The Devil’s Path: On the Trail of the Human-Smuggling Gangs of Arizona

    (Author’s note: This was a piece originally written for Maxim Magazine for the Feb. 2004 issue, regarding violence on the U.S.-Mexico border. But the piece never ran. I print it here given the timeliness of the issue of border politics.)

    The bullets sprayed through the windows of the two covered pickups, and cut holes in the vinyl, and suddenly blood was on people’s faces and on the floor. One of the victims was hit in the neck and died instantly. Another took a slug in the stomach. A third got a toe blown off. There must have been terrible shouting when the passengers saw what was happening. They were Mexicans – illegal aliens, packed together in the beds of the pickups like animals – and thought they’d made it to the promised land. Now the van that had been chasing them for two miles on Interstate 10, just south of Phoenix, Arizona, had caught up and pulled alongside. The door had slid open, and three men, also Mexicans, leveled their assault rifles in the whistling air.

    In all, four people were killed and five others wounded during the three-mile highway melee in November, 2003. By Christmas, four more bodies of illegal immigrants turned up in the jagged desert hills near sprawling Phoenix – executed in separate incidents, shoeless, face down near a pile of cow bones. None of these dead were carrying drugs. They didn’t need to. They themselves were the cargo. Each was worth $1,500.

    Welcome to the new face of Mexican smuggling. By some estimates, the trafficking of human beings out of Mexico is today an awesome billion-dollar-a-year trade. The draw for Mexicans is jobs north of the border, escape from the poverty at home. The problem is that more and more are ending up dead – markers in a turf war among rival smugglers, known as coyotes, or simply victims of the hard desert passage.

    Still, the migrants keep coming. About a million illegals each year get caught jumping the 2,000-mile Mexican border, and that’s just one-quarter of the estimated total who make it through. And as the Feds crack down in populous border cities across Texas and California – warrens like El Paso and Tijuana that once offered an easy crossing – the flood has bottlenecked in southern Arizona, along remote and waterless paths, sunboiled highways like I-10, and in the ghettos of Phoenix, teeming violent hub of the human-smuggling trade. Centuries ago, Spanish explorers rightly dubbed this part of the American desert “El Camino del Diablo” – the Devil’s Path.

    PERIL IN THE MOUNTAINS

    You start in the desperation of a place like Puebla, 1,200 miles south of the Line, la Linea. This is where Jose Andres Perez, 21, had his home, a three-room hut that he rented with his mother and father and 13 others. They worked a lemon farm, but the money wasn’t enough – 300 pesos, or $30, a week – and his parents had become sick, their backs broken from the labor. So Perez, who had the big eyes of a boy, made the journey north over 20 days’ travel, moving day and night, mostly on foot, but sometimes, if he was lucky, on hitched rides.

    At the border, just before crossing, bandits robbed him at gunpoint of 500 pesos, about $50, along with his backpack and food – everything he had. In the dusty broken-down bordertown of Naco, he found a coyote to guide him over the desert, into the towering Huachuca Mountains nearby, which run like a north-south spine across the Line. Coyotes prey, like their animal namesake, on pollos – chickens – like Jose Perez. When a coyote gang leads pollos north, they march their cargo fast and cruelly. Families are often separated, wives from husbands, mothers from children, to keep them scared. Sometimes the coyote feeds his pollos stimulants, a 500 milligram diet pill mix of ephedrine, caffeine, and aspirin. Stragglers are abandoned.

    Ironically, the diet pill slows people up, because of its diuretic effect – migrants literally pissing their lives away in the desert. Thus the Huachucas in high summer litter with corpses that turn black in the sun. Indeed, for eight months out of the year, when temperatures regularly top 100 degrees F., the entire Mexican border turns deadly, with at least 2,500 migrants dead from exposure since 1994. In one of the worst incidents, in May of 2000, 14 illegals got lost and perished of thirst near the town of Sasabe, where a coyote named El Negro – the Black One – had bungled their passage. El Negro is among federal authorities’ top five most wanted coyotes.

    Jose Perez crossed with a group of 16 others, after midnight, in cold December, so he wore three torn layers – a plaid button-down shirt, an orange vest, a blue windbreaker – to keep warm. His dusky face was covered in dirt, his jeans – he wore two pair, one over the other – soaked in red mud. The group labored up the ridges, through the spiny cactus, to 7,000 feet, and snow fell as they climbed. Then they dropped, exhausted, into a sheer valley called Ash Canyon, where the coyote told them to sleep. As Jose Perez lay in the snow, he thought of Los Angeles, where his two brothers had a job for him, sewing pants at a few dollars an hour.

    HOLDING THE LINE

    The Huachucas are national parkland, and so they’re patrolled largely by U.S. park rangers – a different breed of ranger, in fatigues and carrying assault rifles, walking the peaks trying not to get jumped or shot by coyotes gone haywire. Until recently, the Huachucas’ most dangerous Mexicans were marijuana “mules” with Ak-47s – in 2003, rangers here captured $19 million worth of smuggled dope – but now the drug cartels have branched into the equally lucrative smuggling of people. In December alone, two Border Patrol agents not far from the Huachucas were attacked and beaten with stones by desperate coyotes. Before 2003, this never happened.

    I went out with ranger Joe Larson on a freezing December night. Larson – one among thousands of overworked border cops in Arizona – is short in stature, tall in spirit, with piercing brown eyes and a soldier’s calm under pressure. His great-grandfather fought in World War I, his grandfather in WW II, his father in Vietnam – all survived – and Larson himself fought with the National Guard in Desert Storm, where he nearly died in 1991 running over a land-mine in a truck. He went on to spend five years as a Border Patrolman before joining the Park Service.

    Larson gets a kick doing night patrol alone. “Joe has no fear,” said his fellow ranger Tim Havens. “Just like tag when we were kids,” says Larson, who is 37. “What other job can you have this much fun and be in danger, too?” He stays busy: Of the million illegal border crossers last year, over 1/10th – some 115,000 illegals – are believed to have entered via the tiny 3.5 mile section of border represented by the Huachucas. “Lots of cover, trees, washes,” says Larson. “Primo crossing, dude.” Larson suited up in long-snouted night-vision glasses, looking like a bug or alien or a robot buzzard, and we hiked out through the brush onto Smuggler’s Trail, a web of pounded foot paths that converge and snake north from the crappy barbed-wire fence the U.S. government deludedly calls a “border.” Jose Andres Perez took this same trail system, after slipping under three strands of wire. Litter blighted the path and the brush and washes around: there were diapers, gallon water jugs, candy wrappers, condoms, tuna cans, an infant’s cowboy boot, and lots of women’s filthy underwear (but no men’s underwear, which was telling). Larson says rape along Smuggler’s Trail is common, a perk among coyotes.

    The night was black. Stars popped out. A meteor fell. Larson crouched in a field of brown grass. We waited and whispered. He explained the business of human smuggling. Migrants don’t pay up front, but instead arrange to have the money ready in Phoenix, where a family member or friend wires the fee, usually via Western Union. As in all black markets reacting to pressure, the big crackdowns in Texas and California have merely upped the take for the gangsters and made life harder for the migrants. The price of passage for the average Mexican has skyrocketed, Larson tells me, from $250 just five years ago to some $1,500 today. If you’re a Brazilian, make that $12,000. If you’re a Middle Eastern terrorist, expect to pay $20,000 – the more distant your origin, the higher the bill. The smuggling gangs – there are ten chief cartels among hundreds of smaller operators, and at least one with connections to the Arrellano-Felix cocaine kings – are family-based, with long arms that stretch from Mexico City to Naco to Phoenix and beyond. At each stage, gang members get paid for each migrant smuggled. The desert coyotes who walk the Huachucas, for example, make $100 per warm body delivered to waiting vans on the back roads of a pickup spot like Ash Canyon. The vans then make the 225-mile trek to Phoenix, where migrants are held, at gunpoint, in a “drop-house” until their “ransom” is paid.

    Joe Larson stopped short and listened in the silence of the desert. There was a beep from his equipment: motion sensors planted on Smuggler’s Trail were reading northward movement. One ping. Then another a minute later. Single pings strung out usually signify a scout, tracking ahead to clear the way for a large group.

    “On dark nights, I get right in among the group, I mingle,” Larson says of his tactics. “I don’t say a word, and they don’t know who the hell I am. They’re used to getting yelled at when they get caught. If you do that, they get scared and freak out. I just do it real quiet and easy. ‘I am the police. Don’t move. Have a seat. Take off your shoes. Put the shoes in front of you.’” Then Larson will crack his flashlights and call for backup.

    The coyotes always try to run, so he takes them down fast and cuffs them. The pollos freeze like deer. They usually have no idea where they are, but sometimes, desperate, they stampede, a chaos of bodies in darkness. Larson once saw a mother with a baby charging through a thicket; the thorns had shredded the child’s face. “It broke my heart,” he said.

    This night, though, the sensors went quiet after a few minutes. The scout had turned back. Or perhaps it was an animal, a mountain lion, bear, who knows. Later, towards dawn, long after Larson had finished his shift, sensors picked up the passage of at least 50 people traveling north on Smuggler’s Trail over the ridge into Ash Canyon. Among them was Jose Andres Perez, who would be captured by Border Patrol that morning after his coyote dumped him while he slept. Perez, the naïf, paid $1,000 up front, so his handlers had no reason to carry through with the deal.

    Jose Perez is lucky he never made it to Phoenix.

    MURDER IN THE VALLEY OF THE SUN

    Roselin Rodriguez-Bravo made it, all the way from Guatemala. His reward was a seedy little man named Hector Soria, who stood over the 27-year-old knocking out Bravo’s front teeth with a knife and a screwdriver. Soria threw the bloody teeth to the floor and moved on to Bravo’s feet, stabbing twice with the knife and then in between the toes with the screwdriver. A renegade 20-year-old coyote, Soria kidnapped his victim on the night of September 22, 2003, stealing Bravo from a drop house in the town of Three Points, outside Phoenix. The torturer wanted Bravo to get on the phone and coax from family members a $1,500 ransom – which meant a $1,500 loss for the original smuggler who did the hard work slipping Bravo over the border.

    Rival coyotes are constantly raiding each other’s business, stealing cargo for high-pay ransoms. October of 2003 was an especially fruitful month: One group threatened to sever the arm of a 9-year-old girl if not promptly paid. Three other migrants, kidnapped and held for $15,000, were found duct-taped from head to toe. In 2002, nine bodies of illegals – migrants and coyotes, executed for non-payment or in gang warfare – were found scattered across the low desert outside Phoenix, gagged and bound with tape and telephone wire, and then killed with large-bore gun-shots to the back of the head.

    Phoenix is target-rich. Cops estimate that over 1,300 drop-houses – overcrowded feces-strewn one- or two-story homes, usually rental properties – dot the city’s palm-lined streets. The result: a mind-blowing 400 percent increase in home invasions and kidnappings during 2003, and a 45 percent increase in homicides, up to 247, making 2003 the deadliest in city history.

    Among the top cops assigned to put a lid on this mayhem is Carlos Archuleta, a quiet doughy-faced veteran investigator with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which is tasked with cracking the human smuggling trade. A native Spanish speaker, Archuleta usually works out of Mexico City, but his chief at ICE brought him north for the latest big enforcement sweep, code-named “ICE Storm.” Between September and December 2003, the operation busted at least 60 Phoenix drop houses, netting 104 coyotes, 25 indictments, $1.85 million in cash (one coyote alone was carrying $47,000), and hundreds of weapons, including M-4s, AR-15s and Kalashnikovs. The boys at ICE like to think they’re winning this war, but the violence just keeps getting worse, because there’s no end in sight to the immigrant flood – no end, that is, to the demand for passage that coyotes supply and increasingly lay down their lives to control.

    It won’t be long until a soccer mom or retiree gets caught in a coyote crossfire. Case-in-point: Archuleta was also one of the investigators on-scene looking into the bloody Interstate 10 shoot-out last November 4 [2003], which was merely the culmination of at least a dozen I-10 corridor hijackings and shootings in the month previous. The November 4 incident started, Archuleta told me, the way all migrant kidnappings start. One group of coyotes snatched another’s load, at gunpoint. Near the town of Marana, the kidnappers commandeered two vehicles that held 24 people, $36,000 worth of humanity. But then the original coyotes got away and called their boss in Phoenix, who dispatched four shooters armed with Chinese-made SKS assault rifles and Tec-9 sub-machineguns. The shooters converged on the hijacked trucks in a grey Dodge minivan, shot up the drivers and the people inside, and ran the vehicles off the road. They themselves were apprehended by Border Patrol agents an hour later, and could face the gas chamber if convicted of the quadruple homicide.

    I finally got to meet a coyote up close when Archuleta took me to the ICE detention center in Phoenix, where agents were interrogating a 30-year-old named Juan-Cruz Garcia, who was suspected of murdering his young wife. Garcia claimed the girl had fallen from the 9th story balcony of a hotel in Los Angeles, but a polygraph taken that morning suggested he was lying when asked if he pushed her. Short and fat with thick tousled hair, Garcia swaggered from his cell, which was packed to capacity with snickering dirt-covered men. He had been beaten across the face, the right-eye blackened and swollen shut (not the work of ICE, I was assured), and sat across from Archuleta slouching in his seat, arms crossed, looking petulant, saying very little but quite at ease for a man who just days before had lost – or killed – his wife. He wore a tattoo on his stomach that said “Ma Vida Loca” – a gangbanger. Archuleta softly grilled him in Spanish, demanding the location of his drop-house and the name of the cartel running it. Garcia stuck out a fat lower lip, shrugged, and looked beadily through his swollen eye. “Do we look like pendejos?” said Archuleta, not happy with this act. “We look like fools?” Archuleta repeated.

    Garcia admitted to nothing, denied everything, and finally was sent back to his cell, where he would wait to be processed and deported. There was nothing else to do – ICE couldn’t hold him on the evidence. He’d be back in a week or two, the ICE agents told me. “He makes good money up here,” they said.

    “Coyotes are like water,” said Carlos Archuleta, a note of resignation in his voice.

    THE HAND THAT FEEDS US

    By mid-January 2004 – in the days just after Epiphany, January 6, when religious Mexicans visiting family return north in droves – Joe Larson and Tim Havens were getting slammed. One night it was a group of 40 on the crest trail. Night before that a group of 50. A few days later a group of 37 at 6,500 feet, on a bruisingly cold moonless night. “We hit ‘em head on,” said Joe Larson. “I told Tim, ‘I’m just gonna walk straight through ‘em.’” I asked Larson if he ever got discouraged at the seeming futility of his hard work, and I was surprised at the candor of his answer – one of the few border cops to openly decry the rotten mess that is U.S. immigration law.

    The mess has mostly to do with the double-dealing that comes naturally to legislators in Congress, who like to appear to act tough on immigration – public opinion demands it – while also sucking up to the big business that demands cheap illegal labor. That includes agriculture, meat-packing, restaurants, hospitals, construction, developers, landscaping, farming – all seeking a meek and compliant labor pool that depresses wages and buoys profits.

    Yet the U.S. government annually budgets almost a billion and a half dollars fielding border agents like Larson to keep the evil hard-working aliens out. “Stopping the flow at the border is a small part of the issue,” Joe Larson told me. “Because they all make it through! I’m catching the same guys the next day, the same day, a week later.” Meanwhile, “interior enforcement” – raids on farms and construction sites that employ migrants – has declined by 80 percent since 1998. In 1992, INS fined 1,063 employers for illegal labor violations. By 2001, that number had plummeted to just 78. Joe Larson saw this hypocrisy first-hand in his five years with Border Patrol: “We’re not going in and taking ten thousand aliens from the tomato harvest, because of the huge economic impact. We don’t wanna cause a political uprising – people want their cheap lettuce, man!”

    In a sense, the argument could be made that companies employing vast numbers of illegals thrive in collusion – whether they like it or not – with the murderous smuggling gangs supplying their labor. The solution, offers Larson, is a guest worker program: give the migrants visas, let them come in legally – out from the shadows of the Devil’s Path – and let them work for a living wage, with the protections and dignity afforded American citizens.

    In the meantime, caught in the middle are the border cops like Larson and Carlos Archuleta – good people fighting a losing battle – and migrants like Juan Andres Perez. After getting busted in Ash Canyon last December, Perez was fingerprinted and quickly deported. A few days later, Border Patrol caught him again making the crossing into the Huachucas.

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