Tired shocks squeak savagely as the van bumps over the washboard road, the passengers’ heads bobbing back and forth in time. It passes the steel skeleton of a burned-out van, engine lid scorched black, then slows as it approaches a roadside shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Perhaps Mexico’s most significant religious and cultural symbol, Nuestra Señora is considered a guardian. Alvarez makes the sign of the cross and kisses his thumb, seeking her blessing. He has had misgivings about this trip.

"I tried to cross at Tijuana, but it was too hot — too many patrols out," he says, gazing out at dust-covered mesquite trees and cholla cactus. "Out here, it’s a different kind of hot."

Despite all the trouble he’s taking to get there, Alvarez has no plans to stay in the U.S. for long. Nor does he intend to seek legal authorization to work. "I really don’t like it there (in the United States). In Mexico, está cabron (it’s fucked up). But I can live more at ease even if it’s harder, que no?"

For eight to 10 months, he’ll live with his mother-in-law. "After that, who knows?" he says. "Hopefully I will have saved some money, maybe move back to Nayarit. Open a little business or work in the sugarcane fields."

Two hours go by; the migrants say little. Even the man from Guadalajara has stopped his quiet bantering. The only sounds are the rumble of the throttle and the crunch and squeal of the overburdened suspension. Then, the squat structures of Sasabe appear. The van slows, and apprehension drifts over the passengers like dust.


Electric wires crisscross above Sasabe’s wide, dusty streets and one-story, flat-roofed buildings. Only five years ago, this tiny, isolated cattle town barely existed. Now it flourishes with the single-minded economy of a company town — one fueled by organized crime. Thousands of migrants pass through here every day; thanks to them, and the smugglers who batten on them, the population has doubled in the last three years.

Everywhere, there are coyotes for hire. Some are professionals, employees of human-smuggling organizations as well-organized as their narco-trafficking counterparts. Others are amateurs, tempted by the fast cash of $100 per migrant; they have been known to get lost in the desert themselves and abandon their hapless charges. Makeshift stores, scattered among new homes and flophouses, cater to the migrants, selling candy bars, burritos, sandwiches and water.

The U.S. port of entry is visible now, less than a football field’s length away. A mile to either side of it are barbed-wire fences and hills cobwebbed with trails. Migrants hide among the mesquite trees with their coyotes, waiting for an opportunity to cross. The lonely figure of Baboquivari Peak juts into the distant sky, serving as a landmark, but the migrants avoid the surrounding mountains, which are haunted by armed drug smugglers.

Occasionally, a U.S. Border Patrol OH-6A or Black Hawk helicopter buzzes the border line, slicing into Mexican airspace, the pilots staring down the smugglers.

Soon, Alvarez and his friends, led by their guide, will strike out on one of the trails. Tonight, they will slip across the border, then forge through the desert for another 15 miles. For the next five days they will hide from the heat of the sun in arroyos, ducking under thick brush as choppers and fixed-wing aircraft search from above. Alvarez hopes to walk only at night. But it doesn’t always work out that way: Smugglers move when the opportunity seems right.

Manuel, José and Alvarez gather near the corner of the coyote market, in front of a Coca-Cola sign emblazoned in bright red across an entire wall. Four young, skinny men stand nearby, sharing a can of SlimFast. Alvarez pulls a carefully folded piece of paper from his wallet, guarding it like a teenager with his first love letter. It carries the directions to the coyote’s house.

Alvarez deciphers the scribbles, then looks up with pleading eyes at the reporter and photographer who have accompanied him this far: "Please don’t go any further with us. Our smuggler might get scared and decide not to take us if he sees you. Please."

The three migrants turn and walk up the street of dirt and broken pavement. Alvarez looks back over his shoulder and waves goodbye. The flies are already gathering on empty soda bottles, candy wrappers, and a single battered tennis shoe lying in the dust.

In the distance, the hills of Arizona waver in the desert heat. The long walk is next.


This story is a sidebar to the feature:

The Immigrant's Trail

This special issue of High Country News takes an on-the-ground look at the human landscape of illegal immigration in the West