Every day, dozens, sometimes hundreds of Mexicans from the poverty stricken southern states are smuggled across the treacherous Sonoran Desert into the US.
We had been driving for 900 miles and close to 12 hours from LA, through the endless, arid and blindingly hot expanse of the Arizona desert. All around were only giant, misshapen rocks and towering saguaro cacti to punctuate the emptiness. Our final destination was Sasabe, a virtually non-existent blip on the map about 40 miles south of Tucson.
Our group consisted of three people: myself, the sound technician and a camera operator. We were part of the production team working on a documentary film tackling issues like illegal immigration and narco-trafficking and have come here in search of authentic footage of what reality was like on the ground. Sasabe sits smack in the middle of one of the biggest human-smuggling and drug-trafficking corridors on the border. The US Border Patrol, only half in jest, called Sasabe the Grand Central Station of human trafficking.
Upon walking into the only store in town, we were greeted by what looked like its sole inhabitant, a toothless old creature agog at the sight of new faces. Upon venturing further inside, past dusty shelves of bug spray, trays of stale tamales and dubious-looking, 69-cent cans of sausage, we were faced with a rack of t-shirts printed with “Where the hell is Sasabe?” It was a seemingly existentialist and apt query of a geographical entity, questioning the validity of its own existence.
Indeed, Sasabe would probably not even exist if it wasn’t for what lay just a few yards away — the US-Mexico border and, beyond that, the teeming nation of Mexico. We crossed over without much of a fuss, being cursorily glanced over by two sleepy and dishevelled Mexican immigration officials.
It was only a few feet later that it hit us: We were in Mexico. The contrast was blatantly apparent and quite disorienting. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, we made the transition from never-ending, multi-lane highways lined with strip malls and gated McMansions to rocky, pothole-ridden dirt tracks brought into being by frequent use rather than engineering. Alongside were randomly arranged rows of adobe and tin structures in varying stages of disrepair. They appeared to function interchangeably as makeshift tavernas, eateries and general provision stores.
The first one of these rather proudly and prophetically proclaimed “Super Coyote” on a sign precariously hoisted above the roof, an amusing reminder of our mission. Coyote, or pollero, was the colloquial term for the human traffickers that this region was notorious for. Every day, dozens, sometimes hundreds of rural Mexicans from the poverty stricken southern states were smuggled across the treacherous and bandit-infested Sonoran Desert into the United States. It was these two-legged “polleros” who were responsible for the safe passage of their “pollos” (chickens) and set their fee according to the distance and degree of danger.
Upon alighting from the vehicle, we observed a ragtag group of men sitting around a table on the patio of an adobe store and, by the sound of it, having a good old time. One of them, upon spying us, got up and meandered over in our general direction. By his gait, it was apparent that he’d been liberally consuming the local brew for the better part of the day. He had a grizzled, weatherbeaten face, bloodshot eyes, wore a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a bright green checkered shirt and beamed at us affably through a gap-toothed grin.
He came up and assertively extended his hand, introducing himself rather pompously as the Maestro. We could not help but be drawn into conversation with him. A rapid stream of nearly incoherent jabber in slurred Spanish, liberally sprinkled with endearments like cabrone (fornicating old goat) and puta madre (son of a whore), spewed out of his mouth. We eventually deciphered the following: He had a green card, did not give a damn about the United States, had lived in Miami many moons ago as a wealthy businessman and once had a girlfriend who was so beautiful that she “made the leaves shake.” To prove this last point, he whipped out a dog-eared photo.
Deeply engaging as this exchange was, we had to move on, so we bid adios to our inebriated friend and drove further into town. We stopped at a squat building with large crowing rooster painted by the entrance. The words “Pollo Asado” (roast chicken) were printed underneath.
Pasted next to it, rather incongruously, was a poster that showed the number of immigrant deaths that had taken place in the last few years — roughly 3,000 — of which an alarming portion were women and children. Clearly, the long journey across this unforgiving desert was not for the faint of heart or spirit. The border is approximately 2,000 miles long. A major part of it follows the Rio Grande. The line dividing the two countries cuts through inhospitable desert terrain, wildlife preserves, mountains and farmland.
The number of unauthorized immigrants in 2015 were estimated at 11 million, representing 3.4% of the total US population, of which half were of Mexican origin. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group, estimated that about 200,000 people crossed over in 2015 — as compared to an estimated 2 million in 2000.
As we took our seats around a wooden table, the door slammed open and a group of about seven youths trooped in and took the adjacent table. All of them, with the exception of one, were dressed identically in black garb. From their hushed conversation and the curious blend of resignation and resolve in their eyes, it became apparent that they were here for the crossing.
I broke ice with Luis, who seemed to be their leader and discovered that they had traveled here over land, all the way from Oaxaca in the deep south. Taking comfort in the observation that I didn’t appear to be the typical gringo, he consented to my invitation to join us at our table. We bonded raucously over what eventually turned into several bottles of Tecate, a popular Mexican brew.
Luis and the rest of his posse were mestizos, a hybrid of indigenous natives and white Spanish colonizers that largely make up the Mexican populace. And, like in most of Latin America, the more native blood you had, the lower down on the socio-economic ladder you were likely to be.
One of the causes of the illegal immigration “problem” was the exploitation of resource-rich southern states for their cash crops, coffee being one major example, by large corporations that paid an infinitesimal portion of their mega-revenues to the indigenous inhabitants or traditional tillers of the soil. This led to a mass exodus north, into the United States, in search of better wages and living conditions.
Contrary to the assertions of the send-them-back crowd, multiple studies have shown that illegal immigrants actually increase the size of the US economy, contribute to economic growth, enhance the welfare of natives and contribute more in tax revenue than they collect. Economists estimate that granting legal status to the undocumented migrant population currently living and working in America would raise the immigrants’ earnings and consumption considerably and increase US gross domestic product.
We soon learned that our newfound companions were on their way to Los Angeles, where they had several relatives and fellow Oaxaquenos eagerly and perhaps wishfully awaiting their arrival. This was going to be a solo trip as they could ill afford the $2,000-odd dollars demanded by the local “coyote.” Luis told us about a place that he cryptically referred to as the base. which was where they all had to congregate at two the next afternoon to get ready for the trek across the border
Upon reaching there, the sight that greeted us was definitely not what we expected. As it turned out, the base was a giant scrap yard with grotesquely twisted skeletal remains of used cars and trucks laying around in a formation that almost resembled a prehistoric amphitheater with mangled dinosaurs laying in their final resting place. We were approached by someone who appeared to be a cross between Lee Van Cleef and Ron Jeremy, if such a thing is at all possible, who, at the first sight of a camera, put on a pair of Terminator shades. He introduced himself as Francisco and hastily informed us that he had nothing to do with the activities there and was just the local caretaker, “making sure everything went smoothly.”
We learned that during the peak months of November through March, an upward of 200 people would arrive at Sasabe every day to try and make the arduous journey to the other side.
His words were borne out by the events of the next few hours. Every 20 minutes or so, a beat-up old van bursting at the seams with dusty, road-weary migrants would show up at the scrap yard. The rear doors would open and a few dozen men and women of varying shapes, sizes and colors would tumble forth. They all carried identical white plastic jugs of water and backpacks and after a few minutes of huddled deliberation walked down the same dirt path in single file.
After witnessing a few of these “deliveries” at close quarters, without attracting undue attention, we mustered enough courage to accompany one group. Contrary to expectation, they did not seem to mind our presence and even welcomed our company, motioning for us to fall in line. Hacking our way through the dry brush, with straining lungs, we followed them over a steep hill, the first in what we gathered were a long series of uphill climbs.
Close to an hour must have passed when, near the summit, we came upon a barbed wire fence, strung loosely for as far as the eye could see. We stood back and watched the group try to crawl underneath one by one, helping each other out. A young girl who must have been around 14, got hopelessly entangled in the wire and, after struggling for a few minutes, started to cry out. That was enough for us. We stopped being dispassionate observers and rushed to help. After much effort we extricated her, getting away with only a few scratches.
She wasn’t as lucky and had gashes near the elbow and knee. Using a pocket tube of antiseptic lotion and two handkerchiefs, we fixed her up the best we could. By now most of her companions had gone a fair distance and she had some catching up to do. She bid us a tearful via con dios (go with God) and was once again on her way.
No Tears from the Dead
By now we had had enough and thought it wiser to retreat back to the relative sanctuary of our vehicle. It seemed a mockery of their valiant efforts to be in their faces with a camera, trying to maintain a veneer of objectivity. It was apparent we couldn’t stay detached for long, not in the face of such adversity. And from what we had gathered, they would be doing this for several days or even weeks until they finally reached the border. Whether they would be welcomed in the warm embrace of America at the end of it all was perhaps a moot point.
Back in town, we observed the dissonant sight of young kids, no older than 12, whizzing around in shiny new Mitsubishi and Toyota 4-Wheel Drive vehicles with Arizona or Sonora license plates. They could barely see above their steering wheels but were somehow able to navigate without running over stray pedestrians.
Clearly there was some prosperity here, the source of which would probably be better left unexamined. The town also had a number of bareback horse riders, and a couple of ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) zoomed around to embellish the tapestry in large clouds of dust. Adding to the mix and somehow fitting was the song playing from the car stereo, Manu Chao’s hauntingly playful ballad, “Calavera no Llora” — literally, “no tears from the dead.”
After our last cerveza at Super Coyote, we drove across into the United States, back on what now seemed to be almost frighteningly perfect highways. There were no barbed wires to crawl under, no trigger-happy Border Patrol agents and no coyotes of the two-legged or four-legged variety to deal with. Only the vast emptiness of the American Southwest and the full moon rising from behind rows of Saguaros standing sentinel.
Luis and his companions were probably looking at the same moon right now.
*[A version of this article was originally published by DailyO.]
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