Phoenix or Busted
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.
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.
"We've seen evidence some of the coyotes are starting to network and organize, but 80 percent of them work in helter-skelter crews," says Jankowski.
"Lately what we're seeing is groups who specialize in getting loads of aliens over the border and to Phoenix, then act as brokers, auctioning them off to other smuggling groups, who bid on them, like, 'I'll take 10 who want to go to L.A.,' or, 'Give me three going to Arkansas' . . . then they'll stash them in houses all over the Valley until everyone's paid up and the final arrangements are made."
On March 16, acting on a tip from Mesa police, the INS raided a stash house holding 140 undocumented immigrants, a new Valley record.
One week later, the INS netted 42 Mexicans in a Phoenix house near 24th Street and McDowell after a person inside dialed 911, then hung up. The day of that bust, a widow who has lived next door since 1951 said she had baked cookies for all the different children she'd seen playing outside the house lately.
"They called me 'The Cookie Lady,'" she said. "Then today they had them all lined up against the wall. It was sad."
Henry Woodrum, assistant district director of investigations for the Phoenix INS, says his office receives more than 100 tips a month related to smuggling rings and stash houses.
Residents of the historic neighborhood around the stash house with the jigsaw puzzle suspect the nature of this 1930s Tudor home, which has blankets covering the windows and where taxis and vans come and go in the dead of night. But the neighbors literally look the other way, either because they or their relatives once crossed the Mexican border themselves, or because they're sympathetic, or just because the stash house's fleeting residents don't cause any trouble as would, say, the customers of a crack house.
Not all Phoenix residents take such magnanimous views. West Phoenix community activist Donna Neil, leader of NAILEM, a neighborhood advocacy group that pressures legislators to streamline the process for prosecuting and deporting illegal immigrants, says stash houses in her area create an atmosphere of fear.
"I think it's [the problem] as simple as flushing the toilet when you have 35 to 40 people in one place and as complicated as the fear level of the community. The unsafe feeling," says Neil.
"You know, when you have folks coming in in the middle of the night to the house next door to you -- where you know illegal activity is taking place, and it is illegal -- it's a very uncomfortable feeling for communities."
In the central Phoenix stash house that's only a stroll away from City Hall, the men around the map say a coyote who sits in a metal folding chair outside the front door collects money to buy tacos at Jack in the Box. The tacos, they agree, are not very good, but at two for a buck they're cheap protein.
The men say that while the coyote is on his fast-food run, he also makes the rounds of four money-wiring businesses in the neighborhood, returning with news of whose payment has arrived and who is still a captive. Because bandits are common along the border, the illegals carry little cash when they cross. They have relatives wire the money owed to the coyotes once they arrive at a stash house in Phoenix.
"One of the main human rights problems we have is the struggle with the coyotes," says Salvador Cassian, the Mexican consul general in Phoenix. "They hold people for several days in small houses in very precarious conditions. Sometimes 100 to 150 people, men and women and boys and girls all together. This is one of the worst conditions for these people to be in when they arrive in Phoenix."
INS, local human rights activists and the Mexican diplomat may say the coyote stash houses are dens of abuse, but the immigrant holding Kansas in his hand has no serious complaints about his temporary lodging. There is no shower, he says, but at least the toilet works. There is water to drink and Jack in the Box to eat. He wishes there were a television set, but since he's paid up, he leaves tonight.
This house is nothing compared to the last place he waited, the man says. He draws a crude map of Mexico in the carpet with his finger, aligning its border with the jigsaw puzzle of America.
He points to where he's from, a town in southern Mexico, between Guadalajara and Aguascalientes, then traces his bus route from there to the coast along the Gulf of California, up to the major city of Hermosillo, Sonora, then north to Agua Prieta, the border town facing Douglas, Arizona. He stabs his finger at the sister cities and says it took him nine days to make it over the border from Agua Prieta.
"Only then, during the waiting, did I begin to lose hope."
Twenty-year-old Jorge Colosio (a pseudonym) sits alone on the concrete stoop of the Hotel Yolanda, Agua Prieta's most popular hostel, four blocks from the border. Nestled between his feet is a black knapsack that bears an acrylic painting of Kurt Cobain. Nirvana plays Colosio's favorite music, next to Guns n' Roses.
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.
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.
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.
"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."
"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.
The terrain along the fence on the U.S. side of the line is scorched earth decorated with heaps of garbage and towering security lamps brand-named Nightbuster 4000s, which clank on at dusk like stadium lights.
And then the game really begins.
Before the new steel fence was erected between downtown Agua Prieta and downtown Douglas, hordes of UDAs would scale the outdated lower fence, scramble down one side of a deep trench dug in 1901 for troops fending off Pancho Villa, climb the other side, then sneak through Douglas neighborhoods to the highway and desert north of town.
"This place was literally invaded, every night," says Mayor Borane.
Cries of outrage from Borane's constituents were not entirely unheeded. Five years ago, there were 50 Border Patrol agents stationed in the town. Today there are five times that many, plus a detail of 100 agents temporarily reassigned from their usual posts in California and Texas.
As Borane alluded, the Border Patrol's principal mission in Douglas is to guard Douglas. Most of the agents on shift at any time are concentrated in a condensed area around the periphery of the town. The Border Patrol would catch more Mexicans if more agents were out in the desert, but this would leave Douglas less protected.
"The traffic in town has been controlled," says Victor Colón, chief of the Border Patrol's Douglas station.
"Basically, the traffic is going around Douglas now."
Most of it, anyway.
Even with the heavy Border Patrol presence around town, there are still groups of UDAs who come over the main fence in daylight view of Border Patrol agents. Usually they are quickly apprehended, unless the group is large enough; then a few get through.
God help Douglas and the Border Patrol if the 100,000-plus would-be border jumpers in Agua Prieta ever organize into a single human wave attack.
Border Patrol agents catch 1,000 UDAs or more a day around Douglas. Often they catch the same ragged men as the day before, or the day before that. These people are caught because they trip motion sensors planted in the desert like mines, or they're seen through night-vision goggles or infrared cameras, or simply because agents in off-road vehicles follow their footprints. (Every night before dusk, Border Patrol agents drag tires on chains down back roads and well-defined footpaths to smooth out the dust for better tracking.)
The night of the dust storm, four Border Patrol agents converge east of Douglas where the barbed wire girding the international boundary ends. It was here Colosio planned to make his run, where the ground is an accidental landfill of crushed Tecate cartons, food containers and scraps of clothing.
Hundreds of the plastic, one-gallon water containers that desecrate the desert from Douglas to Bisbee scuttle through the scrub. Flocks of plastic bags (they contained clothing before they were discarded on the run) dance in the wind and snag on trees and cactuses. A forlorn sign erected by the Mexican government warns travelers to be wary of scorpions and venomous snakes.
"There's a lot of stuff out there tonight," says one of the agents.
Asked to explain "stuff," he says, simply, "Aliens."
Motion sensors were tripped here minutes ago, and the agents were dispatched in time to chase a large group back into Mexico.
"It's better to just chase them back over if you can," says one of the detail agents from San Diego (all four requested anonymity). "Saves everyone some time."
He scans the desert on the Mexican side of the border through night-vision goggles he says are "Vietnam war-era."
"I can only see about 200 feet. They're probably out there laying low in the brush beyond that, waiting for us to leave."
If so, the strategy works. Radio traffic directs the four agents farther into the desert. One by one they peel away, dust rolling through the beams of their bouncing headlights.
Their sudden departure is a metaphor for the border enforcement policies that have turned the Agua Prieta to Phoenix corridor into the primary route for illegal immigration into the U.S.
For decades, the great majority of UDAs crossed the border nearer to San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas.
Then in 1994, the Border Patrol enhanced enforcement along those two traditional smuggling regions.
The intent was to clamp down on illegal immigration from Mexico, which was rapidly increasing following the crash of the Mexican economy.
The result was to funnel illegal immigrants to the Arizona border. Now the Border Patrol is playing catch-up by shifting agents from California back to Arizona.
Some of those agents from San Diego man checkpoints on Highway 81 north out of Douglas, which Colón admits are easily avoided by smugglers who send scout cars ahead.
"They circumvent the checkpoints," he says. "They either drop off the people and have them hike ahead, or they drive around."
Once they've cleared the roadblocks, though, the smugglers still have to get past the local police in communities such as Bisbee, where officers in the past year have busted more than 800 vehicles transporting illegal immigrants bound for Phoenix.
"Most of it's a result of routine traffic stops . . . where you walk up to the car and there's 20 people inside piled on top of one another," says Bisbee police sergeant Phil Eastburn.
"A few weeks back, though, we had an officer sitting in his car, doing paperwork, and a Winnebago drives by so loaded down its rear bumper was dragging and throwing sparks. He opened the door and there were 71 people inside."
Eastburn says his department often turns up evidence of organized smuggling operations during vehicle searches.
"Notebooks, phone numbers, addresses . . . we get a fair amount of it, but little of what we find is related to Tucson," he says. "They're all headed your way."
More than a week after the night of the dust storm, Jorge Colosio finally made it to Phoenix. Now he sits in a plastic chair near a washer and dryer in a central Phoenix trailer park, wearing baggy jeans and an Adidas tee shirt, waiting for the rest of the contents of his Nirvana bag to finish a spin cycle.
He spent much longer than the promised 30 minutes on foot. Colosio says it took him two days to walk from Agua Prieta to Bisbee with 10 companions. They ran out of food and water after a day, and it took them another day to make it through the desert to a newly arranged pickup point.
He's obviously worn from the journey, and has developed a slight cough since he was last seen outside the Hotel Yolanda.
Colosio walks slowly to the cramped trailer where he's staying with his mother and stepfather.
The small trailer is hot and the window air conditioner offers little respite. The ceiling is low, and bed sheets are hung as drapes, leading down to a stained carpet. The couch is covered with a bright Mexican blanket. Above it is a minimalist black and red painting with one word printed at the bottom: Freedom.
Colosio says coyotes held him in a safe house near 10th Street and Van Buren when he arrived, and that they pushed and hit him when he couldn't produce the money he owed.
But when his captors left a door unlocked one day, he fled, running all the way to his mother's house.
"They leave you locked up with no food and no water," he says.
In his hands, Colosio holds Polaroid photographs of one inspiration for his flight. His 2-year-old son, Jorge Jr., lives in Phoenix with Colosio's ex-wife. He has his son's initials tattooed on his neck.
"He's gotten so big," Colosio says.
Jorge Jr.'s toys are scattered around the living room for when he comes to visit his grandma, Lila. Lila works as a hotel housekeeper, and in a Laundromat. Her two jobs pay the $450-a-month rent on the trailer, and she still has to have money to help put her kids through school in Culiac#aacute;n. Her dyed red hair is cut to the shoulders, and she shows a capped tooth readily with a kind smile. She says she didn't realize her son was coming, and she is proud of him for making a successful journey.
"I was surprised," she says. "None of my other children would make this trip. He is brave."
Lila made the trip herself across the Tijuana border nine years ago. She married at 14, and by age 32 this mother of four was looking for adventure in a new country. Her girlfriend convinced her it would be safe to hire a coyote. Tears well up in the corners of her eyes and she lets them slide across her high cheekbones. The passing of nine years has not dulled the memory of her passage to the promised land.
She was raped by the coyote who had guaranteed her a safe journey to the U.S.
"They are bad," she says. "The coyotes are bad."
And the smuggled people are at their mercy. On March 5, a 31-year-old Mexican woman called Mesa police to say two coyotes were holding her son hostage in a van because she couldn't come up with the $800 she owed them. The two coyotes were arrested. The mother and her son will be allowed to remain in the U.S. to aid in their prosecution, then sent back to Mexico. (Undocumented immigrants are typically reluctant to report any crime, even when they're victimized, because they fear being deported as a result.)
Colosio has no intention of returning to the safe house to pay off the coyotes. As a result, he'll undoubtedly be looking over his shoulder.
He plans to stay in Phoenix, work and save money until the holiday season.
His mother hands him a stack of quarters and he lumbers back outside to the laundry machines. He points around the neighborhood and says at night it becomes a different place.
"There's a lot of drugs, a lot of crime and a lot of police," he says.
But until December, it's his home away from home.
Contact David Holthouse at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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