Every weekend at daybreak, the neighborhood dogs begin to bark. I open my blinds to see what’s up, and it’s almost always the same: a Mexican teenager in a dark hoodie running down the abandoned railroad track followed by several others just like him, spaced every few minutes.
Sometimes they’re barefoot. They disappear into a mesquite wash and wait until a vehicle with tinted windows pulls over and picks them up, if the Border Patrol on foot, ATVs or horseback doesn’t spot them first.
I live two blocks from the border in the small village of Naco, Ariz., and can see the wall from my minute patch of desert. When I first visited Naco over 30 years ago, the village was half in the United States and half in Mexico. You could walk freely from country to country. Now the wall -- and sometimes a double wall -- separates neighbors and families.
The migrant passage has also changed. It used to be that most Mexicans crossed on their own. Now, I’m told, few attempt to cross except under cartel control. Migrants go to an assigned person in their village, usually a woman, and tell her they want to cross. The average fee is $5,000, a small fortune for one who works weekly for $75. The woman makes contact with the cartel and their journey begins.
Some parts of the trip may be by air, bus or vehicle, but the unavoidable walk to the wall and La Frontera beyond is always dangerous. Some are forced to carry drugs, others left to die by the coyotes paid to lead them. A young woman who makes the trip begins to take birth control a month before she departs -- rape is often part of her journey. Trails crisscross the desert where “trophy trees” are adorned with a victim’s underwear.
At popular crossings, thousands of empty plastic water bottles pile up at the base of the wall. Garbage bags secured with rope and hung in bushes nearby provide protection from the sun until the word is given to move.
I recently travelled across the border with a nonprofit group called Humanitarian Border Solutions. Volunteers hand out food packs and clean and fill water barrels for the migrants; blue flags fly high above the blue plastic barrels to mark the spots. The volunteers cross the border weekly, all year long, in a beat-up truck that’s just about worn out. Eight hundred life-saving gallons of water were consumed last month, and it isn’t even summer. The group’s dusty, rough route brings them into contact with the Mexican army, cartel gangsters, coyotes who lead groups across, U.S. Border Patrol and the migrants themselves. The volunteers maintain neutrality and don’t ask questions. I, on the other hand, ask.
In reply, I am told that three cartels control operations along this short expanse of border. I visit a staging area, a shack where the migrants gather, sleep on the dirt floor and wait. The fireplace is a 50-gallon drum; tortillas are warmed on top. One nearby field is designated for migrant crossings, another is designated for drug running. There is no crossover between fields.
The cartels have informants on the U.S. side and use radios, binoculars and simple equipment like dental mirrors woven with wire into the border fence to keep watch on the Border Patrol. They’ve even welded camouflage steps on one side of the fence, made from the same material as the fence itself. Once, when the water truck broke down, a man with a gun and a cellphone approached, made a phone call, and shortly thereafter a shiny, unmarked red pickup with every tool imaginable showed up to help. No questions asked.
A three-foot shrine to Santa Muerte, the patron saint of death, sits near the staging area. Inside the concrete enclosure stands a grim reaper-like statue surrounded by candles. A prayer adorns the door: “You know well Beloved Death … the danger of my path … be at my side … keep danger and threats from me … that the eye of my opposition will not see my footprints. …"
The coyotes who take migrants over the border are called polleros, the migrants pollitos, chicken handlers and little chicks. That’s true enough. The young boys I watch at dawn scatter like chicks down the railroad bed. My friend joins me outside for coffee. She calls out, “Buena suerte,” good luck. A young boy uncharacteristically turns his head, makes eye contact and replies, “Gracias,” without missing a beat.
Christina Nealson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is usually on the move, travelling the West, and her latest book is Drive Me Wild: A Western Odyssey.