June 24, 2004
It takes about an hour to drive south from Tucson to Sasabe. I’ve been staying in Tucson, as there’s only one hotel in Sasabe and it’s usually filled with migrants. It would be too dangerous to stay there anyway. Sasabe feels like the wild west only the guns aren’t visible.
Crossing the border, it takes a while to convince the Mexican Customs agent why I’m going to Sasabe. He’s right, there’s nothing there. As he declares, “just a bunch of Mexicans looking to escape.” After he goes through my gear, I make some pictures of the agent and put the Polaroid negatives in my jar of sodium thiosulfate. He was really curious about what the soup jar full of liquid was for.
For the past few days, I’ve been traveling with Grupos Beta, the Mexican Border Patrol for the Protection of Migrants. They don’t have any law enforcement jurisdiction and are not allowed to carry firearms – even though many of the human and drug smugglers are packing a full arsenal of weapons. There are four agents stationed at the Grupos Beta office in Sasabe and they can only travel along the border to advise migrants of the dangers of crossing and register minors who are attempting to cross.
Since the motorcycle kept getting stuck in the sand, and I was slowing them down on their quad-runners, it’s decided we’ll travel by truck to Rancho La Sierrita, which is about 20 miles west of Sasabe. Before heading out, we stop at the Super Coyote Market to get some water and mix it with orange-flavored powder for a cheap version of orange juice.
Just south of town, we drive through La Ladrillera – “The Brickyard” – an old brick-making area that has been converted into a one-stop migrant transit center where nearly all the migrants come from Altar to make travel plans to cross the border. In the afternoon, once trucks are loaded full with migrants, they travel out it into the desert – both east and west – to drop migrants at isolated crossing points. Parked is a brand new, red Ford Lobo (F-150), which makes Felipe and Jaime, the Grupos Beta agents, nervous. “We don’t stop when the truck is here. Too dangerous.”
Along the way to Rancho La Sierrita, we stop at Arroyo de Coyote. It is the middle of the day and already hot. There’s no breeze – just the buzzing of flies everywhere. Everything is still in the desert. There are two large arroyos that have been created over time from the monsoon rains that take place every summer. Both are filled with clothes and other personal effects – pants, shirts, backpacks, underwear. Arroyo de Coyote is where migrants are robbed and the women are sexually assaulted.
Rancho La Sierrita is in the middle of nowhere, about a mile south of the border. It’s a place where migrants come to wait – wait to meet up with a coyote, wait for nightfall, wait to be smuggled across the barbed wire fence, wait for the unknown. There’s nothing here except a couple of little shacks where migrants can pick up supplies before making their journey north at nightfall.
We stop at Puerto San Miguel, another small migrant camp, and pick up nine women and three children who had been abandoned by their coyote the night before. One of the women is six-months pregnant. They want to go back to La Ladrillera so they can find another coyote to take them across. As we travel east back to Sasabe, it seems we’re passing trucks with full loads heading west every fifteen minutes. How can so many people be crossing every day?
As we approach La Ladrillera, the red truck is still there. We stop at the edge of the brickyard and drop the women and children off. Felipe tries to persuade them to return to town, but they insist on trying to cross. The dangers and uncertainty of their journey and the possibility of making it across outweighs returning home.
Heading back to my cheap hotel room in Tucson, I think about what I’ve seen. Riding a motorcycle, especially through the desert, provides for quite a bit of time to be with one’s thoughts. My head feels like it’s going to explode in my helmet. It’s so hot.