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Do or Die

A cross near Altar, the staging area for Mexicans entering the United States, commemorates those who have died during the perilous journey.
Peter Scanlon

Francisco Valencia's home in San Isidro, Sonora, would be heaven if it wasn't in Mexico. He lives under a grove of pomegranate trees on a farm along the cottonwood-lined valley of the Rio Magdalena where his four grandsons run wild most every sun-baked afternoon of the year.

He walks with his children and grandchildren every Sunday to Mass in the 300-year-old Mission of Magdalena, the loveliest in the archipelago of great missions built by Padre Kino in what are now northern Sonora and southern Arizona.

Like most men here, he has never wanted to leave.

Unlike most, though, he only had to leave once.

That was 1967, during the heart of the old Bracero Program. His daughter Carmen was gravely ill. He needed money for her heart medicine.

He made his way to Los Angeles, then to fields outside Sacramento. It was an easy trip. He worked for 45 days, then returned to San Isidro with enough money for the cure.

Valencia is 77. He is strong for his age, but he is hunched now with legs bowed like ice tongs. If he were younger and healthier, he says, he would again return to work in America.

Things are finally that bad again.

"There is pain all around," he says. "These are very difficult times."

So difficult that an estimated half a million Mexicans last year paid smugglers between $500 and $2,000 to drive them from Altar, about 60 miles west of here, up 60 miles of dirt roads to the U.S. border where they embark on a four-day hike through a searing knife-flora gauntlet of desolate Sonoran Desert toward the goal of a minimum-wage job in the United States.

More than 2,000 have died making that trip -- some reduced to nothing more than racks of bleached bone along the way. Many more have been robbed, held hostage, raped, kidnapped and otherwise brutalized. Tens of thousands more have been caught and sent back by an increasingly aggressive and effective U.S. border patrol, as well as by the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement group under the Department of Homeland Security.

In 2004, the trip into Arizona, usually to Phoenix, was far more expensive, far more dangerous and far less likely to succeed than at any time in history.

Still, with the intensity of the fabled Oklahoma Land Rush -- and for many of the same reasons -- migrants push out each day from the staging town of Altar for the U.S. border near the tiny U.S. border town of Sasabe.

There, they cross the border with the help of smuggling organizations that U.S. immigration enforcement officials say are now larger, more sophisticated and more violent than ever before. Federal agents who spoke to New Times estimate there are now about 50 major smuggling groups with as many as 300 employees each that operate out of Phoenix.

And these groups are much richer. Federal agents estimate that more than half a billion dollars in payments were wired last year to human smugglers in the Phoenix area.

For most Americans, the idea of risking so much for what seems like so little is insanity.

"But it's a very simple thing," Valencia says. "For many, you go, or you don't live."

Basic economics.

Even more so now. Especially now.

It's the drought, which hits a Third World country such as Mexico harder. It's the Mexican government. It's the promise of a better life in the United States. It's a new story that's as old as Mexico, as old as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

New is the severity of the drought, the baked mud in the diversion canal above Valencia's field that brings no water from the weed-choked bed of a meandering sand bar called the Rio Magdalena.

Valencia could not plant crops this year. He can't afford the 50,000-peso government permit for a deeper well. Pinch the faded leaves of his fruit trees and they crunch and crumble like corn flakes.

New is the tariff-free produce from the massive, corporate farms in America, against which small local farmers can't compete. Soon, thanks to more late-activating clauses in the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement, even more products, most notably American wheat and corn, will come here without tariffs. The Mexican farmer -- working land unfed by a Salt River Project or a Central Arizona Project and unsubsidized like his American counterpart, working land unnourished from an SRP or a CAP -- is without hope on even more fundamental levels than ever before.

An estimated 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced from their land since 1994. Basically, farmers here won't be able to compete with American produce prices, even if they are ever able to grow crops again.  

Now, the lifeblood of this Sonoran valley is the American-owned factory, known as a "maquiladora" or "twin plant," that pays five dollars a day. Two of Valencia's children work there.

Many of Sonora's other American-owned factories, especially in the textile and electronics industries, already have moved for cheaper labor elsewhere.

Still, it would take a worker two days of labor at EDS International to pay for a breakfast buffet across the street at El Toro Restaurant, which is usually empty.

It would take 100 days of work to pay the cheapest coyote for passage to America, where the worst jobs would pay 10 times more.

A fear is that even EDS, which makes hospital supplies, could move its plant to China or Southeast Asia, where -- hard though it may be for Americans to believe -- it could pay about a quarter as much in salaries as it does in Mexico.

If the EDS plant goes to Asia, the ex-EDS employees would probably hike to Phoenix, if many former workers aren't doing so already -- because a good job in Mexico cannot compare to any job in the States.

Yet things are still considered better in this region than in other parts of Mexico.

Need anybody still ask why they come?

"Compared to some, we have it pretty good here," Valencia says. "But all that says is how bad it is everywhere else in this country."


Altar was not always the shithole of Sonora. Thirty years ago, when Herman Irineo was a young man, Altar was a relatively quiet town of 5,000 silver miners and farm workers.

"You could take your girl for a walk in the town square back then," he says, sitting in his backyard a few blocks from the square amid the chassis of several classic half-ton trucks he plans to restore. "I wouldn't even think of going down there now."

It could be the my-town-has-gone-to-hell lament you're likely to hear from aging residents of any small U.S. or Mexican farm town.

Except in Altar, you're inclined to believe it.

Now, banditos linger in the square, watching for the weak and stupid. It seems like a horde of Mexico's street thugs have come here looking for easy money. Where else in Mexico could you find thousands of people carrying hundreds of dollars in cash?

If the banditos aren't robbing migrants, known as pollos (chickens), they're roaming this town of 20,000 lifting anything not fenced off or locked down.

Irineo lives behind a gated wall.

He first began seeing migrants passing through Altar for the United States 20 years ago. Back then, though, it was just a trickle.

But in the early 1990s, the trickle turned into a flow. By 1999, it was a flood.

You must zoom out and focus north to understand how Altar came to be.

The town's evolution was sparked in El Paso, Texas, in 1993 by a man named Silvestre Reyes, who ran the U.S. Border Patrol station there.

Just before this time, border enforcement in El Paso was a joke. You could stand on the Santa Fe Bridge between downtown El Paso and Juárez most any morning in 1992 and watch dozens if not hundreds of Mexicans float in inner tubes across the placid Rio Grande, climb up the river's concrete bank and through one of thousands of holes in the border fence and walk to jobs on the American side.

An inner-tube ferry cost between 25 and 50 cents.

The vast majority of those crossing returned home to Juárez in the evening.

Reyes stopped most of that.

In a stunningly simple but effective move, he reassigned the majority of his agents, including those stationed at inland checkpoints, to essentially stand guard at short intervals along the Rio Grande between El Paso and Juárez. Fences were mended, more floodlights were installed.

In football terms, Reyes shifted from a pass-prevention defense to a goal-line stand.

And, sure enough, not many Mexicans crossed the goal line.

Reyes was an overnight hero -- at least on the U.S. side of the border among people who didn't need nannies.

San Diego tried the same approach. Success again. It worked in Nogales, too.

As in football, though, when the interior line gets stuffed, an end run is called.

Altar became the new staging ground, for several logistical reasons.

It sits on the northernmost east-west highway in Sonora. It is directly south of the destination city of Phoenix. It already had motels and houses that could be converted to drop houses. There is a decent dirt road from Altar that leads 60 miles to a desolate stretch of open desert, perfect for entering the U.S. undetected.  

In time, Altar became Mexico's primary gateway to America.

It is the staging town for the trip north to Phoenix, where massive Sky Harbor Airport sits near the crossroads of several interstates and major highways.

Hopeful migrants come to Altar, or are brought by smugglers. They then pay a taxi or van driver, who make up several thousand of the town's residents, to take them up to the border.

Writing on a giant cross at the turnoff for Sasabe near Altar announces that 2,500 people have died making the trip. Translated, the cross asks: "How many more?"

On a recent weekday afternoon, the cross was unanimously ignored by those making the trip north. Near the border, the road breaks off into dozens of smaller roads, which break into even smaller trails. Each trail is controlled by a different smuggling organization. From there, the typically four-day hike to a designated pickup spot in the desert on the U.S. side begins.

If Altar seems an abomination, it is also a shining beacon of free trade, American-style.

The stores around the town square that once sold boots or farm goods now are festooned with knockoff backpacks hanging from their front awnings.

You can buy North Face knockoff jackets, Nike knockoff cross-trainers and unlicensed baseball caps for most any U.S. sports team you could imagine.

The local businessmen have taken a bit of a hit, though, thanks to a new phenomenon in the human smuggling industry.

Some coyotes provide migrants with backpacks fully stocked with the gear and water needed to get a person of average health to Phoenix alive.

If the migrant is a bit feeble, or just slow, smugglers will sometimes speed up their cargo by forcing them to take stimulants such as cocaine or meth.

According to locals and U.S. immigration authorities, in the past year or two, thanks to further post-9/11 crackdowns on illegal immigration at ports across the country, Altar has become not only the migrant staging point for Mexicans, but for other illegal immigrants from across the globe.

When Irineo goes to the market now, it's like shopping in lower Manhattan.

"The whole world is coming through here," he says. "Greeks, Brazilians, Chinese. I see people from everywhere here now."


Back in 1988, when Angel Rascon began chasing human smugglers for the U.S. Border Patrol, smuggling was much more of a mom-and-pop affair run by generally ethical people.

Most often, a Mexican interested in going to the United States would hook up with a small-time coyote from his or her own town or neighborhood. Most often, the pollo and the coyote knew each other, or at least knew of each other. Most often, the coyote was responsible for getting the migrant from the door of his or her house to the door of an American job.

As prices began to rise with stronger border enforcement in the mid- to late 1990s, then again after 9/11, migrants decided to save money by getting themselves to the border.

Here's how the deal goes down now:

Those hoping to cross into the United States most often take a bus to a border town such as Nogales where, once they step onto the street, they are bombarded with offers from coyotes.

While someone might pay between $1,500 and $2,000 to get from deep inside Mexico to deep inside the United States, the price for passage from Nogales, Sonora, to Phoenix is now about $500. The fee is only paid upon successful arrival in Phoenix.

Eight times more money flows into Phoenix through wire transfers than flows out of the city. State and federal law enforcement officials believe the vast majority of that difference (more than half a billion dollars) is money flowing into the city from people paying human smugglers.

Once a deal is struck in Nogales, the migrants are brought back south on Highway 15 to Santa Anna, then out west on Highway 2 to Altar. The migrants are placed in motels or drop houses until the smuggler can assemble a full group, line up a guide and organize logistics with his partners in Phoenix.

In Altar, as business has grown, business has changed.

Instead of staying with the smuggler with whom they made a contract, the migrants are often sold by smugglers to other smugglers. Say one smuggler needs just one more pollo to make a full load: A fellow smuggler might sell one of his contracts to that smuggler for $100.

"It happens more and more," says Rascon, who is now part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the Department of Homeland Security. "Altar is like the floor of the stock exchange. If a guy can make a quick turnaround, he'll do it.  

"At this point, though, they start involving people they don't know. And that's when it can get ugly."

The problem for the migrants, though, is that the smuggler buying the contract is increasingly likely to be a rip-off artist.

If all goes well for the migrant, the next week goes like this:

He or she will wait in Altar until the smuggler has assembled a full load and the smuggler's guide has returned from his previous trip into the United States.

That first smuggler is often just a small player in a much larger organization.

The bottom tier of the smuggling organizations are the short-range drivers (the guys who go from Phoenix to the border), the long-range drivers (the guys who get people to, say, Chicago), the recruiters in Mexico, the guides, the money runners, the guards and the enforcers.

In the middle, you often have more educated people renting drop houses, paying bills, organizing payment processes and money-laundering operations, acquiring and licensing vehicles and running the complicated pickup and drop logistics through Mexico and the United States.

On top are a few managers who reap most of the profits.

Federal agents estimate there are now 50 large smuggling organizations that operate out of Phoenix. Many, agents say, have hundreds of employees and connections all over the world.

From Altar, the group will be driven to the border at Sasabe, where the migrants will break out cross-country on one of numerous trails controlled by various smuggling operations.

The guide, an expert at avoiding detection by U.S. Border Patrol officials, will lead the migrants on a multiple-day hike toward Highway 86 in southern Arizona.

At the designated time, one of the smuggling organization's short-range drivers will motor from the Phoenix area to a designated pickup point, most often just a nondescript patch of Sonoran Desert.

He'll whistle to the desert, and the pollos will come running.

The migrants are driven to a location somewhere around Phoenix. There, migrants are pulled aside one by one and asked for the phone number of their "sponsor," a friend or family member in the United States who has agreed to wire money to the smuggler once the migrant has arrived.

The smuggler calls the number, tells the sponsor it's time to pay up, and gives him instructions for wiring the money, which now costs anywhere from $500 to $2,000 depending on where the migrant came from and where he or she is going.

A runner will pick up the money, often under a fake name, and return to the house. If the destination is Phoenix, the migrant is free to go. If he or she is heading for a city farther inland, the migrant will wait until a full load and a long-range driver are assembled.

This, of course, is the best-case scenario of how the deal has gone down for decades.

But with prices soaring, Rascon says, a migrant's chances of encountering the best-case scenario are dropping.

"The big money has drawn in the thieves looking for easy money," he says. "And once they're in the mix, everything gets a lot messier for everyone."


Josephina Gallego has held the key to Mission San Ignacio de Caborica for 46 years. Her grandparents held the key before her. When they passed on, it was handed to the owner of the cantina in the town of San Ignacio.

After the cantina owner was murdered, it went to another woman, who died soon thereafter of an illness.

The church committee then approached Josephina, who lives just across the square from the church. She didn't believe in curses, so she took the key without fear and has been the great mission's steward ever since.

The Mission San Ignacio was founded in 1687 just a few miles north of the Mission of Magdalena de Kino. The present structure -- with its four-foot-thick fired-brick walls, massive flying buttresses and four-story bell tower with spiraling staircase of roughhewn and hand-worn mesquite -- dates back to the 18th century.

If this rustic mission stood over the border in the United States, it would be, like Father Eusebio Kino's less impressive missions there, a treasured national monument.

"But there is no money here," Gallego says. "We just do what we can to keep it standing."

That includes not ringing the church bells, which likely are about the same age as the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.

"We're afraid that if we ring them, they'll come crashing down on top of us," she says, not entirely in jest. Two of the bells are cracked, one hangs on a makeshift yoke of clearly insufficient gauge.  

The church is crumbling. Many fields are unplanted. The streets are deserted. What's left here is an old woman with a key to an empty church.

Much of the town has gone to Altar, then up to America.

Even Gallego's granddaughter, like more and more young women here, has made the trip. She spent a year in Tucson.

"Yes, now even my granddaughter is a wetback," she says.

Gallego, her son and her younger grandchildren scrape by thanks to a tiny canal behind their house that brings water from a mountain spring. That the canal comes from a spring rather than a dried-up river is rare. That the spring is still running is rare. That the quince trees the water feeds haven't been destroyed by blight is rare.

The Gallegos make a stiff jelly called membrillo from the quince fruit. Behind their house, in a low-slung wooden shack, Luis, her son, boils the quince pulp with sugar in a large copper kettle grouted into a concrete fire pit, then pours the concoction out on a long wooden table. The goo sets up into about an inch-thick layer of jelly. He then cuts the membrillo into bricks to be sold in markets in Hermosillo and Nogales for $2 apiece.

They make a couple hundred dollars a year. And they're the lucky ones here.

Near the Valencias' home, things are much worse. There is no water from any mountain spring. And Francisco can't afford the permit for a deeper well.

His daughter lives in a tiny, sagging tin shack across the road. On a recent afternoon, the daughter, Carmen, walked two of her daughters to the free health clinic down in Magdalena, where more than 50 people waited for three hours alongside Carmen and her children.

Carmen's oldest daughter, who is pregnant, has asserted her freedom by moving into a still smaller six-foot-by-six-foot corrugated tin shack about 30 feet from the shack in which she grew up.

Carmen's brother lives in another teetering shack 100 feet down the road.

None of the Valencias can afford to leave the family land along the dry Magdalena River. So the tiny plot of land, which would no longer support one family, even if it had water, now has three generations of Valencias living on it.

The die is cast, says Francisco, the patriarch. When they are old enough, the grandchildren will have no choice but to leave for America.

"You have hope for them," he says, as he walks amid his wilted pomegranate orchard. "But then there is reality. There is probably nothing here for them. They will have to leave."

And very likely, the skills they've learned from their grandfather will make them hot commodities if they reach America. Francisco not only is a farmer, he is a jack-of-all-trades, having worked countless odd blue-collar jobs throughout this valley to supplement his income.

On the farm, he's always teaching his grandkids how to fix an old truck, or an old roof, or an old fence.

They are handy -- something their young American counterparts increasingly are not.

"We're so hungry for guys who are good with their hands in our business," David Jones, president and CEO of the Arizona Contractors Association, told New Times a month or so before the conversation with Francisco. "But that kind of guy is disappearing in America. In Mexico, though, [he's] everywhere."

For the Valencias, matters are further complicated because their quiet stretch along the dead river has become home to dozens of desperate squatters. Where there were 20 shacks, now there are 50. Most of the squatters are people from other parts of the country who went to America through Altar, were caught, then dropped off north of here in Nogales, Sonora, penniless.

So they have come down to the river valley around Valencia, which, although desperately dry, is much more livable than the volcanic rock moonscape that stretches for miles on each side of the area.

That's one of the downsides of not having it so bad by Mexican standards: Everybody ends up coming to your home, which then makes it as bad as everywhere else.

And because the failed migrants are penniless, they must beg and sometimes steal and use resources from a region already desperately short of resources to try to build up enough money to once again attempt a crossing.

"Now, it is also a dangerous place," Valencia says.

Yet another dark irony for a country of dark ironies:  

Valencia's family will probably have to try to leave for America because of an influx of people who were not successful at leaving.

"You try to keep hoping," he says. "But sometimes the hope runs out."

And after enough time wandering the valley that is home to the Valencia family, the question is no longer: How can so many people leave for America?

It becomes: How can so many stay?


The farms have suffered from the drought, of course. But there are much deeper problems beyond the dry ground, says David Gantz, a University of Arizona College of Law professor who is also assistant director of the National Law Center for Inter-American Free Trade.

In the United States, the government subsidizes farming. In Mexico, farming subsidizes the government.

Take that well permit Valencia can't afford to get for the water he needs. It would take him several years of irrigated production on his four hectares to pay the 50,000 pesos for the permit that would allow him to irrigate his four hectares.

Four hectares is about 10 acres. That's about 2 percent of the size of the average American farm.

Instead of calling that a "Catch-22," locals just call it "Mexico."

Now farmers must go head-to-head against many U.S. agricultural goods because tariffs on the goods have disappeared as part of NAFTA.

Remember NAFTA? It was that giant trade agreement with Mexico and Canada that, in cutting out red tape and tariffs, was supposed to make everyone in North America richer.

The "giant sucking sound" of everything going to Mexico, predicted by Ross Perot, simply didn't happen. And what did get sucked into Mexico, such as many factory jobs, are more and more going to Southeast Asia.

When NAFTA was written in the 1990s, it included several clauses that called for tariffs to be dropped on U.S. agricultural goods in the early 21st century.

Well, that time finally arrived. Last year, certain U.S. farm produce began arriving here tariff-free.

U.S. farms are much larger than family-owned Mexican farms, much more productive, and are subsidized by the U.S. government.

Now, little farmers like Valencia, who have no water and no money for fertilizer or herbicides or pesticides, are competing with super-cheap, genetically super-sized American produce.

If you think Valencia is screwed now, though, just wait four years.

That's when tariffs will be removed from remaining U.S. products such as wheat, corn and beans -- the corazon of the Mexican diet.

"That will be a tough day," Gantz says. "It will probably bring a new level of hurting."

Also, Gantz says, the U.S. recession throttled Mexico because 80 percent to 90 percent of its exports go to the United States.

Also, American companies that moved factories to Mexico in the 1990s are now beginning to move the factories to countries where they can find even cheaper labor.

After peaking at 1.4 million employees in 2000, Mexico-based factories of U.S. companies have since lost more than 200,000 workers. The state of Sonora has lost about 30 percent of its factory jobs in the last four years.

"The truth is, Mexican labor is three to four times more expensive than in China or Vietnam," Gantz says. "And it's generally easier to do business in those places."

And for many here, when the factory jobs go, so goes the last chance of making a living in Mexico.

So men, women and, increasingly, the elderly and children head to Altar to pay what remains of their life savings for a chance to work in the United States.

In Altar, dozens of migrants about to board vans for the grueling, potentially fatal journey into America all voice nearly identical mantras.

"I have no choice," one says.

"It's death or this," another says.

"There is no life for us here," yet another says.

Most come from farther south in Mexico. In some areas, the drought is worse, they say. In other areas, more jobs have been lost.

Also, prices for goods have increased while salaries have remained stagnant. Their pesos buy less than ever before.

On a recent afternoon along the road to Sasabe, a mother, her young daughter, young son, and their feeble little toy poodle wait with small backpacks for a van to pick them up and take them to the border.

They scowl at a reporter asking them in Spanish where they are headed.

Do you live in Sasabe?

"No."

Are you going to America?

Silence.

They sit in full view of the sign that asks, "How many more?"

And they ignore it.  

It's a question for the U.S. government, they believe, not the people of Mexico.


Angel Rascon, the longtime federal agent, doesn't claim he's going to stop illegal immigration. That would be like claiming you're going to stop the rain.

Or, more appropriately after nine years of drought, start the rain.

"When I see 60-year-old women crossing the border, I know things are bad in Mexico," he says. "And I know that if it's that bad, they're going to keep coming no matter what I do."

No matter how many 60-year-old women he sends back to desperate poverty.

His goal, he says, is to decrease the violence. Save people. Send the violent people to prison.

He wants to break up smuggling rings. Keep the criminals running. Keep the pressure on.

More so than ever, that's what federal officials are doing.

By the end of last month, a 14-month-old Phoenix-based federal crackdown on smuggling organizations has led to 300 arrests of alleged smugglers, the breakup of 200 drop houses, the seizure of 150 guns, the nabbing of 6,000 illegal immigrants, and seizure of millions in illegally wired money.

The crackdown seems to have greatly reduced smugglers' and rustlers' willingness to resort to violence. Smuggling-related violent crimes were down significantly in 2004 compared to 2003.

Also, smugglers apparently are much less willing to set up drop houses in the middle of suburban Phoenix with dozens of illegal immigrants.

"That's a phenomenon that seems to be disappearing," Rascon says.

But in this business, the end of every phenomenon signals the birth of a new one.

The violence in smuggling that emerged around 2002 and 2003 came with a sharp rise in the price to immigrate illegally, Rascon says.

All of a sudden, Rascon says, thieves began preying on the dozens of smuggling organizations operating out of Phoenix.

"It's basic economics, again," he says. "The money got to the point where it was worth the risk to these people."

A new industry was born -- people rustling.

Migrants were abducted from drop houses or vans coming up from the border.

Most often, it was an inside job, with one of the employees of the smuggling organization actually working for a rustler. The inside guy would alert his accomplices when a load of immigrants would be transported and between what points. The rustlers then hijacked the migrants and took them to their own drop houses, made the calls for money, then dropped the migrants out on the nearest street corners.

That's if the migrants were lucky.

Often, though, the rustlers would jack up the price to be paid. Or, if the money came, they'd call and demand more.

"Once some of these guys see fruit coming out of a tree, they don't stop," Rascon says.

If the sponsor couldn't pay, a hostage situation resulted.

According to federal law enforcement statistics, Rascon and his partners have rescued 750 migrants from such hostage situations since 1988. Amazingly, all those hostages got out alive. They were then shipped back to Mexico.

At first, the smuggling operators didn't fight the rustlers.

"They just figured they were doing something illegal, and it was sort of the price of doing business," Rascon says. "They were reluctant to start killing people."

But seeing free money and no resistance, the rustling groups blossomed. Kidnappings soared, from a few a month to dozens a month. Finally, enough was enough. The smugglers started killing -- and, in some cases, executing -- rustlers.

Rustlers fought back by shooting smugglers.

As the violence escalated, rustlers also started killing more migrants who couldn't pay.

The result was that 2003 had the most smuggling-related violence of any year in Phoenix's history.

This same kind of violence hit northern Sonora. Robberies and killings spiked in Altar, along the road to Sasabe, and even in the valley towns of San Isidro, Magdalena and San Ignacio.

"There are many new people, bad people, in the area," Francisco Valencia says. "They come from all over. And they're up to no good."

The violence peaked with last year's stunning rolling gun battle between smugglers and rustlers along Interstate 10 just south of Phoenix. Four were killed, five were injured.

"That's when people realized something very serious had to be done," says Michael Turner, Rascon's boss and the new special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona.

Turner and Rascon say they will be taking down several larger organizations in the near future.

Unlike past federal immigration crackdowns, this one is permanent, Turner vows.

"We will continue to apply pressure on these organizations."  

And so, the organizations will continue to morph their operations.

Smugglers who still operate in Phoenix are generally working with much smaller groups of migrants. Instead of large vans, smugglers are increasingly making several trips with small sedans to move migrants from the drop-off point to drop houses where they usually keep fewer migrants than in past years.

Or, federal agents say, smugglers are moving their drop houses to smaller towns such as Eloy or Safford, a fact that was confirmed by police in both cities.

Or, they're now dropping off the migrants in the desert outside Phoenix. From there, the smugglers call sponsors by cell phone, then go into town to get the wire transfer.

Or, they're now skipping Phoenix altogether. After picking up migrants in the desert north of Sasabe, many smugglers are driving to New Mexico or Los Angeles instead of Phoenix.

Or, they're completely moving their smuggling headquarters from Phoenix to other cities near the border.

In the past six months, for example, Houston has begun to suffer the fallout typical from human smuggling organizations -- murders, kidnappings and hostage situations.

So, Turner and Rascon soon will be teaching federal counterparts in Houston what they've learned from busting smugglers in Phoenix.

And the game will go on. And the U.S. government will tighten the border more, and the Mexicans will keep coming.

For as long as a struggling Third World country shares a border with the world's greatest superpower.

"As long as things are bad down there, the cycle will continue," Rascon admits. "They will come, we will try to stop them, they will go somewhere else, we will adjust.

"That's the sad truth. But that's the truth of the border."

E-mail robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.


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