Deadly Game

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

Antonio passes the time watching Spanish-language shows on a large color TV—a rare treat, since at home his family listens to a black-and-white TV that has only a test pattern. On the second day, the coyote brings Antonio along while he drives around town, meeting with people who come to sit in his car and purchase plastic bags of white powder. Antonio has never encountered drugs, and it is a few hours before it dawns on him that what is being sold is cocaine. Only two days into the U.S., he's in danger of a long bid for conspiracy to distribute drugs.

On the third day Juan Carlos borrows money from another friend, and the smuggler drives Antonio to the airport. He assures Antonio that his brother has been called and will be there to pick him up, and in the parking lot they sit in the car while the coyote recites in English, "I need a ticket to New York." Antonio repeats the phrase until the coyote thinks Antonio has it memorized. The Border Patrol has recently instituted a program to catch illegal immigrants in the Phoenix airport, and so there are other rules: Inside, Antonio will not walk within 20 feet of the coyote; if the coyote stops, he will signal with his eyes where he wants Antonio to go.

They navigate the concourse in this manner, and eventually the coyote stops and moves his eyes back and forth between Antonio and a nearby ticket counter. Approaching the front of the line, Antonio becomes nervous and forgets the phrase he has memorized. He looks around, but the coyote is gone. The agent speaks no Spanish, but says various words to him in English. After an excruciating minute, she repeats a phrase that sounds like Nueva York, and Antonio nods his head. She makes gestures to him and says something that is similar to a Spanish word: identificación. He hands over his Mexican voter registration card. She smiles and hands him a prepaid ticket for New York with his name on it.

As the plane touches down in New York, the other passengers begin to file out, and Antonio follows them off, thinking that perhaps they will lead him to his brother. Instead, the crowd slowly dissipates, and he meanders about for 20 minutes, then chances upon a glass wall. Outside, there is a sidewalk, a throng of people, and lines of cars. Antonio searches for a door, sees none, and tries unsuccessfully to skirt the transparent barrier. A few minutes later, a man walks toward the wall, and, as if by magic, the glass panels part. Antonio is unsure what the man has done, so he watches for a bit—until two more people pass through. Now he summons his courage, makes sure no one is watching, and walks toward the spot where the three have crossed to the other side. The panels slide open before him. A line of taxis waits, but none of the drivers speak Spanish, and Antonio has no idea how to use the pay phone. The coyote never called Juan Carlos, who is home in the Bronx, watching television, and Antonio sits on a bench, shivering in his thin sweatshirt, the only one he owns now—the one that says "Coed Naked Lacrosse"—scared and confused by the strange language, the noise, and the rushing cars.

Eventually a Spanish-speaking stranger approaches. "I can help you. Do you want to call a relative here in New York?" he asks Antonio. But the man speaks with a peculiar accent, clearly not Mexican, and the teenager thinks, "This man is from la migra; he is trying to trick me." Antonio pretends to not understand, yet the man persists, finally leading Antonio to a pay phone where he dials Juan Carlos's number. Antonio stands a few feet away, ready to run if the man tries to grab him. The man speaks for a few moments, then repeats the address that Antonio memorized weeks ago, at his home in southern Mexico: "Westchester and Castle Hill, en el Bronx." He escorts Antonio over to one of the large yellow sedans, speaks to the driver, then shakes Antonio's hand and motions to him to get in.

For some reason that Antonio cannot fathom, there is a window inside the cab—between the driver and the passenger—and as they barrel down the highway, the driver turns occasionally to speak to Antonio through a small opening. The man does not seem hostile, and they smile at each other across the divide. The man's words sound like so much noise.

In the Bronx, Juan Carlos waits on the corner, thinking about Antonio's journey and the money that has been paid. They have been apart for two years, and he is elated by his brother's arrival. One thought keeps running through his head: "For $1600, they sold my brother back to me."

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