Ripe for Exploitation
Illegal immigrants have been flocking to the orchards of Chandler Heights for more than a decade. The immigration authorities continue to ignore the crime and suffering there.
The man who calls himself "Pedro" inches his white Ford van off Power Road into a littered dirt clearing between two orange groves. From his van, Pedro surveys four men and four boys soaking their feet in water rushing through a concrete-lined irrigation ditch. The group of Guatemalans is dirty, hungry and fatigued. Several have weeping sores on their feet. They've just hiked six days through the desert, paying $100 apiece to a mula who led them from El Altar in Sonora, Mexico, to Chandler Heights, about 50 miles east of Phoenix.
One of the men scoops canned Boston baked beans into his mouth with a leaf. He passes the baked beans to a 14year-old named Adolfo, who wears only a blue towel wrapped around his waist. The man sings a sexually explicit song to Adolfo in Spanish. Everyone laughs.
Pedro, dressed in a rumpled white shirt, jeans and dirty, peacock-blue high tops, gets out of his van. He slides open the door on the passenger side. Seven men step out of Pedro's vehicle. Pedro's wife and 3-year-old daughter follow.
During an interview, Pedro says he's a "chauffeur," but most would call him a "coyote," an immigrant smuggler.
Pedro is one of hundreds of coyotes doing business in Chandler Heights. The citrus groves are known to campesinos throughout Central America and Mexico--and to U.S. immigration and law enforcement officials, church workers and citrus growers--as a center for farmworkers interested in catching rides to the East Coast.
It's no secret to folks in Chandler Heights, an unincorporated citrus-farming area in eastern Maricopa County, that thousands of immigrants, mostly Guatemalans and Mexicans, arrive at the groves every year. Last year, church workers who volunteer in the groves estimated that from 20 to 100 immigrants arrived at the orange groves every week.
But things are changing in the Chandler Heights coyote business. Traditional coyotes like Pedro, who say they have legitimate immigration documents, who own their vans and who often travel with wife and kids, are being replaced by well-organized smuggling rings that transport people in UHaul and Ryder trucks.
These new coyotes are more violent than their predecessors. Well-armed, they have been known to rob, beat or rape their passengers.
"They give a bad name to chauffeuring," says Pedro, watching his wife wash their child's hair with Pert shampoo in the irrigation ditch. She dries the little girl with a towel, dresses her in clean clothes. Then she washes her own hair. When she's finished, Pedro's wife hands the bottle of Pert to the seven men who've gotten out of the van. They strip to their shorts and step into the ditch.
Pedro's wife sweeps out the van with a whiskbroom, washes the windows, dusts off the Florida license plate. Before she rests, she hurls a large plastic bag of trash from the van into the orange trees.
Pedro, in the meantime, looks for more customers, or raza (Latino people). He doesn't have a full load of passengers yet, so he walks over to the eight Guatemalans and asks them where they're headed. A Mexican man named Francisco, the mula who guided the Guatemalans through the desert from Sonora to Chandler Heights, tells Pedro the crew is bound for North Carolina.
Too bad, Pedro says. He's headed for Valdosta, Georgia. He'll leave tonight if he can fill his van.
He's got his vehicle's suspension rigged so it rides high when empty. Fifteen people can hide in the back and the van won't even sag. La Migra--the immigration authorities--wouldn't have a clue there was anyone inside the fully loaded van except for Pedro and his wife and child.
Two more vans arrive--a red-and-white club wagon and a rust-colored van with "Sussex Appliance Service, Georgetown" lettered on its side. Both vans have Florida plates.
The drivers are teenagers. One sports a Texaco baseball cap, a Hawaiian shirt open at the chest, Bermuda shorts, preppy Top-Siders. The other has an earring and a stylish haircut.
The young men appear to be apprentice coyotes--kids hired by real coyotes to help drive, to find raza, keep raza in line during the journey, force raza by whatever means to settle accounts at the end of the trip.
But the young men, who refuse to give their names, deny that they work for coyotes. This is their first trip east, they say. They won't say who owns the vans they drive. They seem eager to avoid more questions. They get back in their vans, drive away.
Pedro sits down on the bank of the irrigation ditch. It is littered with empty Pennzoil cans, filthy blankets, plastic grocery bags, soft-drink six-pack cartons, an old shoe, a pair of red jockey shorts, tamale husks.
If only people knew how hard his job really is, says Pedro. He makes ten runs a year between the East Coast and Chandler Heights. It's 56 hours one way, and the trip kills his lower back. He's 38 now, and the drive isn't getting any easier.
From Chandler Heights, he travels north to Flagstaff, catches Interstate 40 and coasts along until he hits Amarillo, Texas. Then he has to dodge La Migra by taking side roads. If they find he's smuggling raza, they'll confiscate his van. It's a broken-down old thing, but it's all he's got, he says. He often has to replace plugs, tires, batteries. The oil, power-steering fluid and gasoline cost him a fortune.
He gets $450 a passenger for a one-way ride. He won't say how much money he makes, but if he hauls a load of ten people ten times a year, he should gross around $45,000 annually. He insists he makes less, just enough money to support his family. He's got a daughter in a Mexico City high school, another child in grade school back east.
"These people don't always pay me," he says of his customers. Sometimes a chauffeur has to make threats in order to get his money. But they are empty threats. Unlike some in his profession, he insists, he would never kill a passenger who owes him money.
The best way to do business is to work out deals with East Coast growers, he says. He delivers Guatemalan farmworkers to the growers. The growers pay their passage upon delivery. The growers then set up the farmworkers in camps and take the passage money out of their paychecks.
With La Migra tightening up the border, Pedro's work is riskier. More ruthless folks are getting into the business. They have guns. They run drugs. They rob and beat campesinos living in the groves.
It's a hard life, he says.
For everyone.Ever since the early 1980s, when civil wars prompted thousands of Central Americans to seek refuge in the United States, the citrus groves of Chandler Heights have been a major way station forillegal immigration. And the groves areno secret. Growers and immigration officials and residents of Chandler Heights simply looked the other way as coyotes like Pedro conducted their business beneath the trees. To growers, Central Americans were cheap, compliant labor.Despite litter and sanitation problems--there are no bathrooms in the groves--growers didn't seem to object when folks set up miserable camps beneath their trees, where orchard dwellers often suffered from hunger and exposure. Over the last decade, Chandler Heights' fame grew in Central America. It was known as a place where transportation to the east could be arranged, and where day jobs could be obtained to help finance that transportation.
It was also known as a place where a campesino would be fed and clothed and provided with free medical treatment.In the mid-1980s, Chandler Heights' largest grower, Empire Fruit Company, allowed churches to distribute food andclothing on its property. By 1995, thefood line included medical and legal services.A 1995 newsletter for Cambio, a Valley church organization that serves Central Americans, describes the food line: "Every day, at about 4 p.m., six to ten vans, trucks and cars pull up to a central clearing deep inside the grove. Quickly, volunteers haul out huge pots and tubs of steaming beans or stew, sandwiches, sweet rolls, coffee, juice and clean water. ... There is usually enough for second and third helpings, and some leftovers to take back to camp against tomorrow's hunger. Then the clothing blanket and shoe distribution begins, from the back of vans and car trunks, the newest arrivals being given first choice. ... On some days, there are toilet kits; other days a volunteeer doctor is available for examinations and to dispense medicine. The county health department comes to give free vaccinations against measles, typhoid and diphtheria once a week. On many days, those who have arrived the night before are given a short talk about their legal rights in the United States. This scene has been repeated daily without fail for at least ten years."
The food lines in Chandler Heights were covered by daily newspapers that churned out stories about the church people who brought food to the groves, how they eased the suffering of the immigrants who lived beneath the trees.
But no one wrote about increasing violence in the groves, or explained that the immigrants themselves were almost always the victims.
Drawn by the vast numbers of immigrants, at least one gang, known to immigrants as Los Banditos, burglarized locals and terrorized campesinos. In May, several suspected members lived in the groves, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office records say.
Church workers say they were faced with a troubling dilemma: By caring for the unquestionably malnourished and sick campesinos, they inadvertently assisted coyotes and gangs in their predatory and violent activities--drug running, assaults, burglaries, sometimes even murder. "We began to ask ourselves if we were helping or hurting," says one church worker, who asked that his name not be used.
Several church members who volunteered in the groves refused to grant interviews to New Times, saying publicity might cause federal immigration authorities to raid the groves. One church worker says cracking down on bad coyotes and gangs would have the effect of hurting good coyotes, who provide an important transportation service to campesinos in the United States. She acknowledges the crime, but says that if Guatemalans and poor Mexicans are prevented from working in the United States, they cannot send money to their families, who will starve.
In the past 18 months, especially, the citrus groves in Chandler Heights have become more violent, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office officials who police the groves. One man was murdered there. Two other deaths in the groves--now classified as a suicide and a natural death--may actually have been murders, too.
Robbery is common, sheriff's officials say. Last spring, a group of Guatemalans washing in an irrigation ditch was robbed. One man who tried to flee was shot five times with a semiautomatic weapon. He survived, but the crime has not been solved.
In fact, sheriff's officials say many of the reported crimes against immigrants remain unsolved, and many more offenses are not reported. Those who witness the bloody crimes in the groves do not want to discuss such matters with police.
Because the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has yet to log last year's crimes on its computers, sheriff's officials say they cannot give exact figures on the increase in violent crime in Chandler Heights.
The situation came to a head four months ago, after an Empire Fruit Company worker was robbed at knifepoint at nine o'clock in the morning. Empire Fruit field supervisors immediately informed church groups they were no longer welcome on the property. The food lines stopped. County medical services also stopped because the county no longer had a place to "find the people," county medical director Steve Englander says. The county had cared for the campesinos under its homeless program.
"The most innocent and vulnerable people get hurt in the end," says Tom Weiss, who, along with his Catholic church, Paz de Cristo Community Center, coordinated the food lines for six years. Weiss won't comment on Empire's decision to kill the project. He won't comment at all, fearing anything he says publicly might hurt the farmworkers.
For a while, church workers tried to continue the food line at a local Catholic church. But to reach the church, campesinos had to pay coyotes even more money. Once there, coyotes began making obscene comments to the Catholic church volunteers, a church worker says. The program was discontinued.
These days, a few people still feed campesinos, but those people aren't affiliated with an organized church feeding program. They park on Riggs Road with a cooler full of hard-boiled eggs and tortillas and bottled water and a few clothes, doling out goods first-come, first-served to the people who emerge from the trees.
Jerry Pirtle, a field supervisor for Empire Fruit Company, was one who wanted the feeding to stop. A 31-year resident of the area, Pirtle says he has nothing against the immigrants or the church volunteers who try to care for "our own Third World in Chandler Heights."
"We let them feed [immigrants] on our land because they started out doing good," says Pirtle. The church workers eased the misery, he says, but they attracted more and more coyote vans full of immigrants.
"We have deaths now," he says. "We have drugs. We have--you name it."
Eventually, Pirtle adds, "Fifty percent of the people they were feeding could feed themselves. It's kinda like that welfare deal. I get so irritated with that.
"If people can't afford food, well, dad-gumit, they can't afford that beer they buy."
Pirtle is referring to a problem among some of the less transient people in the groves--alcoholism. Many camps are littered with empty Old Milwaukee quart bottles, which can be purchased for less than a dollar at some local stores.
Last year, says Pirtle, someone stole 3,000 pounds of ripe navel oranges from "deep within the grove." People are diverting irrigation water from trees into their camps. They leave litter that makes tilling by tractor impossible without extensive preliminary cleanup. Someone even yanked new trees out of an orchard, apparently to sell.
And Pirtle says Empire, which leases or owns 1,760 acres of citrus groves in the area, could not begin to hire the huge numbers of campesinos living in the trees. The company hires a daily maximum of 120 farmworkers during the season, which lasts from November to March, he says. Most farmworkers have been working for Empire for years. And they have their documents, as far as he knows.
Pirtle says he's called immigration officials, but immigration officials don't respond.
They don't respond to the Sheriff's Office, either.
Sheriff's officials say they have no jurisdiction over federal immigration matters. They used to alert the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to the numbers of "trespassers" living in the trees.
"I've called the INS," says sheriff deputy Bob Parrish, whose beat includes Chandler Heights. "They have refused to come out and pick up people. I said, 'Will you come out and get these guys?' They said, 'Negative.'
"I know for a fact one deputy stopped a van with 21 people. He called the INS, and they told him to let them go."
INS officials acknowledge that they know Chandler Heights is a way station for illegal immigrants, but they deny not responding to law enforcement officers.
Known immigration staging areas, including Chandler Heights, have operated openly for years with little if any interference from the INS, raising questions about the motives of the agency.
Advocates for immigrants have long pointed out that growers depend on Mexican and Central American farmworkers to harvest the country's fruits and vegetables. Asked if the INS is pressured by agribusinesses to ignore the groves, the highest INS official in Phoenix responds: "There is no pressure."
"We don't concentrate or fail to concentrate on any industry," says Roseanne Sonchik, district director of the INS in Phoenix. She adds that her staffers have not heard any complaints about Chandler Heights for the past two years.Because deputies don't write reports on their calls to INS, no sheriff's official can say for sure whether Sonchik is correct. "Maybe they [INS] haven't heard from us in two years. And maybe that's because we've called before and we know they aren't coming," says Lieutenant Ed Shephard, who supervises the sheriff's patrol officers in the district that includes Chandler Heights."It's gotten to the point where no one even bothers anymore," says Parrish."Our priorities are criminal aliens," says Sonchik. "I think the public would probably prefer that, with limited resources, we go after criminal aliens."And yet police themselves say there is violent crime committed against immigrants in the orchards. And even though many view U.S. immigration law as flawed, it is, nevertheless, the law. Every coyote trafficking illegal immigrants to or from Chandler Heights is breaking that law. While immigrants themselves are victims of violence in the groves, locals are also feeling the effects of the increase in crime. Some crimes are serious. Others are not.Cynthia Seelhammer, the town manager of neighboring Queen Creek, returned home from work one day to discover that someone had broken into her house and stolen a piece of pineapple upside-down cake, two cans of soup, a paring knife and a small amount of spare cash.
Seelhammer figures whoever stole the cake needed it more than she. Seelhammer, who works for a mayor who is a potato grower, says she attributes the increase in crime to the area's growing population.
Others have a less tolerant view.
In April 1995, a Chandler Heights couple came home from work and discovered that they had been burglarized for the third time in three months. This time, saddles and other horse equipment valued at more than $5,000 was stolen from the couple's locked horse trailer.
A few weeks later, one of the saddles was found in a camp deep within a nearby orange grove. Police suspected a gang that lived in the orchards and was locally known as Los Banditos.
The victims, who asked to remain anonymous, say they were so upset by the burglaries that they moved. They were told by police that a ring is burglarizing Chandler Heights homes and smuggling the stolen goods across the Mexican border.
According to a police report, local informants told the cops that members of Los Banditos took credit for two murders in the groves, as well as assaulting and robbing Guatemalans living there.
In May, sheriff's deputies arrested Martin Contreras and Pedro Nuez, suspected members of Los Banditos, and charged them with burglary in connection with the stolen saddles. Nuez did not admit to taking the saddles, but blurted out to detectives details of assaults against Guatemalans and the two homicides, trying to finger other members of the gang. He refused an interview with New Times.
Contreras, a tall, thin man known in the groves for the thick scar running up the right side of his neck, was arrested in the San Tan Laundry. Contreras tried to stash his .357 magnum in a garbage can shortly before his arrest.
He admitted to sheriff's deputies that he played a role in stealing the saddles. In a jailhouse interview with New Times, he denied any knowledge of the beatings, assaults or murders. In fact, he said he'd never heard of Los Banditos.
Contreras paints himself as a hardworking, innocent guy. He says he was raised in the border town of Agua Prieta and came to Chandler Heights only to send money to his family. It was not a problem to buy the false immigration documents, or mica chueca. It cost him only $80.
The scar, he says, was the result of an altercation with a "racist" Indian who shot him at the San Tan Laundry some years ago.
He says he lived in the orchards with his pals not to prey on anyone, but simply because he was broke. "To tell you the truth," Contreas says, "we lived a very happy life in the orchards. We had everything we needed. It was really very nice."
If convicted of his charges, Contreras will become a "criminal alien" who will serve time in a federal institution. Then he will be deported.
Back to the border town of Agua Prieta.The woman most Chandler Heights residents know as "Hermana Anita" slaps spoonfuls of canned refried beans on flour tortillas and stuffs the burritos into large plastic gloves someone donated to the First Baptist Church of Queen Creek, which is about a ten-minute drive east of Chandler Heights.Anita Ellsworth ties the fingers of the gloves together, fashioning makeshift baggies. In a couple of hours, she will hand out the food to the hungry. Some will come to the church, where her husband, Melvin, is pastor. Anita Ellsworth knows where to find the others.
In the groves.
Anita Ellsworth has been feeding people in the groves since 1982, when she and her husband moved to Queen Creek. She has assisted campesinos with immigration papers, medical needs, learning English, getting jobs, getting paid fair wages. At the end of this month, she will be recognized by a local television station as one of the state's top volunteers.
She is reluctant to give interviews, fearing that resultant publicity will spark an INS raid. But she's also practical. "If the INS raids, they [the immigrants] will still come. They will always find a way. As long as a man has children and a wife dying of starvation, he'll find a way to come. We would do the same thing if we were in their place."
She has ideas for solutions, like sending money to campesinos for fertilizer instead of to Central American governments, but Anita Ellsworth is sensible and 58 years old and has 15 grandchildren. She knows such ideas would never get official support.
Anita's love of campesinos is not lost on coyotes. More than once, they've tried to extort money from her, she says.
"Up drives a smuggler with a car full of people," she says. "If we don't pay $800, they will cut the throat of a man's young son, or they will rape his wife ... I ask, 'Why do you come to us?' and they say, 'We know you love these people.'
"Well, where in the world would we get that kind of money?"
More than once, Anita Ellsworth says, she has pulled people out of a coyote's vehicle.
Coyotes have pulled knives on Anita Ellsworth. And guns.
She's seen coyotes disguised as "vigilante police" threaten the Guatemalans in the groves. She's observed one coyote showing off human skulls that he found on the trail from El Altar to Chandler Heights.
These are among the reasons that Anita Ellsworth pulled out of the organized church feeding program two years ago. "When these people walked down here from the desert, I thought, 'My Lord, that poor person needs food.'
"But now they are being trucked in to Chandler Heights. ... Personally, I came to the conclusion I was being used by the coyotes. They were charging the people for the food I was giving them. ... I still won't refuse food [to campesinos], but I want to put the food in their own hands."
She suspects that tighter security at the border has made it more difficult for coyotes to get pollos, or passengers. "Coyotes used to party together in the trees at night," she says. "Now there are coyote wars. It's coyote-eat-coyote in the groves."She also suspects many of the new coyote vans are funded by growers in the east in order to continue the cheap labor supply. Guatemalan farmworkers, she says, are noted for their speed at picking, their willingness to work for less money than others, their eagerness to please, their sobriety and abstention from drugs. "You wonder what is really going on," she says. "I don't understand how these vans can be so apparent on the same roads. Of course officials are looking the other way. There's a regular highway coming through from the border."There isn't much to downtown Chandler Heights--the intersection of Santan and Power roads. On one corner is the Diamond Dot Store, which sells beer and other necessities. Across Santan Road from the Diamond Dot is the San Tan Laundry, which has a public phone in the parking lot and is a place where you generally see a lot of coyote vans. On Power Road just south of Santan is the Chandler Heights Trading Post. Just across from the trading post is a maize field that locals say was once a citrus grove. The grove became so littered, locals say, that the owner could find no one willing to tractor it. So the owner pulled out the trees, planted maize instead.About a mile south on Power Road is the Gila River Indian Reservation.
Several old men live in a valencia orange grove north of the Indian reservation. Ramon Campos, a farmworker from Mexico, has lived in the grove for eight years. His 73year-old friend Jose Diaz has lived in a makeshift shack beneath the trees for five years. There isn't much to this "permanent camp." A charcoal hibachi for cooking, a couple of old kitchen chairs, filthy mattresses beneath a curtain of sheet plastic strung from the branches.
Occasionally, Ramon makes minimum wage working for a landscaper. Sometimes he picks fruit. Jose hardly ever works. He's simply too old.
Others come and live for a while in the camp, but Ramon and Jose are its most permanent residents. They can't afford to live anyplace else; their paychecks were sent for decades to families in Mexico that they can barely remember. And, actually, they seem to enjoy living under the trees.
But things in Chandler Heights have changed. Their friend Ramilio Lara died last year after being kicked and stoned, possibly because he inadvertently witnessed a coyote drug deal. A few months ago, a body was found hanging from a tree not far from their camp. And down by Hunt Highway, another bloody corpse was recently found.
Ramon and Jose have worked out a deal with grower Danny Kleinman, who has leased the orchard for the last five years. If Ramon and Jose keep the other residents in line, and clean up their trash, Kleinman lets them stay. He does not charge rent.
"The whole thing is ticklish," says Kleinman. "I feel compassion for these guys."
The problem, says Kleinman, is not Ramon or Jose. The problem is that coyote vans try to release passengers in his valencia grove. He can't afford the aggravation or the expense. Kleinman has blocked roads. He's posted "no trespassing" signs. He's run off vans himself.
"The coyote vans have plagued us for the last 18 months," he says. "It's maddening.
"If they've tightened up the borders, it's news to me." It's a hot morning, and deputy Bob Parrish drives his Blazer down a dusty road between two orange groves near where LosBanditos had their camp.A van with North Carolina plates is loading passengers. The passengers see Parrish's Blazer and run into the orchard. Only the driver of the van and his wife remain on the road. They speak perfect English, exchange niceties with Parrish.
At an irrigation ditch, three men who've just walked through the desert seem bewildered. They ask Parrish in Spanish where the free food is handed out.
That doesn't happen anymore, they are told.
The men are thirsty, but the irrigation water is not fit for drinking. Parrish hands them what's left of the large soft drink he bought at the Circle K. Buena suerte, he says.
Down the road a short way, several people jump out of a coyote van. They spot Parrish and vanish into the trees.
"By the time I get down there, they will have disappeared," says Parrish. He drives by the spot where the van let the people out. He looks into the thick trees.
There is no sign of life.
"You can't catch guys in the groves too easily," says Parrish. "That's why the INS won't raid them. It's a waste of time. They'll get deported and be back in the same week.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona