and seek, these UDAs are herded back into Mexico.
Debating their chances for that night's crossing, men wait for a coyote to pick them up near the Agua Prieta border station.
Paolo Vescia
Debating their chances for that night's crossing, men wait for a coyote to pick them up near the Agua Prieta border station.

"I got caught with sola," Montana says. Cocaine. Now he smuggles people instead of drugs.

The money's better, and if the cops in America intercept his merchandise, they just send it back to him.

Montana, 25, laughs at the irony as he takes a hit off his spliff.

He laughs harder at the suggestion that the two Agua Prieta police officers eating ice cream across the street might bust him for smoking pot.

"They work for me," he says.

Montana works with three other specialists. The first is charged with finding customers and striking deals. Two run stash houses -- one in Phoenix, and one in Sierra Vista. Montana's job is to get the customers (he calls them "pollos," for "chickens") from Agua Prieta to Phoenix, via Sierra Vista. (Last week in Sierra Vista, police found 140 Mexicans stowed in four hotel rooms.)

Montana says there are tunnels beneath Douglas he uses for chickens willing to pay triple ($2,400). He prefers the tunnels, because seven times since last summer he's been caught guiding a group of pollos through the desert. He got away clean by acting like a chicken himself. He even got free van rides back to his home base.

His closest call came last January, when a Border Patrol chase car tried to pull him over while he was on the highway between Douglas and Bisbee, driving a four-door sedan carrying 10 people.

Montana says when he heard the siren, he pulled the car off the road to the left, opened his door, then cranked the wheel to the right and stomped the gas just as he jumped out and ran into the desert, so the car would race, driverless, into the oncoming lane of traffic, forcing the Border Patrol agent to go after the car instead of him.

The Border Patrol has no specific record of this incident because it's happened dozens of times. "It's one of their favorite tricks," says Woodrum.

Montana thought nothing of risking the 10 lives in that car.

"Fuck those chickens, bro," he says. "They're stupid. They pay us all their money because they don't know where they are, or how to go. All they know how to do is get here, and then sit around, looking stupid."

He shrugs.

"I lose 10 that night, I got 20 the next day."

Student poems on display in the front window of Prep-Tech High School in Douglas speak of typical teen angst, but are infused with an unmistakable sense of place. One, titled "Empty Soul," reads, "My world of boundaries, a world of panic, I feel it every time I try to break these boundaries."

A stroll up the main strip gives the impression that Douglas -- once the western headquarters of Phelps Dodge Corporation -- has been long abandoned. It is filled with empty storefronts, deserted buildings and a dozen auto body shops. Of the stores that are still in business, there are few patrons and rarely a shopkeeper. A white sign with black lettering on the side of McCain's wholesalers offers the only visible shred of optimism: "Pray for Douglas, miracles can still happen!"

Sitting in his office in Douglas City Hall, Mayor Ray Borane slowly twirls a metal sculpture of a cow and her calf as he turns over the problems in his mind.

"I've got an army garrisoned in my town, and we've had to turn Douglas into a military zone, just so we can push these people out into the desert, so at least they're not running through the streets of Douglas.

"That's all that's being accomplished here, and that's not much."

Borane's office is six blocks north of the border gate to Agua Prieta. There, day and night, Border Patrol vans arrive in a sporadic convoy, weaving through traffic in the lane marked "Mexico Only" with lights flashing.

Each van, sometimes even a school bus, is packed with UDAs (Border Patrol speak for "undocumented aliens") who have been apprehended in the desert.

Border Patrol agents stop the vans in front of the border gate, throw open the back doors, and herd the prisoners a few feet back into Agua Prieta.

Presto. Instant deportation.

The first stop for most of the expelled captives is a bank of pay phones conveniently located just inside the fence. The phones offer collect calls to the U.S. and anywhere in Mexico. The conversations are mostly short, and go like this: "They caught me. I'll try again tonight."

Most of them will try at least two kilometers east of town, because the farther east you drive on the dirt roads outside Douglas, the farther the border fence devolves. This is not a line in the sand, but something akin to a maximum-security facility that keeps people out rather than in. From the city, the fence goes from high steel poles to ribbed slabs of sheet metal to trampled barbed wire and then nothing, where one can stand with a foot in both nations.

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