Border 'coyotes' begin to turn tail

Arizona caught 70,000 illegal immigrants in January alone.

As a human smuggler, or coyote, Julio knows that helping dozens of people make the dangerous - and illegal - trek through the desert into the United States has never been harder.

Newspapers tell him the local Border Patrol has quintupled in size in the past five years. He and his partner haven't succeeded in getting a group across in more than a month. But Julio is patient, and he thinks time is on his side.

"It's a game of cat and mouse," says Julio, sitting on a dusty cinder block at an isolated construction site on the outskirts of Agua Prieta. "We adjust and they adapt; they adjust and we adapt."

Across the border in Douglas, Border Patrol Agent Monty Garland also sees elements of a game in his work, but he still maintains a single-minded purpose: to put people like Julio out of business. "The people who are the bad guys are the organized smuggling chains," says Agent Garland. "Coyotes charge good money, and often they just lead you to bandits to be robbed."

It's a battle of wits that has raged for decades

all along the US-Mexico border, and it shows no sign of abating.

With 70,000 apprehensions in the month of January alone, the Tucson, Ariz., sector (including Douglas) has seen a sharp increase in alien smuggling since the mid-1990s. After the Border Patrol effectively shut off smuggling routes into Texas and California, Douglas became the No. 1 spot for smuggling.

While Border Patrol stations in Douglas, Nogales, and Naco continue to boost staffing, the drawing power of the US economy means there will always be money to be made in helping less-prosperous Mexicans and Central Americans go northward - with or without permission.

In the town of Agua Prieta, hundreds of Mexican and American citizens may be involved in smuggling people into the US. They range from brokers who meet aspiring immigrants at bus stations, to innkeepers who cram dozens of immigrants into tiny rooms, to the coyotes who guide them across the border, and drivers who take them in vans to the city of their choice.

The price depends on the destination: to Phoenix, it's $800; to Los Angeles, $1,200; to New York, $1,600. Few immigrants can afford this service themselves, so many of them rely on family members or sponsors in the US to wire the coyote upon their arrival. The immigrants then pay back their benefactors over time, in a form that resembles indentured servitude.

While profits from this trade are enviable by Mexican standards, the coyote business itself has taken a sharp dive in recent months, as the US government has added muscle to its growing force of Border Patrol agents in the tiny town of Douglas, Ariz.

Once a sleepy border station with 58 agents, Douglas now has 435, and apprehensions of illegal aliens have skyrocketed in the past year. It's a situation that has forced some smugglers to become more aggressive, and others out of business.

"In the past, we would get through 9 out of 10 times," says Julio, who has been a coyote for a year. "Now maybe we get through one time, or maybe none at all. We know a lot of coyotes who took vacations to go back home, and they haven't come back."

Nicknamed coyotes for their skills at evading the law, smugglers enjoy a reputation among Mexicans, and even a few Americans, as a modern-day Underground Railroad, bringing the impoverished to jobs and the persecuted to freedom. The truth is far less benign, law-enforcement officials say.

The yearly death toll of illegal immigration is staggering: hundreds of immigrants perish each year crossing the Southwestern desert, left behind by their guides to die of starvation, dehydration, or exposure.

Dozens suffocate in unventilated boxcars, or die when their overloaded vans crash along Arizona's winding mountain roads. Countless thousands of women are raped or molested by bandits, many of whom work in conjunction with coyotes to bring them nightly victims.

For Border Patrol Agent Garland, the massive influx of immigrants to Douglas certainly keeps his job from getting dull.

Thank goodness you caught us!

Consider a recent Saturday morning. At 7:01, he pulls up to a gas station, pours himself a French Vanilla, and apprehends an undocumented alien at the counter. Five minutes and one block later, he stops two more walking into town. A few miles down the road, he spots a Mexican shivering against the wall of a motel, waiting for his sister to return from nearby Bisbee. By 7:36 a.m., he's caught more aliens than most Americans see all day.

"It's often just intuition," Garland says, pulling back onto the highway. "Usually, the shoes are dirty, the pants are dirty, and their actions when they see me - they get very, very nervous."

Oddly enough, many immigrants smile when Garland shows up. Take a group of 15 immigrants from Mexico City found wandering on the highway in the wrong direction, back into Douglas. Their coyote had left them after a bandit attack, and they had no water, no food, and because of the bandits, no money.

"My wife is waiting for me to send money from Chicago," says Arturo, who is hoping to return to his job at a Chicago pizzeria.

One migrant asks Garland to hire him on the spot: "I'll do anything: garden, cook, clean house...."

"Walk the dog," says the group's comedian, sending the shivering group - and Garland himself - into laughter.

It's not all fun and games, Garland notes. He's been shot at, spit upon, and has had rocks thrown at him. But like many agents, Garland says that most of the people he encounters realize he's just doing his job.

"I have a lot of compassion for these people," says Garland, as two Border Patrol vans arrive to take the group back to headquarters. "But as compassionate as I feel, I'm empowered to uphold the law."

In Agua Prieta, Julio and Geraldo trade stories of evading and being caught by the Border Patrol. There's the time Julio was nabbed two days in a row by the same Border Patrol agent, who remembered Julio's parents' names.

Wave hello to the nice agent

There's the time Geraldo was looking for Julio's group through his infrared scope in the brush outside of Douglas. Instead of Julio, he saw a Border Patrol agent looking at him through another infrared scope.

The agent waved, and Geraldo waved back, before taking off in a cloud of dust.

Together, the two share ownership of a few vehicles they use to drive immigrants to Phoenix. Without seats, a van can fit anywhere from 15 to 20 immigrants, and Julio is such an expert that he can load 20 people in 15 seconds.

One time Julio was driving 42 immigrants to Phoenix, when he was pulled over by the Border Patrol.

"We had them laying on top of each other," recalls Julio with a grin, "so when we got busted, one of the people said, 'Thank God you came along. I can't imagine the four-hour ride to Phoenix.' "

Julio recognizes that his job doesn't have a good reputation, and with good reason.

Many coyotes are fugitives or bandits. Some are drug addicts who will do anything - including leading clients into the arms of bandits - for enough money to buy drugs. The only way to avoid falling into the hands of a bad coyote is to ask friends who crossed safely for a referral.

And while most coyotes have a sinister appearance, Julio looks more like a mama's boy.

A new house for mom

A Seventh Day Adventist who doesn't drink, smoke, or do drugs, Julio says he decided to become a coyote not so much for the money, but "for the travel."

He says all his money - $100 a head, adding up to $25,000 in the past year - has gone to his mother in Puebla, who has been able to buy a new house and a car that she still doesn't know how to drive.

Even though he is being caught more often by the Border Patrol, he says his clients have agreed to tell agents the same story - that they have been abandoned by their coyote - and Julio simply blends into the crowd.

"There have been times when the coyote was bad to his people, and they turned him in," says Julio, grinning. "That's why we have to treat people right."

With the smuggling business getting tougher with each arriving Border Patrol agent, Julio admits he's toying with the idea of heading home and finishing a college degree. Not surprisingly, he's thinking of changing his major to business administration.

But while Julio has a sister in San Clemente, Calif., he says he has no interest in living in America himself.

"There's a song in Spanish that calls America the Golden Cage," he says. "If you come [without papers], you're stuck. You don't have the chance to see your families in Mexico. The cage is made of gold, but you're locked inside."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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