What I learnt about illegal immigrants on US-Mexico border
The long journey across the Sasabe desert, infamous for human trafficking, was not for the faint-hearted.
- Total Shares
We had been driving for 900 miles and close to 12 hours from Los Angeles, through the endless, arid and blindingly hot expanse of the Arizona desert. All around were only giant, misshapen rocks and towering Saguaro cactii to punctuate the emptiness.
Sasabe was our final destination, a virtually non-existent blip on the map about 40 miles south of Tucson. It was the very personification of what is endearingly referred to as a "one horse town".
Upon walking into the only store in town, we were greeted by what looked like its sole inhabitant, a toothless old creature agog at the sight of new faces.
Upon venturing further inside, past dusty shelves of bug spray, trays of stale tamales and dubious looking 69 cent cans of sausage, we were faced with a rack of T-shirts printed with "Where the hell is Sasabe?"
It was an existentialist, and perhaps apt query of a geographical entity questioning the validity of its own existence.
Indeed, Sasabe would probably not even exist if it wasn't for what lay just a few yards away; the US-Mexico border and beyond that, the teeming nation of Mexico. The 3200km border separating Mexico and the United States is the most frequently crossed international boundary in the world, with approximately 350 million crossings being made annually of which an estimated half million are illegal.
We crossed over without much of a fuss, being cursorily glanced over by two sleepy and dishevelled Mexican immigration officials. They looked like they would not have cared if there was a nuclear warhead attached to the roof of our vehicle.
We were only a few feet into Mexico when it hit us: "WE WERE IN MEXICO".
The contrast was blatantly apparent and quite disorienting. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, we made the transition from neverending multilaned highways lined with shiny strip malls and gated McMansions to rocky, pothole ridden dirt tracks carved out from frequent use rather than technology.
Alongside were randomly arranged rows of adobe and tin structures in varying degrees of disrepair. They appeared to function interchangeably as makeshift tavernas, eateries and general provision stores.
The first one of these rather proudly and prophetically proclaimed "Super Coyote" on a sign precariously hoisted above the roof, an amusing reminder of our mission
"Coyote" or "pollero" was the colloquial term for the human traffickers that this region was notorious for. Every day, dozens, sometimes hundreds of rural Mexicans from the poverty-stricken southern states were smuggled across the treacherous and bandit infested Sonoran desert into the United States.US patrol group searching an immigrant. (Photo credit: Reuters)
These two-legged coyotes were responsible for the safe passage of their "pollos" (chickens) and set their fee according to the distance and potential degree of danger.
I was in the midst of production on a documentary film tackling issues like illegal immigration and narco-trafficking. The US border patrol, only half in jest, called Sasabe the Grand Central Station of Human Trafficking.
Upon alighting from the vehicle, we observed a rag tag group of men sitting around a table on the patio of an adobe store and by the sound of it, having a good old time. One of them upon spying us, got up and meandered over in our general direction.
By his gait, it was apparent that he'd been liberally consuming the local brew for the better part of the day. He had a grizzled, weather-beaten face, blood shot eyes, wore a wide brimmed cowboy hat, a bright green checkered shirt and beamed at us affably through a gap toothed grin.
He came up and assertively extended his hand, introducing himself as the "maestro". We could not help but be drawn into conversation with this exotic specimen of local fauna.
A rapid stream of unfathomable jabber in slurred Spanish liberally sprinkled with endearments like "cabrone" (fornicating old goat) and "puta madre" (son of a whore) spewed out of his mouth.
We eventually deciphered the following; that he had a Green Card, did not give a damn about the United States, had lived in Miami many moons ago as a wealthy businessman and once had a girlfriend who was so beautiful that she "made the leaves shake".
To prove this last point, he whipped out a dog-eared photo of what indeed appeared to be a remarkably curvaceous specimen of womanhood.
Deeply engaging as this exchange was, we had to move on, so we bid Adios to our inebriated friend and drove further into town.
By now my gastric juices were causing tremors and we stopped at a squat building with large crowing rooster painted by the entrance.
The words "pollo asado" (roast chicken) were printed underneath.
Pasted next to it, rather incongruously, was a poster that showed the number of immigrant deaths that had taken place in the last few years (roughly three thousand), of which an alarming portion were women and children.
Clearly, the long journey across this unforgiving desert was not for the faint of heart or spirit. US border patrol activity is concentrated around big border cities such as San Diego and El Paso which have been fenced extensively. This means that the flow of illegal aliens is diverted into rural mountainous and desert areas, leading to several hundred migrant deaths every year.
We sat down and were approached by the cook who said we could have chicken with rice, chicken with tortillas or just plain chicken. Torn between the choices, we went with one of each.
Let it be said that the food was succulent, aromatic with just the right amount of spice and seasoning and tasted better than anything we had eaten in recent memory. Close to six whole birds must have met their demise to satiate us that afternoon.
In the midst of our feast, the door slammed open and a group of about seven youths trooped in and took the adjacent table. All of them, with the exception of one, were dressed identically in black garb.
From their hushed conversation and the curious blend of resignation and resolve in their eyes, it became apparent that they were here for "the crossing".
I broke ice with Luis, who seemed to be their leader and discovered that they had travelled here over land, all the way from Oaxaca in the deep south.
Taking comfort in the observation that I didn't appear to be the typical "gringo" (foreigner), he consented to my invitation to join us at our table. We bonded raucously over what eventually turned into several bottles of tecate, a ubiquitous Mexican brew. The irony of me, an Indian-American, making a film about the immigration crisis on the US-Mexico border was not lost on anyone.
I could have very easily been sitting across the table at this moment were it not for the sheer randomness of socioeconomic providence.
Luis and the rest of his posse were "Mestizos", the racial hybrid of indigenous natives and white Spanish colonisers that largely make up the Mexican populace.
And like in most of Latin America, the more native blood you had, the lower down on the socioeconomic ladder you were likely to be.
The illegal immigration "problem" was largely caused by heavily subsidised dietary staples like corn from US producers flooding the Mexican market wiping out entire communities of farmers who had no hope of competing with the skewed trade tariffs.
In addition, resource-rich southern states were exploited by large corporations for their cash crops, coffee being one major example. And only an infinitesimal portion of their mega revenues would trickle down to the traditional tillers of the soil. This led to a mass exodus north or "El Norte", into the United States in search of better wages.
We soon learnt that our newfound companions were on their way to Los Angeles, where they had several relatives and fellow Oaxaquenos eagerly and perhaps wishfully awaiting their arrival. This was going to be a solo trip as they could ill afford the 2,000 odd dollars demanded by the local coyote.
Luis told us about a place that he cryptically referred to as "the Base" which was where they all had to congregate at two the next afternoon to get ready for the trek across. "The Base" had already been written about in the LA Times, and was in fact our only source of information for this expedition.
Upon reaching there, the sight that greeted us was definitely not what we expected. As it turned out "the Base" was a giant scrapyard with grotesquely twisted skeletal remains of used cars and trucks laying around in a formation that almost resembled a prehistoric amphitheatre with mangled dinosaurs laying in their final resting place.
We were approached by someone who appeared to be a cross between American actors Lee Van Cleef and Ron Jeremy, if such a thing is at all possible, and at the first sight of a camera, put on a pair of Terminator shades.
He introduced himself as Francisco and hastily informed us that he had nothing to do with the activities there and was just the local caretaker, "making sure everything went smoothly".
We learnt that during the peak months of November through March, an upwards of 200 people would arrive at Sasabe everyday to try and make the hazardous journey to the other side.
His words were borne out by the events of the next few hours. Every 20 minutes or so, a beat-up old van bursting at the seams with dusty, road weary migrants would show up at the scrapyard.
The rear doors would open and a few dozen men and women of varying shapes, sizes and colours would tumble forth. They all carried identical white plastic jugs of water and backpacks and after a few minutes of huddled deliberation walked down the same dirt path in single file.
After witnessing a few of these "deliveries" at close quarters, without attracting undue attention, we mustered enough courage to accompany one group.
Contrary to expectation, they did not mind our presence and even welcomed the company, motioning for us to fall in line. Hacking our way through the dry brush, with straining lungs, we followed them over a steep hill, the first in what we gathered were a long series of uphill climbs.
Close to an hour must have passed, when close to the summit we came upon a barbed wire fence, strung loosely for as far as the eye could see.
We stood back and watched the group try to crawl underneath one by one, helping each other out. A young girl who looked all of 14, got hopelessly entangled in the wire and after struggling for a few minutes started to cry out.
That was enough for me. I stopped being a dispassionate observer and rushed to help. After much effort I were able to extricate her, getting away with only a few scratches.
She wasn't as lucky and had unpleasant gashes near the elbow and knee. Using a pocket tube of antiseptic lotion and two handkerchiefs, I fixed her up the best I could.
By now most of her companions had gone a fair distance and she had some catching up to do. She bid me a tearful "via Condios" (Go with God), and was once again on her way.
By now we had had enough and thought it wiser to retreat back to the relative sanctuary of our vehicle. It seemed a mockery of their valiant efforts to be in their faces with a camera, trying to maintain a veneer of objectivity.
It was apparent we couldn't stay detached for long, not in the face of such adversity. And from what we had gathered, they would be doing this for several days or even weeks till they finally reached the border.
Whether they would be welcomed in the warm embrace of America at the end of it all was perhaps a moot point.
Back in town we observed the dissonant sight of young kids, no older than twelve, whizzing around in shiny new Mitsubishi and Toyota 4 Wheel Drive vehicles with Arizona or Sonora license plates.
They could barely see above their steering wheels but were somehow able to navigate without running over stray pedestrians.
Clearly there was some prosperity here, the source of which would probably be better left to one's imagination. The town also had a number of bareback horse riders, and a couple of ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) zooming around to embellish the surreal tapestry in large clouds of dust.
Adding to the mix and somehow fitting was the song playing from the car stereo; Manu Chao's hauntingly playful ballad, "Calavera No Llora" (literally; "No Tears From the Dead").
After our last cerveza at the Super Coyote, we drove across into the United States, back on what now seemed to be almost frighteningly perfect highways.
There were no barbed wires to crawl under, no trigger-happy border patrol agents and no Coyotes of the two legged or four legged variety to deal with. Only the vast emptiness of the American southwest and the full moon rising from behind rows of Saguaros standing sentinel.
Luis and his companions were probably looking at the same moon right now.