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ILLEGALSTHE UNACCEPTABLE COST OF AMERICA'S FAILURE TO CONTROL ITS BORDERS
By DARRELL ANKARLO
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Darrell Ankarlo
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE TRIFECTA: COYOTES. ILLEGALS. CORRUPT MEXICAN LEADERS.
Twelve-year-old Gabriel watched as his mother struggled and staggered just to move a few more inches. When they started their walking journey four days and sixty miles earlier, the thirty-one-year-old Latina beauty had deep smooth skin, and her silky black hair was held up by a soft pink-and-red scarf she made from scraps. Earlier still, as Maria paid the deposit for their trip, she tried to show her son as much enthusiasm as she could, her stories peppered with words like Disneyland, baseball, and video games. Her cousin, who had made the trip a year earlier, had already arranged a job for her cleaning houses and routinely sent her magazines of what life was like in America. Maria was as giddy as a school girl because her new life was just a few days away.
Now, the dreams were too distant to remember. It had taken the better part of six hours for them to travel less than a mile. Maria's skin was clammy, she was out of spit and sweat, her chest was heaving, and her heart was racing. She had stopped walking a long time ago; her leg movement was more of a halting pseudo-glide because she didn't have the strength to lift her feet so much as an inch off of the earth. She had given her son the last of the water more than two hours earlier, and dehydration along with heat exhaustion were working in tandem to stop her-forever. She would have given up much sooner but she owed it to Gabriel. Then, with the next shuffle her left foot twisted and her body collapsed to the powdery mixture of sand and dirt.
Running to the only thing he had left in the world, the boy planted his bottom firmly in the sand and scooted his small frame next to Maria's. Taking the once sweat-soaked scarf from his mother's neck, where she had placed it hours earlier in an attempt to cool herself, Gabriel dabbed it over her forehead and cheeks and softly pleaded, "La madre, no da para arriba; vamos a hacerlo. Usted va a ser aceptable." As he begged her not to give up, he began to cry, but not a single tear welled in his eyes, for he too was feeling the result of the lack of water. "Te quiero madre," he said, waiting for his mother to say she loved him too. It was their ritual in good times and bad to say those three words at least three times a day. "Te quiero madre." Gabriel looked into his mother's beautiful Latin eyes for a connection, but this time the beauty had been replaced by dim, bulging, dry blobs. "Madre?" The child paused, and shook his mother again, "Madre!!" There was no movement, no sound, and no heartbeat.
There, surrounded by nothing but cacti and desert animals sat a child who needed to instantaneously turn into a man and fend for himself if he was ever going to see another day come and go, let alone see the treasures his mother had promised. He hugged his mother as tightly as he could and tried to squeeze out at least a single tear of his own to mourn the loss of his parent and any possible hope.
Stranded. Alone. Lost. Broken. Gabriel, like thousands before him, knew firsthand what it was like to be abandoned in the desert by an anxious time-conscious coyote. By noon the following day the Border Patrol found his once lovely mother's body and-following the small footprints-only twenty or thirty steps away they stumbled over his. The two men with badges cried for both.
Maria and Gabriel's sad story is just one of thousands replayed in the deserts of the American Southwest every year. Hearing the story stirred something in my soul like never before-something that demanded that I see the humanity up-close and hear the stories firsthand. I needed to grasp the motivation that causes a person to leave all he knows and trade it for fear, sorrow, illegal acts, and loathing by many. I had to know for myself.
* * *
My radio station management was concerned that my team might go in and never come out, so I chose border cities like El Sasabe and Nogales, Mexico, for security purposes-though it should be noted that once inside the country, we routinely roamed to less secure areas and, sometimes, directly into the path of danger. Gary confided on day one of the excursion that he had been selected, in part, because some in our company's leadership believed I would go just about anywhere to get a story and they wanted him to minimize the risk. By the halfway mark Gary recognized that some exposure was essential if we were to get the real story, and he and the rest of the team were willing to travel wherever the days and trails would take us.
One person I ran into numerous times was the coyote, a man whose legend is well-known in the Southwest as the one who leads illegal immigrants over hills, through rivers, and across borders. But by the time I finished my quest I came to recognize most coyotes to be entrepreneurial teenage thugs who need a whipping from their parents more than anything else.
Philippe is an excellent example of a typical coyote. I met him as my team struggled to make our way through a seedy side of Nogales-he stood out because of his youthful, quiet, and unassuming demeanor. I was quite certain that I was being introduced to the wrong person due to that almost wallflower disposition, but as soon as I started delving into his life and personality the stories started flowing. When Philippe turned thirteen his older cousin gave him a simple task: "Go down to the village store and let the shopkeeper know another group heads out on Friday." When he returned with word that six more had been added to the group, his cousin tossed him a crisp one-hundred-dollar bill. It was more money than he ever knew existed and, with that, Philippe chose his vocation. Within a few years he would be a coyote earning six figures. His clients have included children, grandparents, a blind man, and a pregnant woman ready to deliver within weeks. He sees himself as a Mexican Robin Hood who wants to be at the evil America because "they make too much money"-though he admits his goal is to "make as much as I can."
Philippe quit high school and doesn't think twice about it. "I make more money than anyone else I know, so who needs school?" He doesn't mind the negative nickname he and other coyotes have been given: Polleros, "chicken herders." He agrees with the name given to his crossers: Pollos, "chickens," "because that's what they are." And he likes his job-a lot. "Before my cousin introduced me to this job I had nothing. My parents had nothing. Next year I will have my own home and it will be completely paid for."
At one point Philippe sounded more like a Wall Street forecaster than a dropout when he talked about his clients and the growing industry he had discovered. "I can put together a group of people in no time. I just go to a bus station or restaurant and start asking around, and people flock to me." Officials in Mexico say the average number of attempts at passage is six times before the illegal immigrant throws in the towel, because they know America starts to prosecute at the half-dozen mark. "I tell my people to keep the faith; I will get you there. But I do want them to make it on the first attempt because I only get part of my money upfront and I want it all! It doesn't pay as well if I have to keep trying."
Though Philippe is doing very well, he confides that many do not. "Some just don't know what they are doing. To make the money they smuggle drugs, and if they get caught they end up giving their money back to police and politicians to stay out of jail." When pressed about whether he moves drugs, he would only say that he didn't think smoking marijuana should be a crime. He must not be the only one, because spot checks of detained groups by the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol found that more than 90 percent had narcotics.
To keep his travelers moving at a fast pace, Philippe admitted to demanding that each person take ephedra tablets-strong stimulants-sometimes as many as five or six at a time, even though the supplement has been proven to cause heart damage and is now banned in America. But where I traveled in the desert, I found empty packages at every turn. The speed tablets also can dehydrate, cause strokes, elevate blood pressure, and make the user anxious. But the coyote doesn't care. "My job is to get them from start to finish in as little time as I can. Their health is not my concern."
The coyote is the central figure in the life of more than a million illegal immigrants a year, and he has at least ten thousand brothers who aid and abet him every step of the way. Though it is mostly a man's job, the average coyote is still in his teens, and plenty of women behind the scenes help coordinate drop points, routes, money, and other job-related responsibilities. If it sounds like a well-run business, it is. From 2000 to 2006 the transport of human beings into the U.S. from Mexico was more than a $10 billion industry-annually. That figure does not represent the ancillary trip-related products, nor does it include the routine demands for more money once the alien has made it to the drop house.
On a global scale the United Nations set the human smuggling of trade nations other than Mexico at $10 billion a year. This annual revenue is on par with Fortune 500 companies like Google, U.S. Airways, Viacom, and Amazon.com. And, as is the case whenever major money is involved, the temptation to skim, cheat, break laws, and live a corrupt life routinely wins out.
* * *
I had been scouring the area hoping to find someone who would take me to meet some of the day-to-day players in the smuggling machine when we lucked into a cab driver who had the details. At first I found it strange that so many drivers knew the ins and outs of the illegal immigration industry, but after a certain number of trips it just made sense: many of these guys played bit parts in the smuggling drama as snitches, runners, moles, and liaisons with would-be travelers or well-connected tour guides.
Rumors of corrupt police and military on this side of the border are as old as the border itself, but a few of them re-emerged as my cabbie backed up stories I had only heard in bits and pieces. I asked him to explain the bajaderos, another name for the baddest of the bad guys-the one who waits for a coyote to be on his last leg with his human contraband so he can drive in with big guns and big backup to kidnap the illegals. If the coyote puts up a fight, he dies-right then and there, with no time spared for negotiations.
Once the bajaderos, or jackers as they are also known, sell back the stolen people to anxiously overwhelmed friends and relatives, the local Mexican police insert themselves into the process. The cops shake down the jackers for thousands of dollars and then return to them a few hundred dollars along with their guns so the cycle has a chance to work again in subsequent days. Meanwhile, citizens in Mexico who get caught with a gun go away for up to five years, while the bajaderos get zero time and the immediate return of all weapons.
The government, police, and military have it figured out-keep weapons away from the common folk to guarantee continued income from corruption and a limited chance that revolution may break out.
"Tips," otherwise known as bribes, are a common practice if you want to get any kind of information or decent customer service in Mexico. One of the many people to whom I gave money backed up another story about the heavily used border passage cities: the chiefs of the state police in some of those areas are believed to make as much as $30,000 in extra income-per month-to do the exact opposite of the oath they took for the Mexican people. In cities like Naco, El Sasabe, and Nogales, military personnel are known to expect no less than a 10 percent apiece cut of any action going down in their domain. Smugglers build the bribe money into the cost of doing business so it doesn't cut into their bottom line. No wonder investigators, law enforcement, and wayward Phoenix reporters who get within striking distance can never fully get inside the story-too many people have been "tipped" to keep us out.
I couldn't keep track of all the stories my driver poured out from the front seat, but I had heard enough to know that so many people on the take meant permission had to be granted at extremely high levels of government. The Sopranos would have been proud of all the high ranking people "on the take."
The transition seemed like an obvious one, so I took the shot and asked the cabbie to take us to an area where I could meet and interview a jacker. I was pretty certain he had processed the words from English to Spanish, because his eyes looked like they were going to pop out of their sockets and bounce off the rearview mirror he was using to stare me down. My request was not going to happen-not with him. Before we knew it, my team and I were interviewing new taxi candidates at another street corner.
I sent my translator, Alonzo, to work his magic. He came back with not one, but three drivers in tow, so I was sure I could work something out, especially since two or three more followed to see what the congregating was all about.
"Look people," I said. "I am going to find a jacker or a coyote. It will be done today." I was very firm. I wasn't going to come back without an interview.
"We're not going to take you. It's not going to happen." Each of them took turns with their rejections, sure I would stop being so ignorant.
"No, you've got to take me in." With that, I pulled out a wad of money and moved it from one hand to the other. I didn't want us to get jumped in the middle of the street; I just wanted a passing glance to cause one of them to accept the payoff. After all, everyone else in Mexico seems to.
From the group of five one said, "I'll make you a deal. I'll take you to an area where this happens. I will not take you in because I could easily be killed. You could easily be killed. But I will take you up to that point." That was good enough for me. Flashing the cash again I ensured he would stay with the car if we got out, and he agreed.
"You won't just leave us there and abandon us, because it's a very long stretch of dirt road?" I asked.
"No, I'll stay with you."
That was good enough for me. My teammates looked a little stunned at what I was putting together, but none balked. So, we piled in the front and back seats of the roving used-parts store and thanked the driver in his mid-forties. His slicked, balding hair follicles glistened with sweat while his facial stubble made him look like so many others we had seen at every turn.
Excerpted from ILLEGALS by DARRELL ANKARLO Copyright © 2010 by Darrell Ankarlo. Excerpted by permission.
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