Deadly Game

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

In years past, los mojados (the wet ones) rode buses to the Texas border and waded across the waist-deep Rio Grande at loosely guarded places like Juárez, Laredo, and Brownsville. Or they headed west to Tijuana and played human dodgeball—with themselves as the ball—sprinting across the freeways into southern California. Those days are gone. The Douglas Border Patrol station was built in 1987 to house 50 agents. Today it holds 600. In the early 1990s, the Border Patrol instituted operations Hold the Line, Gatekeeper, and Safeguard, walling off urban areas and purchasing equipment designed for the military (including an armored car), in an effort to deter illegal entry. Yet impoverished Mexicans are as persistent as ever. The northward migration has not slowed, and according to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) spokesperson Nicole Chulick, 90 percent of illegal immigrants now hire coyotes.

Most Mexican towns of any size have one—Zapotitlán, Antonio's hometown of 4500, has two. He might be called the coyote, the chicken carrier, or simply "he who takes the people." (The immigrants are known as the "the wet ones" or "the chickens" or, along the border—where Mexicans are taller and lighter—as los negritos, the little dark ones.) The price to New York—where nearly everyone from Antonio's hometown of Zapotitlán goes—is $1600, payable upon arrival in Arizona. The coyote may want to speak to the relative in New York who has agreed to wire the money. If the coyote does his job well, delivering the town's sons and daughters safely, he is held in some esteem.

The coyotes of southern Mexico will sell their human cargo at one of the hundreds of "hospitality houses" that line the streets of border towns. With Juárez and Tijuana locked down, the smuggler will find a buyer in Agua Prieta, or in Nogales or Naco, all towns along the Arizona border. The hospitality house may peddle "the chickens" to a freelance coyote, or it may have a house coyote, who will move them across the border to Phoenix (or occasionally Tucson or Reno), where they are resold to a safe house. The safe house collects the money from a relative, usually via Western Union, and drops the immigrants at a bus station or airport with a ticket.

Throughout the Mexican border state of Sonora, word on the street has it that the drug dealers are giving up their old business. "We can make just as much selling people, and it's virtually risk-free," says a resident of Agua Prieta who has trafficked in both commodities. "Moving people to the United States has become a billion-dollar-a-year business," confirms agent René Noriega of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector.

Antonio and the others began their journey on a bus, rolling north through the brown fields of Puebla state, past men driving oxen behind hedgerows of huge maguey cactus. In the cavernous Mexico City airport, where the group had come to catch a flight to Hermosillo, a city in northern Mexico, Antonio was jostled by men carrying briefcases and women in expensive pantsuits talking on cell phones. Standing in his frayed "Coed Naked Lacrosse" sweatshirt (he had no idea what it meant), he was confounded by metal detectors and myriad check-in lines, and alarmed by the soldiers and police who loitered about the concourse, toting automatic weapons. Normally friendly and relaxed, Antonio became hesitant; his steps faltered, and an aura of timidity enveloped him, as if he were a young boy lost in a crowd.

On the plane, Antonio clenched the evacuation instructions in his hands and pressed his face to the window. He was worried about this, his first plane ride, and earlier he had asked a visitor if the airplane went faster than the bus. Now he tensed as the 757 accelerated down the runway, lifting and banking sharply over Mexico City. The teenager looked down on the twinkling lights of this city of 20 million, studying the urban sprawl creeping up the side of the volcanoes that ring the city. The son of a goat herder, he had left school at 13 and only once been outside of Puebla. After a few minutes he sat back slowly, a calm smile breaking over his face. "This is fabulous," he said.

Mean Streets

5:30 a.m., Agua Prieta: The mud puddles have a skin of ice upon them. Antonio has been on the road for 30 hours straight, traveling the 1200 miles to the Arizona border. He stumbles off the fourth and final bus in his journey, the freezing air hitting him with a blast. He has never felt cold like this before; the home he left the previous morning was 50 degrees warmer, and his friendly neighbors are here replaced by the men who lounge in the shadows near the bus station. They move in on Antonio like sharks; theirs is a chorus of low voices asking, "Vas al otro lado?"—Are you going to the other side? A stone-eyed man on a bicycle shadows Antonio, hissing, "Phoenix $800, Los Angeles $1000, New York $1500. Where do you want to go?" The coyote splits the nine into small groups for the walk to the safe house. The judiciales caught him once before with a large group; they took la mordida (literally "the bite"), and he doesn't want to make any more payoffs.

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