Noontimebringsa clearing of the skies and a filling of the vans parked alongside the plaza. The daily cat-and-mouse game along the U.S.-Mexican border will now repeat itself for the umpteenth time. And in case anyone has forgotten the stakes, Father Castaneda has posted some stark reminders. On the northern road out of town, he has placed white memorial crosses on the utility poles, commemorating those who couldn’t complete the journey.
A good hour north of Altar, and about 20 miles south of the border, one of the more surreal scenes of this drama plays itself out. Under U.S. pressure during the last decade, the Mexican government created its own elite version of the Border Patrol — called Grupo Beta. The Mexican force failed miserably in living up to the professional standards that had been hoped for. Soon there was a stack of stories of Grupo Beta officers organizing their own rackets, shaking down and robbing the hapless migrants.
The Mexican government, under President Vicente Fox, then disarmed the group and retooled its mission. Now, in its distinctive orange trucks and matching jackets, Grupo Beta has no enforcement duties and claims to be a sort of migrant-protection force. There are still some reports of abuse, but not nearly as many.
At a dusty spot in the Altar-Sasabe road, best described as situated in the middle of nowhere and known by locals as El Tortugo, Grupo Beta has erected a small, bright-orange, steel pavilion, much like a carport. Every afternoon, a Beta patrol unit parks in the small patch of shade, and two uniformed officers stand by the side of the road, armed only with clipboards and a box full of pocket-size illustrated pamphlets. Their job is to stop each van, count the number of occupants, note their state of origin, and give the migrants a Boy Scout–ish lecture on the dangers that await them — perils outlined in the illustrated booklet they pass out.
When Hoover, Laffey and I get to Tortugo, at about 3 in the afternoon, it’s a veritable rush hour. A half-dozen brimming vans are lined up on the side of the road as the two Beta officers go to them one by one. Officers Manuel Roldan and Julio Cesar Cancino seem to have been chosen for this task by sheer force of their outgoing, expansive personalities. Both men are extremely friendly, courteous, respectful and warm.
But when they open the back door of each van, and peer into the sardine-packed interior, they are met by decades of accumulated mistrust, suspicion, diffidence and fear. In Mexico, the safe assumption, no matter what you’re told, is that uniformed figures of authority are not your friends.
Roldan and Cancino, however, are experienced hands in breaking the ice and seem to patiently enjoy the dance of confidence that they must redo with each and every load of passengers.
Roldan opens up the back of one van, and as the daylight floods in, everyone, including those sitting closest to him, looks downward. Over his shoulder I quickly count 27 people in the vehicle. “This is not an inspection station,” Roldan says. “You are not breaking the law. It is your human right to migrate. We are only here to help you,” he says. A few people now raise their heads — no doubt intrigued by a disarmed cop with such a disarming tone.
The two Beta agents ask the passengers to step out of the van. After asking where their hometowns are, Cancino smiles as he asks the next question. Smiles, because no matter how often he asks, he knows he’s going to get the same amusing answer. “Sasabe,” a few men answer quietly.
“Sasabe?” repeats Agent Cancino, as if he’s saying, really? “Sasabe? Or Sasabe Beach?”
With that, the ice cracks and a few smiles begin to sprout. If only desert-bound Sasabe, about as alluring as San Quentin, had as much as a park, let alone a beach or, for that matter, any reason whatsoever to be a destination for such a throng of would-be tourists.
“Come on,” says Cancino, now laughing out loud. “We know you’re all going to the U.S. You are all going to the U.S., aren’t you?” Finally, some heads nod, and the more courageous step forward to confirm the obvious. “Yes, we’re going to the North,” says one man, in cowboy boots and tight jeans. “As much as we hate to leave this paradise behind,” he says, sweeping his hands toward the barren desert around us.
“Good,” says Cancino. “You have full rights while in Mexico. It’s in the U.S. where you will be breaking the law. We just want to tell you a few things for your own protection. If the Border Patrol begins to chase you, do not run. I repeat, do not run! Do not hide! Whatever you do, don’t put your hands in your pockets.”
Now Cancino has his audience rapt. “If you get scattered and lost during the day, look for tall blue flags. That’s where you can find water,” he says, referring to the emergency stations that Hoover has set up. “If you get lost at night, then look for the red lights on the radio antenna. They’re in Sasabe, in Mexico. Walk back to the red lights and look for one of our trucks — the orange trucks. We will be there to offer you emergency help, first aid and whatever else you need.”
The migrants look genuinely grateful. It’s probably the first time in their lives that someone in uniform has sounded so concerned about their welfare. In any case, they all know they are only hours away from running a merciless gauntlet, and any advice and compassion are welcome.
Agent Roldan then hands everyone one of the pamphlets — falsely characterized by right-wing talk radio as comic book guides to crossing the border. If anything, they’re the opposite: a minicatalog of all the dangers that await the migrants, with only common-sense advice to avoid excessive heat and thirst. As well as urging the crossers to obey the orders of any U.S. authorities.
Thepassengerssettle back into the van. Cancino has some final words for them: “Remember that it’s now going to be some very hard days and some very long nights. You are going to have to walk three or four days. Be careful, and buenasuerte.”
Twenty-seven more migrants are on their way to cross the border. During the hour we spend at El Tortugo, about 15 vans have been registered — about 350 people. Agent Roldan says he and Cancino are currently counting about 1,800 a day. But he admits they have no idea of the total number, as they always leave before sundown. “When it gets dark,” he says, “it just gets too dangerous.” The enforcement squeeze on Arizona has proved a financial bonanza for the professional smugglers, who increasingly mix the human traffic with the drug trade. Big profits have turned some of the smuggling operations into heavily armed and violent gangs. When the Grupo Beta agents retreat at night, the road becomes fit only for the most daring.
As dusk falls, some of the same men we saw earlier in the day milling around Altar’s main plaza now huddle in small groups in the desolate, dilapidated border hamlet of Sasabe. They stand along the rutted roads, chatting and smoking, or picking through their backpacks. There’s nowhere to stay here and no reason to be here except to make the jump. When darkness sets in, these groups will fan out and, led by their “polleros” — or guides — will brave the sensors, infrared cameras and Border Patrol agents on the other side of the line. It’s the same game every night of the calendar — especially this time of year.
A majority will probably get nabbed and, through an absurd revolving-door policy, will be dumped back into Mexico, all within a few hours. Then they will re-form, regroup, and will try and try again to cross. Only after being detained (and photographed and fingerprinted) and “voluntarily deported” 10 times do they face possible formal arrest and prosecution.
An unlucky few of these people gathered here tonight might be among those who — invisible and unnoticed — will be consumed by the desert in the next handful of days. Those who do make it through, as if passing through a magical membrane, will re-appear on the other side as our nannies, maids, gardeners and dishwashers. “If you had a hundred U.S. senators come down here and spend only a day in one of the flophouses or a morning talking to these people, you’d have this immigration issue solved in less than a week,” says Cranston’s Mayor Laffey as we roll out of Sasabe. “But it isn’t gonna happen. Not yet.”