Busted by the Trends: Inside a People-Smuggling Hot Spot

T he secluded desert town of Altar, Sonora, a long sixty miles inside Mexico below the Arizona border, has been called a crossroads of undocumented immigration, the most prominent staging area for the jump to El Norte by way of the outlawed back door. But today this storied outpost looks rather peaceful.

“It has become much quieter here,” Antonia Ramirez, one of Altar’s eight thousand or so permanent residents, sadly observed while standing in her open-front shop. As with other stores and stalls hugging the palm-lined town plaza in Altar, Ramirez’s has catered successfully to a mass market of clandestine border-crossers seeking to enter the United States in a hazardous trek through the Arizona desert. Her shelves offer backpacks, economical hiking shoes, foot powder—even a poignant rack of black knit ski masks, useful if you’re lost in a frigid desert night, or seek anonymity for grimmer purposes. Altar is well acquainted with the word bajadores , which refers to the bandits who prey on flocks of disoriented pollos , or “chickens,” as the crowds of unauthorized immigrants at the border are called.

The specialized economy here rode a roller coaster into the new millennium. At some point after the late 1990s, this small ranching town began attracting desperate crowds of northbound pilgrims, though the flood has slowed to a trickle recently. The story behind this is not often seen from the north, and its web of emotions can be disorienting. One resident of Altar, standing near the extended cab of his white pickup at the town plaza, put it this way recently, giving voice to the wonderland of paradox that haunts the immigration debate in Mexico: “Those gringos in Arizona are racists. That’s why they’re trying to stop people from going up there and looking for work. They should be thankful for us hard-working Mexicans. Listen, I’ve got nothing against Obama, but those black people up there, they just sit around and smoke meth and steal and won’t work. So the gringos will be sorry. They shouldn’t be such racists.” Most comments in Altar aren’t quite as contorted, though this one sounded like something from a 1950s store porch in Dixie, updated for a different set of prejudices. At one point I had to interrupt and ask for the translation of a slang word, chúfula , which turned out to mean crystal meth.

Across the street, Ramirez said she will no longer be making trips to wholesalers in Los Angeles to buy the black ski masks and other items. She’s afraid of Arizona’s new anti-immigration law, passed on April 23. When I spoke with Ramirez, the law, SB-1070, hadn’t even taken effect yet (and it may never, given the constitutional challenges lining up for their day in court), but the fine print doesn’t play in Altar. The law—or, more precisely, the publicity surrounding the law—looms in this town as evidence of a demonic new United States, a kind of national concentration camp, with a word over the gate that is often repeated in the Mexican news media: racism. “I’m not going to Los Angeles anymore to buy,” Ramirez said in distress. “They might throw me in jail!”


I found my way to Altar over a desolate back road where, a month earlier, some hundred police had waged a running gunfight with narcos . Before I reached Altar, I half expected a spaghetti Western stereotype, a town full of shadowy figures leaning against buildings, shooting poisonous glances at strangers. Instead I found a neat, noticeably clean little place. People were so friendly and considerate that they kept spoiling my group photos of the smugglers’ roost by smiling innocently. The same fellow who denounced Arizona racists impulsively whipped off his hatband (made from a border-crosser’s paisley bandana) and presented it to me as a gift.

During its people-smuggling heyday—as recent as 2008 and 2009—Altar found itself hosting not only migrants, bandits, and traffickers but adventurous journalists, who jolted over the washboard roads and patched asphalt to witness the spectacle. Desperate crowds were spilling off of buses from points farther south—not only in Mexico but Central America, with a scattering from overseas. After making whispered connections with people-smugglers in Altar’s plaza, they would seek out crowded flophouses, then allow themselves to be crammed into jitney vans—a profitable stream of smuggling vehicles—and rushed across two hours’ worth of no-man’s-land on the last leg of their journey to the American Dream. Altar had become a not-so-secret node on a new Dardanelles.

As I rolled into town, I expected to hear the get-rich-quick jitney drivers shouting as they rounded up loads for the border. Press reports had told me they were forever shouting: “Sasabe! Sasabe! Let’s go for Sasabe!”—since the small Mexican village of El Sasabe, sixty miles north, is the forward position on the border for Altar, the Dover to its London.

But now the shouts were gone. The plaza drowsed. Up in El Sasabe, in fact, things were even quieter. “There are so few [illegal immigrants] now that it takes the drivers a long time to make up a load,” said Carlos Hélas, a pensive young taxi driver at the Altar plaza. The desk clerk at my hotel, Cecilia Monteverde, held up her wirebound guest register: “Look. We used to be full. Now there’s almost nobody.” At the money-changing window on International Street, a young woman behind a plexiglass window was hardly equivocal: “The economy here has gone down.
Businesses have closed.”

So what happened to Altar? If the border is so unmanageable, how could its most celebrated people-smuggling corridor dry up?

The obvious answer would be the U.S. economy. Many of the jobs that drew unauthorized immigrants in the early 2000s were in construction, hospitality, service—sectors hit hard by the recession in late 2008. Illegal crossings are now down along most of the border—but there is an X-factor. They were already going down before the economy tanked. And in some places the flow has increased—ignoring the slowdown up north. Evidence suggests that Altar’s lost prominence is being superseded (on a smaller, less dramatic scale) by a new hot spot, Agua Prieta, farther east, which also faces Arizona. There the old Chiricahua smuggling corridor runs north, paralleling the Altar Valley corridor hours away. It was just northwest of Agua Prieta that Arizona rancher Robert Krentz was shot to death on March 27, helping push Arizona toward passage of the new immigration law and international notoriety.


P eople in Altar don’t seem to think that the American economy is responsible for their change in fortune. These close observers say that their smuggling corridor has been shut down by one main factor: increased enforcement on the U.S. side. To hear this judgment, however, you have to listen to the subtext. Resident after resident put it like this: Altar is the victim of racism.

“Racism was what did it,” said Cecilia Monteverde, the hotel clerk. The Arizona law “was like sending an announcement [to the immigrants]—not to come—that there was racism, that they were not wanted.”

The specific cases of enforcement cited by Altar residents seem to result not from the new law, but from a variety of programs on the American side of the border: the Border Patrol’s Operation Streamline, prosecuting and jailing illegal entrants; the doubling of Border Patrol strength to more than twenty thousand agents nationwide since 2001, with thirty-two hundred or so just in the Tucson Sector, whose two hundred and sixty-two miles of border take in both Sasabe-Altar and Agua Prieta. There are the new fences, backed by high-tech surveillance (although the expensive “virtual wall” so long touted as the border solution bit the dust ignominiously this spring). And in 2008, long before SB-1070, the state of Arizona passed an employer-sanctions law with strong effects on the hiring of undocumented immigrants. There are also the sweeps, jailings, and crackdowns in Maricopa County, surrounding Phoenix, that have made Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the love-’im-or-hate-’im “toughest sheriff in America,” almost as demonic a legend in Altar as Pancho Villa was for U.S. border residents a hundred years ago.

Today Altar sees would-be immigrants just released from detention as they stumble south from extended confinement. “They’re jailing them—like criminals—simply because they’re looking for work.” This is the typical outraged comment. The word racista has become a Mexican TV staple, a modern shorthand word alongside sicario (hitman) and narco (drug trafficker).

Just down the plaza from Antonia Ramirez, merchant Ruben Antonio Mendoza was somber as night fell on his unsold wares—the usual bandanas, hiking gear, border survival aids. He said his business started dying “when racism began to restrict immigration.” How did he know the distant cause? “One learns about it from the news.”

The illusions cut two ways. Authors of the new Arizona law say that it seeks to prevent a crime wave by illegal immigrants—though Arizona’s crime rate has actually gone down as its number of illegal immigrants has increased. Phoenix talk radio voices present illegal entrants as little better than monsters, though many have work ethics that would put Horatio Alger to shame. On both sides of the border, people are seeing demons—the monstrous gringo racist, the monstrous illegal alien. Dual demonization is an old sport in U.S.-Mexican relations, but the atmosphere is getting thick, primed for a spark.

As a result, the border can feel like a disorienting “third country” (the phrase comes from David Aguilar, deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection). Assumptions that seem unquestionable in the heartland begin to tremble as you near the border. At first it feels natural that a nation has the right to defend its cultural integrity by drawing a geographical boundary. But then foreign reality looms, changing the perspective: If it means keeping out Mexicans—simply because they’re Mexicans—isn’t that, indeed, racism?


W hen Altar’s people-smuggling was booming, illegal border crossing had the air of a new and permanent inter-American tidal wave. And yet there were signs all along of a seesaw effect, with periodic dramatic shifts brought on by crackdowns. Illegal crossings may have topped a million a year as far back as the 1970s, but most visible was a ballooning in the early 1990s, unevenly deflating from 2001 onward as enforcement hardened. There were enough remaining spikes (like a big one in 2005) for the flow to seem ever-growing.

Two of the spikes in the human flow, in fact, seem to have been politically driven. In 2004, word spread that President Bush proposed to legalize immigrants currently living illegally in the United States, and the number of unauthorized border crossings shot up (as estimated by the number of apprehensions). A sampling of border detainees just after the proposal found sixty-one percent of them telling the Border Patrol that “they had been informed by the Mexican government or the media that the Bush administration was offering amnesty to illegal immigrants.” The 1,189,031 apprehensions in 2005 made it the peak year this decade.

The other spike was still more dramatic, if more often overlooked. The year with the single largest number of illegal border-crossers ever apprehended was 1986. That year saw the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), the landmark program of the Reagan administration that has made “amnesty” a hot-button word ever since—because IRCA provided legal status to 2.8 million previously unauthorized U.S. entrants, while at the same time the immigration enforcement measures it promised as a counterweight were allowed to wither. As crossers rushed to get in on the legalization, the result was an all-time yearly apprehension record of 1,693,000 in 1986, directly related to IRCA, according to a later Department of Homeland Security statistical analysis.

In the early ’90s, Altar was on the sidelines. The real circus was a full day’s drive west in those days—in Tijuana, where a flimsy weave of old airfield landing mats served as the only border fence separating urban Mexico from similarly urban San Diego County. Buses filled with border-crossing hopefuls flooded in from southern Mexico. Nightfall at the Tijuana fence brought crowds rushing like a surreal scrimmage line toward lonely Border Patrol vehicles. Bandits from the Tijuana slums picked off the stragglers. In fiscal year 1994 this tiny western tip of the border—just seventeen miles in length where it meets the Pacific (less than one percent of the border’s two thousand miles)—produced 354,579 illegal-crossing arrests. That was thirty-eight percent of the border total that year.

But chaos brought crackdowns. Officials squeezed shut the Tijuana breach amid controversy, pain, ironies, and dueling statistics about the costs and benefits of the new arrivals. Corridors in Texas were also blocked. The strategy aimed to choke off the populous nodes where crossers could blend into a crowded landscape. This, everyone now agrees, then forced the flow toward the Arizona desert.

By 2000, Arizona’s killer wasteland was the new poster child of illegal migration, with more than two thousand known desert deaths since then and sharp debate over the number that are unknown. At first the flow moved east from California but only to the Arizona state line, where both states triangulate on Mexico. There, a people-smuggling economy arose in the town of San Luis, Colorado, facing the Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector. Then Yuma’s 126 miles were eventually choked off. This left a remaining gap—the 262-mile Tucson Sector—where Altar rose as the “superhighway of illegal immigration,” before it, too, quietly dried up.

At another Altar shop I found Sergio Avila in the shadows of a sidewalk awning. He switched easily to English since he had grown up in Stockton, California, which gave him a long view of immigration history. “This is going to become like Tijuana, you know?” he said of fading Altar. “You know Tijuana? Nobody crosses there anymore. . . . Back in the day, you could have crossed like nothing. But nowadays it’s hard.”

Inside the Tucson Sector—two hundred border-miles east of Tijuana—the main immigrant flow seems to have continued edging its way eastward once it left Altar. It still looks massive and disastrous to Arizona residents caught in its current, but today’s hundreds of thousands of border apprehensions per year are hardly yesterday’s flood of a million-plus. Either way, the question remains: Is enforcement winning or losing? Are hundreds of thousands of illegal crossers still far too many? Or does this amount represent the best that border enforcement can be expected to do?


T he first seven months of 2010 have seen just over one hundred and forty-eight thousand apprehensions in the Tucson Sector, according to Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante, up eight thousand from the same period last year, making Tucson Sector the only place where arrests are still increasing. The Border Patrol doesn’t like to speculate about escape ratios—that is, how many unknown crossers may successfully get through for every one caught. The old rule of thumb said three got past for every one caught; but some say four-to-one or even higher.

As illegal immigration moves and morphs, the illusions multiply. Arizona’s new law has been condemned on both sides of the border for tasking local police to question or detain suspected illegal immigrants. And yet police across the United States have long been doing this, as the law’s framers acknowledge. Two hours from Altar I went to the border port of Nogales and talked to immigrants being forcibly returned to Mexico. One of them, Agustín Ortíz, was being shipped home to Mexico City all the way from New York. He said a New York policeman had spied him on a subway, suspected a fake ID was changing hands, found that Ortíz had no papers, and then handed him over to federal authorities: Next stop, Nogales. In the same transit camp was Salvador Diaz, who had lived in Phoenix for more than twenty years, until one day a city policeman stopped him on the street—for jaywalking. Diaz could show only a Mexican ID,
and was deported.

The controversial SB-1070 endorses and legitimates this pre-existing condition—in somewhat confusing words. The law warns sternly that officers can be sued if they don’t act on their suspicions, although it also says they must never, ever profile suspects based on race. The ambiguities have loosed an avalanche of fears, which bypass the details. In a protest atmosphere, the real racism in the immigration debate can seem almost hidden behind exaggerated illusions of “racism.” Historically, Mexico and the United States have been aiming moral panics at one another since at least 1848, when one took Arizona from the other, although the theater has grown a little too crowded now for anyone to shout “fire.”

In Altar, I saw four small white taxis sitting unused as their drivers stood in the shade of a building, hoping for a break. “There used to be four or five times as many [illegal border-crossers] coming here,” said driver Cesar Gallegos, adding a stoic joke: “Back then we ate two or three times a day. Now, only one.”

All four men, observant and practical-minded, agreed that the crossers had stopped coming because of Arizona’s new law—though the law was not even in effect yet. They spoke of traffic now coming back from the border, made up of people who either were jailed in Arizona or couldn’t get across in the first place. The real factors behind these impressions would seem to be multiple and diffuse, stemming from separate enforcement programs and policies, but Altar is focused on SB-1070 and its shorthand name: racism.

Taxi driver Fernando Martinez was rueful: “Humble people, going there only to work—they’re treated like criminals. Now, just to work is a crime.”

“They set out from here one day,” said Gallegos. “They’re back here the next.”

Another driver: “That lady governor in Arizona is very bad.”

All of Altar seems to have seen TV images of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signing SB-1070 into law. The gossip seldom skips her gender. She is la gobernadora , “the lady governor.”

One of the taxistas summed up: “In Arizona, they don’t like Mexicans who are looking for work.” Another: “That policy is keeping Latinos from earning a living.” I asked them all: If the new law were to be removed, would more people start crossing again? The response was a harmony of voices: “ Sí!


I n the boom days, people-smugglers prowling the Altar plaza were said to be recognizable by an occupational habit. They were always on the phone—either a cell or a pay phone they plied with prepaid long-distance phone cards. Sometimes they would instruct arriving immigrants to cool their heels for days at a time in Altar’s flophouses, as word came that one or another crossing spot might be too hot. These advisories could spread for hundreds of miles in an instant, a reminder that television is not the only technology contributing to border theater.

Altar’s talk about mistreated immigrants doesn’t exclusively implicate the American side of the border, however. There is open discussion of a more dangerous subject, the toll charged on illegals by “the mafia,” meaning the Mexican drug cartel controlling the Altar corridor. Ordinary residents don’t pry into the details, but on the road from Altar to the border indocumentados reportedly face a surcharge, either at an improvised checkpoint or in boarding fees passed on by jitney drivers. Some residents report the “mafia” toll at eight hundred pesos, or sixty-four dollars. This is small compared to a people-smuggler’s main fee, which itself is variable but probably ranges from between twelve and fifteen hundred dollars on up—with non-Mexicans getting stuck harder than natives. Some immigrants are helped with the fee by relatives already working in the United States, who wire money to Altar. Their willingness to pay helps explain why people-smugglers sometimes double as kidnappers, holding clients for ransom at safe houses in Phoenix or elsewhere as they bleed more money out of relatives.

The specific “mafia” said to be controlling Altar is reportedly Mexico’s largest, the Sinaloa cartel, under the latest narco legend, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera, a Forbes-list billionaire known as the second most wanted man in the world, after Osama bin Laden. Authorities have linked more than twenty-three thousand deaths in Mexico to cartel violence since late 2006. In the Altar-Nogales area a morbid hope is often expressed that if only El Chapo could gain control of everything and be the unquestioned king, maybe the turf killings would stop and people could live in peace. “Once It’s Defined Who Controls This Zone, The Violence Will Lessen,” read a recent headline in the Nogales-Sonora newspaper El Impartial .

In Nogales, the main border portal in Sonora, there have been persuasive reports of widespread robberies of immigrants by Mexican police. Since at least the 1990s, Mexico has made extensive efforts at law enforcement reform, with proofs of significant progress, but repeated discoveries of new corruption can make problems seem hopelessly pervasive. In a Nogales returnee camp I spoke to a group of immigrants from the Mexican state of Guanajuato, picked up by the Border Patrol in Arizona after their people-smugglers had abandoned them in the desert. They described a robbery by Mexican police, who they alleged had stopped a band of nine Guanajuato migrants traveling in a vehicle, jailed them on a flimsy pretext, and stolen their possessions—including cell phones, eyeglasses, supplies, and three thousand dollars in cash. The director of the returnee camp was listening as the robbery was described, commenting: “This is not an isolated case. It happens daily. . . . I don’t allow the police to come into my camp. If they try, I take their names and license plate numbers.”

At Mexico’s other border, with Guatemala, where Central Americans enter Mexico as illegal immigrants, so many robberies and rapes have been reported that Amnesty International issued a report in April on “a crisis in human rights,” saying that police are sometimes involved in the abuse. In northern Mexico, an organization called Sonora Human Rights saw the report and responded: “It is ironic that while we repudiate the so-called Arizona Law for being violative of people’s fundamental rights, in our own nation the same racist and xenophobic measures are applied daily.”

And so the immigration Punch and Judy show continues. Mexicans bash what they see as demonic American racism, while Americans chase illegal immigrants as if their capture will solve all problems. The view from Altar suggests an epidemic of blindness among two large populations, with no telling what they might bump into.

Gary Moore has written about Latin America and the Hispanic community in the United States for various national publications. He has contributed to the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post Magazine, and the New York Times.

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