Tiny border towns booming in Mexico

Increased vigilance forces migrants to cross to US from remote areas, creating new boomtowns.

The main street trails off after eight blocks. The three-man police force has nap hours between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. The top attraction in town, locals say, nodding knowingly, is the steamed beef tacos over at Anabel's corner stand.

But look closely: the dusty border town of El Hongo - about halfway between Mexicali and Tijuana, and a difficult 10-hour hike through rattlesnake-infested mountain terrain from California's Interstate 8 - is changing.

A new motel - $7 a bed - and three new cheap hot dog stands have popped up, gallon jugs of water are selling out at Borrego's minimarket, and two pretty girls in tight skirts, leaning suggestively on the wall outside a photocopy shop, are arguably about to give Anabel's a run for its money.

With vigilance increasing at larger, more traditional crossings along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, a growing number of would-be US immigrants - and the human smugglers that are paid to guide them there - are choosing small towns like El Hongo as staging grounds. And they are creating boomtowns in their wake.

"Twenty years ago, Tijuana was small, too," says Salvador Zamora, spokesman for the Border Patrol in Washington, D.C. "We crack down in one place and smugglers find and sell the next pit stop. It's one pit stop after another."

This phenomenon of border boomtowns sprouting up is often traced back to 1994, when US authorities boosted enforcement around the San Diego-Tijuana area as part of Operation Gatekeeper. This pushed migrant traffic to smaller towns to the east.

But the pace quickened after 9/11 as the number of border-patrol agents grew, and extra lighting, high-tech sensors, and high steel fences were introduced at the traditional crossings.

Between October 2004 and October 2005, a total of 1.2 million people were arrested trying to cross the border illegally, according to border patrol statistics. But about the same number are estimated to have made it across, although there is no exact data.

How boomtowns develop

Smugglers - or, as they are commonly known here, coyotes - are constantly on the lookout for the "weakest link," says Zamora. They identify towns with just enough infrastructure to sustain the migrants - but not yet so big as to merit too much attention from border patrol on the other side.

These towns are often far from access roads in the US. But word gets out that "this one" could be the "lucky" place to cross. Migrants show up, along with entrepreneurs. Buildings go up, services come in, and both opportunities and trouble grow.

"It's not my problem who they are or where they are going," says José Morales, who grew up in El Hongo and opened a now-thriving cellphone shop here two years ago. "I'm a salesman," he says.

The downsides

But others take a negative view of the influx. "There are people passing through here day and night," says Jorge Abel, an officer at the attorney general's office here. "Is that good?"

The water supply is strained, most of the new building is haphazard and shoddy, and crime, he says, "is growing steadily," especially robberies. Local police estimate about 500 newcomers have joined the approximately 1,800 long-time residents in the area.

Some migrants, having paid their last dime to the coyotes and failed to make the crossing, resort to stealing money for another attempt. Others, ashamed to go home empty-handed, try to cross alone.

A record 472 migrants died trying to cross the border in the past fiscal year, according to the Border Patrol. In the past decade, over 3,600 have died.

Perhaps the most striking example of a boomtown along the border these days is located some 300 miles east of El Hongo, in isolated Sasabe. Once nothing more than a rest stop across from Arizona, Sasabe today features bars, cantinas, and flophouses.

According to the charity Caritas, which works in the region, an estimated 1,000 migrants file through every day on foot and in trucks. The population has doubled to 4,000 in the past five years. And, according to the Border Patrol, nearly an eighth of all migrants arrested last year - 165,000 people - started their treks near Sasabe.

Gustavo Soto, the Border Patrol spokesman in Tucson, Ariz., admits that a new problem area has developed. But he sees the boomtown phenomenon as part of a positive process.

"We have gained operation control and seen a dramatic decrease in crime in certain areas, especially urban areas around Nogales and Douglas," he says. "And so the migrants are spreading out - west to Yuma, east to El Paso, and to Sasabe." Once the new staging grounds are identified, he says, "we factor this into our intelligence and adjust our patterns accordingly."

"It's a game," says Felix Banuelos, slowly slurping a cup of instant soup at a charity office on the Mexico side of the Mexicali-Calexico border crossing. An unemployed farmer from Veracruz, Mr. Banuelos sneaked across to the US the day before - only to be caught and deported less than 24 hours later.

By 11:30 a.m. on a typical weekday here, social worker Ana Silvia Arevalo says she has registered 41 migrants who are being deported back through the port of entry. Banuelos himself has been through three times in the past month. Each time he tried to cross in a different spot. "Next time I will try farther to the west," he says, flinging his arm in the air without looking up from his soup.

"You just need to find the right place," he says. "And be lucky."

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