Deadly Game

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

Agua Prieta is a border town; they take dollars here. The architecture is unremarkable, the streets lined with hustlers and thieves, the air choked with dust from the dirt roads and smog from the factories called maquiladoras; midday resembles dusk, and the dawn looks like midnight. Yet for border crossers, the town possesses one essential asset: It is surrounded by hundreds of square miles of hard-to-patrol desert. Agua Prieta has become ground zero in the struggle to illegally enter the United States. On a good night, Border Patrol agents in the vicinity of Douglas, Arizona, make a thousand arrests. Maybe triple that number make it through. Of those arrested, nearly all will be back in Mexico within the hour; if it's early enough, they will try their luck again before dawn.

Los Pinos is one of the 250 hospitality houses that line the streets of Agua Prieta. It has neither pine trees, nor heat, nor space for Antonio's group. The nine travelers join four others in a small, frigid room, the walls lined with bunk beds, the only adornment a plastic-framed Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico, looking down from one wall. Antonio puts on his extra T-shirt for warmth, and the travelers pair off and sleep on the floor or huddle together under thin blankets on bare mattresses that wouldn't comfortably hold a large child.

Antonio lies in bed, watching his breath condense in the cold air, and thinks back to the first time he came to the border, when he was 14. His boss at the slaughterhouse yelled at him constantly and paid him $10 a week for nearly 90 hours of labor. When his coworkers asked if he wanted to go to New York—which he assumed was a day's bus ride away—it seemed like a good idea. Six of them set off one evening after finishing their shift, without telling their families. Antonio remembers the bus ride to Nogales, the thieves in the hospitality house holding the knives, the blood flowing out of his friend's face as they beat him, believing he was hiding money. He remembers the rains and the coyote telling him he would have to swim the swollen river; how he broke down in tears, crying for his mother; how he and two others went home penniless, with no food for two days, the slaughterhouse boss taking pity on his hunger and offering a goat's head from which Antonio ate the eyes, cheeks, and brain. He thinks about the three friends, the ones who chose to go on to New York, and he wonders where they are now and what their lives are like.

It is near noon when the group awakes. The two women cook breakfast—tortillas, sausage, and jalapeños—and the time until crossing is filled with talk of the States, work, and money. One man announces, amid much skepticism, that he has heard Americans have machines attached to their phones and don't answer even though they might be home; another explains that Black children go on welfare and then have to pay it back when they grow up, and also that Puerto Ricans hate Mexicans. "At two o'clock in the morning they play loud music and throw their garbage in the hallway," he says. "You'll see when you get there." A man who has made several previous trips to New York explains that the Korean delis near Penn Station pay only $250 for a 72-hour work week, and that one can make $300 or more on the Upper West Side or in Park Slope. The woman returning to California talks about her full line of credit cards—unknown in rural Mexico—which she pays assiduously, though they are under a false name and Social Security number. Antonio sits in the corner, a blanket pulled around him, and listens intently.

Others drift in and out during the day: There are two sweet, friendly campesinos from Michoacán who are returning to Michigan, where last year they made $12 an hour building housing on an army base. A good-looking 24-year-old man from Veracruz is Vegas-bound. He is returning to work as an apprentice electrician in the casinos; "There are fine bitches there," he says, in quite good English. A dozen others come in from the road and talk for a few hours, or watch Spanish soaps featuring mansions and yachts, and then someone signals to them from the doorway, and they are gone.

In Phoenix, a safe house is raided on Saturday afternoon by the INS, and a call comes into Los Pinos, asking that Antonio's group be kept on standby another 24 hours. In the afternoon, a group of men from Los Pinos wanders around town, checking out the local Sonoran women, famous throughout Mexico for their height and European features. And they walk down to the 12-foot-high steel picket fence that divides the two countries. The men press their faces to the gaps in the fence, staring for long minutes at the Dairy Queen billboard with the giant gorilla, and at the McDonalds and the Wal-Mart a quarter-mile away, where throngs of weekend shoppers load their purchases into shiny cars.

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