Deadly Game

Crazed Coyotes, Car Crashes, Cocaine Deals: One Mexican’s Illegal Journey Into the United States

 10 P.M. JANUARY 14, AGUA PRIETA, MEXICO. Antonio Gonzalez lies on the floor of the Chevy Suburban as it travels east on the Chihuahua highway, past the nightclubs and the traffic fatality crosses. The rear seats have been removed, and 12 men and two women are packed in around him. A quarter mile north of the highway, 50,000-watt lights illuminate the 12-foot-high steel border wall that runs for three miles, separating Agua Prieta from its sister city, Douglas, Arizona. The driver follows the wall out of town, past the drive-in shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, to the outskirts of town where the searchlights are spaced farther apart and the wall ends abruptly, replaced by barbed wire that runs off into the darkness. As the 18-year-old Antonio steps out into the dirt parking lot of a restaurant called El Camionero, he sees other vans and taxis scattered about the property, unloading groups of people.

The two coyotes, the men leading Antonio's group, hustle them across the highway at a steady jog, then down a steep slope toward the border wall, trying to stay out of sight of the judiciales, the Mexican police, who extort money from border crossers. They slow to a walk as they reach a path that runs east, parallel to the barbed wire fence. The moon is nearly full, and Antonio can see that the desert floor is crisscrossed with footpaths and littered with scores of empty water jugs and discarded shoes and clothes. It seems that every living thing has thorns—knurled mesquite, ironwood, and juniper tear at his clothes as the group moves single file through the darkness. The air is silent except for the muffled sound of their feet and an occasional curse as a branch whips back. Earlier, the group had been forced to abandon their belongings in the safe house; Antonio is heading into the Arizona desert with the clothes on his back, a jug of water in his hand, and his brother's Bronx phone number in his head. Nobody in the group carries a flashlight, matches, or a cell phone. Nobody has looked at a map.

A mile north, on the Pan-American Highway, 300 Border Patrol agents at the Douglas Station pull shotguns and M4 machine guns from an ordnance cage and run final checks on computerized ground sensors and remote- control infrared cameras. In the parking lot they fire up SUVs, ATVs, and motorcycles. A helicopter equipped with a 30-million candlepower searchlight rises into the air at a nearby airstrip. The Border Patrol is getting ready for Antonio and as many as 5000 other Mexicans who will try to enter the United States on this night, passing through a forbidding stretch of desert that spans Mexico and Arizona, part of a migration that some estimate at a million people a year. The Mexicans are armed with desperation and dreams, the arsenal that built the United States. Nobody who has seen the poverty in southern Mexico thinks the Border Patrol stands a chance.

Half an hour later, Antonio's group is moving purposefully; Carlos, the young coyote in charge, wants to cross through the wire during the momentary lull created by la migra's 11 o'clock shift change. Seventy-five yards away, the helicopter passes over, its searchlight illuminating the barbed wire fence and the dirt border road running off into the distance. The coyotes pay el mosco no mind; they are still in Mexico, but they can see that the Border Patrol agents have performed a "clean drag," pulling a tire along the soft dirt border road, creating a smooth, unbroken surface. They will pass every half hour or so, looking for the fresh tracks of Antonio's group, and then the hunt will begin.

Each year, some 300,000 Mexicans cross illegally into the United States. In this three-part series, the Voice examines the experience of Antonio Gonzalez, an 18-year-old laborer from the state of Puebla. The first installment documented Antonio's preparations for the journey and showed how his village has been transformed by this exodus. This second segment describes his voyage and the dangers involved, and explores the hidden world of Mexico's human smugglers. The third part will look at the rapidly growing Mexican community in New York, and the challenges and struggles of being an illegal immigrant in our society.

Carlos leads the group several hundred yards past the 100-foot-high pole where the infrared remote-control camera is mounted, into a wash where they are hidden by a small hill. They move toward the fence, walking quietly now and bent double at the waist. Antonio is near the front of the group, and the coyote signals for him to lift the upper strand of wire. The coyote puts his foot on a lower strand, and the group begins to slip through the gap, the barbed wire tearing at their clothes as they step one at a time onto the red- brown dirt of the United States.

Two days earlier, Antonio had said goodbye to his family in the town of Zapotitlán de Salinas, a small village in the state of Puebla, in southern Mexico. Headed ultimately for the Bronx, the former slaughterhouse worker boarded a northbound bus, joining an exodus of Pueblans that in the past two decades may have totaled a quarter million. The bus stopped frequently along the road, picking up farmhands, laborers from the nearby mines, and women wearing long braids and bearing wicker baskets wrapped in Mayan shawls. At the Tehuacán bus station, eight others were waiting, including the coyote from Antonio's hometown. He stood in the corner, away from the light, his small eyes moving constantly under the brim of a large cowboy hat. For $200, the coyote will sell Antonio up on the border to a second coyote, who will take the teenager to Phoenix and sell him to yet a third.

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