NOGALES, Mexico — Father Ricardo Machuca strides back and forth between six long, metal picnic tables packed with men and women as volunteers pass out plates piled high with corn, beans, rice and pork rinds. Clutching a microphone and wearing jeans, a white tunic, sandals and a messenger bag, Machuca looks more like a bohemian motivational speaker than a Jesuit priest.
Don’t accept offers from strangers who want to help you cross, he warns his audience in Spanish as they quietly dig into their meals. Crossing with coyotes is human trafficking and it’s “un delito federal,” he says. A federal offense.
In recent years, warnings about who to avoid on the streets of Nogales have become a key part of Machuca’s advice to those who pass through the binational Kino Border Initiative’s migrant outreach center. Better known as the Comedor, meaning “soup kitchen” in Spanish, the center has been offering hot meals, first aid, clean clothing, and spiritual guidance to migrants since 2009. Someone offering to help wire money could rob you, Machuca tells the migrants. Or a stranger willing to let you use their cellphone to call your family might save their number and use it to extort them later.
“The vulnerability is very high here on the border,” Father Sean Carroll, Machuca's American counterpart, tells me as an assembly line of volunteers rushes hot plates from the kitchen to the tables. “They want to contract the migrants to try to cross again.”
Carroll is referring to Mexican drugs cartels, along with the smugglers hired by the cartels to recruit desperate migrants looking for a way back into the United States. Over the past decade, after long existing side by side with coyotes, the cartels decided to get in on the action. Now, they've turning what was once a relatively informal and somewhat familial underground operation into a highly sophisticated human trafficking network.
While the journey north was always treacherous and costly, in the hands of the cartels it has become deadlier than ever. The entire border, and the routes leading up to it, are controlled by some combination of the Los Zetas, Sinaloa and Knights of Templar cartels, along with a few smaller groups—making it impossible to cross without their permission. And their permission will cost you. Where migrants may have once paid a single person from their hometown $300 to $500 to guide them across, the initial going rate to cross the cartel-occupied border can range between $3,000 and $6,000 per person, the price varying depending on the age, gender, and origin of the migrant. Most people can’t afford that much up front, so family members in the States will often wire money to the smugglers, or pay in installments along the way.
Under the cartel-run migration model, migrants typically make arrangements to cross from their hometowns and are told to find their own way to a certain point where they will meet the coyote. The city of Altar, for example, about 112 miles from Nogales in the Mexican state of Sonora, is a popular launching point for border crossers, and as such, it has become a center of immigration commerce. Here, smugglers often tell migrants to wait for days before they cross, during which time they are nickel-and-dimed into buying stealth desert-crossing gear—camouflage backpacks, black water bottles, and carpet booties—from vendors who set up shop around town.
For those coming from Central America, just getting to a meeting place like Altar often means riding buses or atop freight trains from southern Mexico where they may be subjected to robbery, beatings, and getting thrown off the train by cartel lackeys. Those who make it will continue to encounter crippling fees at practically every leg of their journey to the border. Refusal or inability to pay may result in migrants being forced to carry backpacks filled with marijuana, getting kidnapped in order to extort money from their families, or being murdered on the spot. Last year, Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino Morales was captured by Mexican Marines and charged with ordering the kidnapping and murder of 265 migrants. For female migrants, there is always a good chance they could be raped along the way, either by their guide or one of the stray predators who stalk the desert.
It’s almost impossible to separate the cartels’ migration takeover from the security crackdown on the U.S.-Mexico border. In the 13 years since U.S. Border Patrol became a part of the post-9/11 Department of Homeland Security and adopted the mission of keeping terrorists out of the country, the Southwest border has been transformed into a militarized zone, with nearly 700 miles of varying degrees of steel fencing, 21,000 Border Patrol agents, security cameras and ground sensors, with more high-tech surveillance on the way. Some combination of this beefed-up security, a George W. Bush-era policy of jailing and formally deporting all illegal border crossers, plus the U.S.’ weakened housing and job markets, brought the net flow of migration from Mexico to a standstill in 2011. While traffic over the border has slowed, those still crossing have been funnelled into the roughest corners of the desert, where human predators are only part of the danger.
To avoid areas where Border Patrol agents are most highly concentrated, migrants must take longer routes through Mexico, often walking for days through the blistering heat and unpaved and often mountainous desert terrain, dodging rattlesnakes, yellow jackets and cacti, before they even reach the international line. It’s physically impossible to carry the amount of water needed for more than a few days in the desert.
To coyotes getting paid for each person who successfully makes it over, it’s not worth the risk of stalling the whole group to stop and care for someone who is hurt or sick. More often than not, those who can’t keep up will be left to die in the desert. Even as the number of illegal crossers apprehended at the border has reached all-time lows, more people are dying than ever. According to a report by the human-rights group the Washington Office on Latin America, 463 migrants died in fiscal year 2012. The last time that there were more deaths was in 2005, when 492 migrants died. But the pool of people crossing over was much larger—that year, Border Patrol apprehended three times as many people as in 2012.
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