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.

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.

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.

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.

They walk like this for several more hours, slipping through barbed wire fences, hiking through riverbeds, and scaling the foothills of what the locals call Saddlegap Mountain. Again they hear the helicopter's approach. The tequila bottle is almost empty now, and Carlos yells, "Follow me," and staggers off to the east, followed by half a dozen people. The other coyote shouts back, "No, this way!" and runs west with others trailing behind. Again they escape detection, regroup, and soon crest a hill to find themselves looking down on the lights of Douglas, a town of about 15,000. Antonio has never looked at a map of North America; neither has anyone bothered to explain the journey's itinerary. He assumes that the group will walk through the night and arrive in the Bronx in the morning, on foot, and he looks down on the town beneath him and he asks the others if this is New York City. Those who have crossed before laugh at his innocence.

At 5 a.m., they have skirted Douglas and reached Highway 80, the road that leads to Tucson. Carlos runs off to get a second Chevy Suburban, hidden nearby, and the tall coyote places a water jug by the side of the road to mark their spot. They lie in the tall grass and watch the Border Patrol vehicles that pass every few minutes, and then the Suburban pulls up, screeching to a halt, and they sprint out of the grass, piling in through the open door, falling on top of one another. Within seconds the van is gone, and Carlos quickly pulls off onto a dirt road, away from the checkpoints the Border Patrol has set up on the highway. The group is hardly out of danger: The tequila bottle is empty now and Carlos is behind the wheel.

He guns the motor, and the van picks up speed, careening from side to side on the icy dirt road. In the back, the group members begin to whisper to one another that they might be killed. One of the women speaks up, "Could you drive a bit slower please?" Carlos laughs and responds by jerking the steering wheel, causing the van to lurch hard to one side. After that no one says a word. Antonio begins to pray: "Lord, even if I can't get to New York, please let me get back home without being killed."

He feels a strange floating sensation in his stomach. Time seems suspended. He realizes the van is out of control. It is as if they are in a dream, and they know that the dream's end might mean their death. They skid down an embankment, the people in the back hanging onto one another in their fright. The van leans as if it is going to tip over, there is a sudden crash, and Antonio is thrown violently forward. But no one is seriously injured. The two coyotes climb out, laughing drunkenly, and perform a quick inspection. They slowly back the van away from the tree where it has come to rest, the crushed fender screeching in protest as it is pulled free, then return to the road, where Carlos, not at all chastened, resumes his high-speed run. Two hours later, having skirted the Border Patrol checkpoints near Bisbee and Tombstone, they arrive at Interstate 10, the highway that leads to Phoenix.

It is early morning now, the sun is up, and Antonio smells the sweat from the other bodies and listens to the whistles of the Union Pacific diesels on the rails that shadow the highway. From his vantage point on the floor, he gets his first real view of America: highway overpasses, the tops of palm trees, giant signs with words he cannot decipher. There are billboards with pictures of RV campers and billboards with pictures of food.

After four hours, Antonio hears the traffic noise increase. They have reached Phoenix. The truck pulls into the driveway of a split-level ranch house in a nondescript development. Carlos and the other coyote turn the group over to a Chicano, then climb back into the van, loudly discussing a whorehouse they will now visit. The Chicano gives each member of the group a Western Union address, and immediately they begin to call family members in New York. Within hours, money begins to arrive, and as each person is paid for, he or she quickly hugs those remaining and is taken to the airport.

Antonio's brother, Juan Carlos, is at work until late that night, and when Antonio does reach him, the loan he is counting on has fallen through. By midnight all the other group members are gone. The Chicano does not actually live in the house, and he leaves Antonio alone for the night, warning him that the Border Patrol is all over the neighborhood and that he'll be arrested if he goes outside. Antonio assumes this is untrue, but it makes no difference. There is no point in escaping into a foreign land when he can't speak or read the language and has no means of transportation to New York.

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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