(Photo: Sara May)

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This Family Is Trapped Between U.S. Border Patrol and the Mexican Mafia

How a surge in border defense created a lucrative new business for the cartels: human trafficking.
Jul 9, 2014· 14 MIN READ
David Page has written for The New York Times, Men's Journal, Skiing, Outside, and many other publications. He is a co-founder of Mammoth Medical Missions, Inc.

One Saturday afternoon this spring, in Nogales, Mexico, 44-year-old Ruben Aguirre (not his real name) sat on a bench in the shade considering his options. His day pack rested on the gravel between his feet. He leaned back against the fresh-painted green-and-white headquarters of Grupos Beta Nogales, the local migrant protection unit of Mexico’s National Institute of Migration—and looked out across Calle Reforma. From the sagging chain-link fence hung a banner that declared to passersby, or to the occasional bus chugging up the ravine from downtown, “SOMOS MEXICANOS”—“We are Mexicans”—a slick new slogan for a Mexican Ministry of Interior program promising assistance to Mexican citizens returning (or being returned) from the U.S. A cold wind funneled down the street from the west, through the graveyard, bearing bits of garbage and desert grit.

“It’s much easier to get through from California,” muttered a guy at the far end of the bench, a generously tattooed fellow in prison denim who’d been delivered here straight from doing seven years in a federal penitentiary in Alabama.

Ruben was 1,600 miles from his hometown, the city of Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast. He was 1,800 miles from Carpentersville, Ill., where he and his wife had once lived and worked for 14 years, and where their two daughters had been born. His wife, Adela (not her real name), was around the corner waiting for the public shower. Their girls, U.S. citizens ages three and nine, were back in Veracruz with their grandparents, hiding out from the Mafia, missing school, waiting for the good word to come north to join their parents.

Earlier in the week U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents had picked up Ruben and Adela out in the arroyos on the U.S. side. Their names had shown up in the Immigration and Customs Enforcement database. Back in December, they’d crossed the Rio Grande north of Piedras Negras into Texas, holding their packs over their heads. They’d changed into dry clothes on the other side. After only about 20 minutes of walking they’d been intercepted by Border Patrol agents, who had handcuffed them and lined them up with 45 other people sitting on the roadside to wait for a prison transport bus. After 10 days’ detention in a for-profit correctional facility in Del Rio, Ruben and Adela had been sentenced to removal (the latest official term for deportation) and escorted back across the line at Ciudad Acuña.

This time, four months later, they were taken to the District Court in Tucson, Ariz., and charged with illegal reentry, a felony offense punishable by up to two years in prison. By what seemed to Ruben not just a stroke of luck but further evidence of the good grace of God, and because there were no criminal transactions on either his or his wife’s record—and also because there simply aren’t enough resources, with 10,000 Border Patrol apprehensions per month just in the Tucson sector, to lock up everyone the agents bring in—they were instead, once again, sentenced to removal.

Ruben asked the officer on duty if he and his wife could please be deported together. The officer told him there were no guarantees, but he would do what he could. On Wednesday night Ruben and a handful of other migrants were put in a van and driven down to Nogales. His wife was not among them. When he climbed out of the van, they gave him back his personal belongings—his pack, his toiletries, his cell phone, what little money he had left—and escorted him along the port of entry building, through a side door, into Mexico.

Illustrated by Marc Fusco

Battle For the Boarder

When the tragic story of 12-year-old Noemi Álvarez Quillay hit The New York Times in April, it set off a kind of awakening north of the border. Trying to get to her parents in the Bronx, the girl had traveled 4,000 miles from Ecuador to the U.S. border in the company of strangers. She ended up hanging herself in a shelter for migrants in Ciudad Juárez. She wasn't the only unaccompanied minor trying to make the crossing that season. The U.N. Refugee Agency had already issued a report noting its concern "at the increasing numbers of children in the Americas forced from their homes and families, propelled by violence, insecurity and abuse in their communities and at home."

In mid-June, CBP reported that in the eight months since October 2013, it apprehended more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors along the Southwest border, nearly a tenfold increase over the previous year. A bipartisan immigration reform bill, long debated and already passed by the Senate, was stalled again at the hands of the House Republican leadership. Hillary Clinton defended the Obama administration's record-breaking deportation numbers and explained to Christiane Amanpour that parents south of the border must be getting the wrong impression from programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, whereby certain individuals who came to the U.S. as children, and now meet a host of criteria, might be allowed to stay a while longer. "We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn't mean the child gets to stay.”

At the end of June, Obama called in FEMA and expanded detention facilities near the border. On Tuesday, he asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funds for increased border security and deportation processing. Protesters in Murietta, Calif. shouting “Go home!” turned away a Border Patrol bus carrying migrants to a station there from overflowing facilities in Texas, forcing it to drive on to a processing center 80 miles down the road. Meanwhile, U.S. citizens in remote Arizona towns like Arivaca and Sentinel did their best to give water and a safe place to rest for the dozens of migrants continuing to hike through their communities every day.

The U.S. already spends $18.3 billion a year on the combined efforts of CBP and ICE, both under the budget of Homeland Security. That’s a 100 percent increase for CBP, and a 73 percent jump for ICE, since 2003. We recently awarded a $145-million contract to an Israeli defense firm to install high-tech surveillance systems on integrated towers along the Arizona border. We have a growing fleet of Predator drones patrolling the border, on which we’ve spent an average of $44,800 per person apprehended. Though the number of people trying to join the 11 million or more undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. is down sharply from a decade ago, last year we sent back about as many Mexicans and Central Americans as tried to get in—on the order of half a million individuals. According to one report [pdf], as of 2012 U.S. policy had resulted in the separation of 660,000 children from a parent or parents.

Ruben spent the night on a bench in the small corridor that serves as a waiting room for the INM’s processing office. Here everyone who comes through is fingerprinted, photographed, and in a matter of minutes issued an official stamped and signed Proof of Repatriation letter. For many, this is the only documentation they have. It’s their ticket, for a short time after deportation, to certain basic services offered either by the government or by a handful of NGOs operating in and around downtown Nogales, including showers, meals, a change of clothing as available, a five-minute phone call, a mattress to sleep on for a night or two, and even, if they want it, a subsidized bus ticket to get back to interior Mexico.

Some at this stage accept the bus ticket, call it quits, and go home. Others—the great majority, it seems, no matter what they’ve been through or how many times they’ve been through it—are not yet ready to give up. An official from Humane Repatriation, another branch of the INM, who asked that his name not be used, told me that even though crossing the border gets more difficult every year—he cited the hundreds of deaths in the desert, the legs broken after jumping 30 feet from the top of the border fence onto concrete and rocks, the improved surveillance technology, the chronic violence and abuse by criminal elements—more than 80 percent of deportees turn right around and try again.

At the other end of the corridor —humanitarian volunteers call it “the chute”—is Plaza Pesqueira, a pedestrian alleyway lined with dentists, pharmacies, and liquor stores catering to a diminished trickle of day visitors from the U.S., and inhabited by point men for the Mexican Mafia. “It’s a dangerous place to drop people off, especially at night,” said Father Peter Neeley of the Kino Border Initiative, a binational Jesuit organization that provides humanitarian assistance—meals, first aid, cast-off clothing—to upwards of 100 migrants per day on the Mexican side. “The smart ones will stay put until morning.”

The Mafia think of migrants as merchandise. They're patrolling the border better than our own Border Patrol.

Father Peter Neeley, Kino Border Initiative

Combined with the so-called War on Drugs, the crackdown on immigration from Mexico that’s occurred since 9/11 has created ideal market conditions for what the U.S. State Department calls transnational criminal organizations. Most media use the word “cartel.” "Anybody you talk to here," said Neeley, "it's just Mafia. Mexican Mafia."

On the Mexican side, the Mafia controls the border. It runs the drugs and it runs the people, often in collaboration with the police and other local authorities. The harder it gets for people like Ruben and Adela to cross the border, the more prone they are to solicitation by criminal elements, and the more likely they are to fall into the trafficking system. “When international migration is managed by border controls only, in an effort ‘to keep people out,’ ” António Guterres, United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said in May, “human traffickers and smugglers are bound to prosper.”

At a value of up to $20 billion a year, according to estimates by both the Heritage Foundation and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, the people-running business is lucrative—second only to drug smuggling and, according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, likely to rise in the coming years.

“Ruben” eats at the men's table at the Kino Border Initiative cafeteria. Recent deportees, many of whom have not eaten for days, are provided with free food and drink at the Kino cafeteria for up to three days following their deportation from the U.S. (Photo: Sara May)

Experts say that up to 1.2 million people are victims of human trafficking in Mexico each year—including at least 20,000 children (which is to say, a good number of those whom U.S. media has been reporting on so much in recent weeks). All along the migration routes—from Mexico’s southern border up to the U.S. line and beyond—people are extorted, kidnapped, ransomed, trafficked for labor, sold into sex slavery, or simply raped and murdered by representatives of one or another criminal organization. Several of the migrants I talked to in Nogales had stories of watching people being thrown off or under moving trains, or being shot, or of family members taken away at gunpoint, never to be seen again. Those who make it to the border—whether they come off the freight trains all the way from Honduras or Guatemala or El Salvador (all three considered among the most violent countries on earth) or step blinking out of the chute after five months’ detention in a for-profit correctional facility in Arizona, followed by a late-night deportation—are easy prey.

The State Department calls the state of Sonora, especially the rugged desert country to the immediate west of Nogales, “a key region in the international drug and human trafficking trades.” During the most violent years of the so-called war on drugs—about 2007 to 2011—Nogales had its share of high-profile kidnappings, gruesome gun battles, beheadings, and other gangland executions. Now that the Sinaloa Cartel has consolidated control of the region, the streets of Nogales are eerily quiet and the organization is able to focus on business: in this case, the business of exploiting migrants.

It doesn’t matter if it takes us a month or two months. We will make it back to Chicago.

Ruben Aguirre, would-be Mexican emigrant

"They think of migrants as merchandise," Neeley explained, gesturing subtly to a handful of young men on the ridge above the Kino Initiative’s soup kitchen in Nogales—puntos, he calls them, lookouts for the Mafia. “They're patrolling the border better than our own Border Patrol. If you try to leave through the desert or over the wall, the Mafia is going to stop you. You can’t even get near the wall. It’s $300 to $600 just to get out of Mexico. That’s without a guide or anything.”

Guides—known as polleros or coyotesmight charge $4,000 to $5,000 a head just for the border crossing section, without any guarantees. They work independently, but according to a variety of sources they have to give a significant cut of their earnings to the Mafia.

From the ridge the puntos watched as a line of migrants filed through the gate into the soup kitchen, showing their Proof of Repatriation letters to Armando, the bouncer. "I was a migrant my own self," he told me. "I spent 25 years in Phoenix." Then he told me about his sister who tried to cross at Matamoros two years ago and was never heard from again. He now works to keep so-called enganchadores from getting in among the migrants. These are also independent contractors, whose niche in the trafficking business is to befriend deportees or other recently arrived migrants, offering them work or a place to stay or an easy way back across the border. Enganchadores can get from $100 to $150 per person—one trafficker testified in 2012 that he regularly got $800 a head—for delivering migrants to the Mafia.

Neeley has had his own run-ins with the Mafia. A classic borderland character, a fearless old gringo priest from San Francisco with a white beard and a long mustache that he twirls obsessively between his fingers as he speaks, he's dodged bullets in Compton and survived the civil war in El Salvador, where, as he put it, “they shot up everyone in my house.” The Mexicans know him as Padre Pancho. He wears a white cowboy hat and Birkenstocks and drives a well-worn truck with vanity plates that read “PANCHO.” As assistant director of education for the Kino Initiative, he leads regular field trips for student groups from all over the U.S. and even some from abroad. He shows them where migrants cross the fence, the piles of old clothes and food wrappers, the trails in the desert, the chute where migrants get dropped off after being deported, and the “rape trees” festooned with women's undergarments.

The U.S.-Mexico border crossing as viewed from the Nogales, Mexico, side. (Photo: Sara May)

Carpentersville, Ill., is a quintessential middle-class American suburb of 37,000 people on the west side of Chicago, complete with neighborhood cookouts, kids’ bike rodeos, high rates of home foreclosures, municipal budget deficits, and a population more than 50 percent Hispanic or Latino (45 percent Mexican). In their 14 years there, Ruben and Adela rented a little apartment. She worked a variety of jobs. Their kids went to school. For 11 years, Ruben worked on a construction crew. “We built everything,” he told me, “malls, firehouses, schools.” On weekends, he played on a local soccer team with a bunch of guys from Michoacán.

Ruben made decent money, especially compared with the occasional $3 an hour he'd been making laying tile in Veracruz—when there was work. Then in 2009, with their elder daughter happily (and legally) ensconced in first grade at a Carpentersville public elementary school, the construction business started to fall apart, as it did across the U.S. Jobs dried up. Ruben worked at a KFC briefly and for a while tried to cobble together an income through an employment agency. In 2011, Ruben and Adela counted their savings—upwards of $16,000—packed up the girls, and went back to Veracruz to buy a little restaurant and live happily ever after.

Things didn’t go so well in Veracruz. What they could afford was less a restaurant than a taco stand. The school was a disappointment, with 40 to 50 students in each class, teachers who didn’t have a high school education, and no running water in the bathrooms. There was violence in the streets. Pretty soon representatives of Los Zetas, the armed wing of the Gulf Cartel and generally considered the most violent of all the criminal syndicates in Mexico, showed up at the restaurant. (As one Mexican border agent said to me, “The Mafia is everywhere.”) They demanded a monthly payment of 5,000 pesos, or about $400, for protection. Ruben couldn’t afford that much. Then they asked where his daughter went to school. Ruben and Adela packed up their family yet again and fled the city, moving in with Adela's parents on a little ranch way out in the countryside.

There was no work for them in the country. The money was already running out. Ruben called his cousins in Mexico City. They went to the U.S. Embassy there to see if something couldn’t be worked out, a temporary visa of some kind for them to reenter the U.S. because the girls were U.S. citizens. Ruben wasn't sure what exactly they were told, but it sounded like it would take forever. Ruben and Adela talked it over. They decided that, despite the risks, the best plan for the whole family would be for the two of them to try to get back to their connections and the life they’d known in Carpentersville. Once they got there, somehow—they told themselves—they’d find a way to reunite the family. In the meantime, the girls would be better off with their grandparents.

“One thing Congress doesn’t understand is desperation,” said Neeley. “They make these rules up in Washington—they don’t even think about how they affect human beings.”

“It’s a broken system,” said Michael Vaughn, director of enforcement and removal operations for ICE in Sacramento. “It doesn’t work.”

Deportees jostle for free clothing and shoes being offered by a priest outside the Kino cafeteria. (Photo: Sara May)

Ruben had spent a good part of that first night in Nogales worried that his wife might end up detained somewhere in the States for who knows how long, or that she might be subjected to what’s known as lateral repatriation, a “consequence delivery” mechanism whereby detainees are deported to another border station many hundreds of miles—sometimes a thousand miles—down the line from where they were picked up. Again, the goal is to send the message that it isn't worth trying to cross. To Ruben's great relief, again gracias a Dios, his wife was dropped off right there at the chute in Nogales the following morning.

For three days they availed themselves of the kindness of the Jesuits and others. At rows of metal picnic tables beneath a roof of corrugated tin, the desert wind coming in through the fencing, they ate two decent meals a day—breakfast and lunch—in the company of 80 to 100 other migrants. There was the 12-year-old kid in the Dodgers hat and the Cardinals jersey who was trying to get to Allentown, Pa., with his dad, who'd been deported in a raid on a mattress factory there before he was born. His uncle and aunt and cousins were U.S. citizens. It all seemed to him a grand adventure: They’d hiked eight days in the desert before they were nabbed, and one of these nights they were going to try again. His father had a theory that most people got caught because they traveled in big groups. "Better to go alone," he said.

There were others whose records were slightly more tarnished. There was the woman who’d had a violent boyfriend in Phoenix. She said he’d gotten 25 to life for murdering another woman. Her mother had died, and they’d caught her drunk driving. She’d been in detention for 15 months before being deported. There was the single father from Guanajuato with five kids in Phoenix, ages five to 17, all born there. He’d had a failure to appear on DUI charges from 10 years ago. His daughter had been at home making dinner the night they’d caught him peeing on a tree on the way home from the liquor store. They’d let him say good-bye to his kids before taking him.

Before the food was served, the sisters spoke to them all about their rights and about the magic of positive thinking. Ruben and Adela, like the others, sat patiently and listened. Neeley spoke of how policies of dehumanization make it easier for government agencies to work efficiently. Together they recited the Lord’s Prayer. Afterward, some of the migrants helped with the dishes. Ruben and Adela did their best to stay off the streets. At night, they slept in triple bunks, in separate men's and women's dormitories, at a privately run shelter on the other side of town.

In the afternoons, behind the fence at Grupos Beta, migrants killed time sitting on the bench, kicking a soccer ball, waiting for phone calls, trading rumors about ways to get around the Mafia. The question was not whether to try to cross the border again but how and where. Some of them talked about diamonds and jobs driving trucks across the U.S. and utopian marijuana farms in northern California. Others talked about immigration reform.

“Lots of Latinos supported Obama,” said Ruben. “He promised reform. Y nada.

Al contrario,” said the guy with the five kids up in Phoenix. On the contrary.

As if on the wind, two Hondurans appeared outside the fence, gasping for air. One of them wore a black trucker’s cap that read “HIGH MAINTENANCE.” “We just almost died,” he said. They told how they tried to walk into the hills on the west end of town, along a well-worn path to where the border fence ended, and found themselves with guns in their faces. At the other end of the guns were a couple of teenage punks—puntos. They wanted money. After two months on the roads and rails from Tegucigalpa, the Hondurans didn’t have a peso. Eventually, the puntos relented, telling the migrants to run back into town to find some money.

“It doesn’t matter if it takes us a month or two months,” Ruben told me, unfazed by the Hondurans' story. “We will make it back to Chicago.”

The next morning at dawn, a Sunday, Ruben and Adela were at the bus depot. They gave their names and hometown to a volunteer for a private migrant-assistance foundation run by the bus company in exchange for a mug of arroz con leche for breakfast. His brother-in-law had called from the States. He’d told him of a place outside Mexicali where they could walk for half an hour and make it in. He’d told him he’d pick them up on the highway outside Calexico on Wednesday morning.

All they had to do now was get to Mexicali.