Deadly Game

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

Sunday morning at Los Pinos, Carlos starts drinking hard. The teenage coyote will lead Antonio's group that night; he prepares for the journey by working his way through one six-pack of Tecate, then starts on a second. Along the border, the term coyote may refer to a businessman who makes thousands of dollars a week running a safe house, or it may refer to a 14-year-old kid who supports his glue-sniffing habit by taking groups through the wire. After 10 arrests, the Border Patrol threatens the coyotes with jail time. This is not a long-term career, at least not for the low-level guides. There is, however, a steady supply of drug addicts and high school dropouts lining the streets of Agua Prieta, waiting to take their place. Carlos was once on these streets; three more busts and he will be again. Nineteen years old, he has very little to lose. He has seven arrests, 170 total trips; his teenage wife is pregnant, he says. He can not afford diapers for the kid he has. He left school at 13, worked in a Chinese-owned maquiladora for $30 a week. He gets $20 a head to take people through; he likes to drink, he likes prostitutes, he likes excitement. Twelve people are about to entrust their lives to him.

A Deadly Game of Hide-And-Seek

At times—for instance when the Border Patrol detains and deports the same individual three times in eight hours—the struggle along the border resembles a bizarre game of hide-and-seek, played out by adults. But the body count in this game is rising, and critics are calling it a war, one in which the battles are increasingly costly, paid for with American tax dollars and Mexican lives. Along the border, the number of confirmed deaths rose to 369 in fiscal year 2000, up from 261 just two years earlier. In the Tucson sector, into which Antonio will be crossing, the death toll has gone from 11 to 74 in the same period. A recent report by the University of Houston Center for Immigration Research places the blame for the rising death toll on the shoulders of U.S. policy, which forces illegal immigrants into making ever riskier crossings. Karl Eschbach, one of the report's authors, told The New York Times, "No matter how much control you have, it doesn't appear to stop the flow of immigrants. It only controls how much it costs them, where they do it, and how they will die." INS spokesperson Nicole Chulick disagrees, blaming the rising death toll on the coyotes. "More and more people are using smugglers to cross into the United States," she says. "The smugglers are taking people into these dangerous areas."

The Crossing

Antonio is the last to go through the fence, and he traverses the dirt road as the others have done, carefully stepping in the shoe print of the first to cross, then scrambling up the copper-colored hills in the dark, trying to put some distance between himself and the wire. His heart beats quickly and he has a giddy feeling, as if he were a child again, playing some elaborate prank. The adrenaline high quickly dissipates, and the crossing becomes a dogged march, punctuated by blasts of terror. Walking through the desert at night, your world becomes the patch of ground that falls away from the heels of the one in front of you. You focus hard in the darkness, trying to gauge the hillocks and shale. You stumble and catch yourself, stumble again, hoping to fall back into a rhythmic trance as the miles fall away, pain shooting through your ankles, your mind slowly going numb from the monotony.

Antonio knows that he is more fortunate than most. He will walk through the night, about 18 miles in all, but others walk for up to four days, equipped with little more than a few jugs of water and cans of refried beans and Vienna sausage. Of the hundreds lost and abandoned, the lucky ones are rescued by the Border Patrol. Those less fortunate freeze to death on cold winter nights, drifting off into an endless sleep. The least fortunate have been found naked, their heads stuck in holes they dug in the sand as they tried to escape the brutal daytime heat, as they suffered the final throes of dementia and heat stroke.

After an hour of walking, Antonio's group stops to rest. Carlos and the second coyote, the tall one with the bad teeth, begin to take long pulls from a liter-and-a-half bottle of tequila. As the group gets under way again, the two inebriated men begin to make sexual comments to the two women in the group. Carlos drops back and puts his arm around a woman, pulling her close and whispering things that the others cannot hear. Not wanting to anger the coyotes, no one says a word. A low whirring noise becomes audible in the distance, and someone shouts, "Helicopter! Hide yourselves!" Antonio and the others run in all directions, crawling under bushes and into shallow ditches. Carlos has warned them not to look up if the helicopter comes over—the searchlight will reflect in their eyes and give them away instantly. The distant noise becomes a roar, and a white-hot light floods the desert. The bushes about Antonio dance in the rotor's wash; he feels his heart pounding again and is sure they are caught—but a moment later the noise and the light recede, and the group continues on its way.

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