The most dangerous sector of the U.S.-Mexico border is that belonging to Tucson–the area dominated not only by the Sonoran desert, but also some of the most dangerous criminal activity on the other side of the U.S. border in Mexico.
Eddy, an undocumented day laborer living in Tucson and a veteran border-crosser, has had a number of run-ins with cartel affiliates. The last–and what he hopes to be final–time he crossed, he was greeted unexpectedly by demands for ransom in return for his safe crossing after his travel bus was essentially handed over to members of a local cartel.
“When I arrived in Sasabe–a small town between Sonora, Mexico, and Arizona–I found out that I had to deal with the border mafia,” Eddy explained.
In the past years the border mafia has significantly increased its hold on power in the border towns just across the U.S. line. Working within an often corrupt system in the Mexican towns, the violent gangs often overtake entire buses of undocumented immigrants on their way to cross the border, demanding payments in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars before allowing them to cross.
One of the more highly publicized instances of gang violence took place in 2010, just 90 miles south of the U.S. border. Members of the Los Zetas cartel captured and executed 72 persons, presumably traveling to cross the border into the U.S., after the captives refused to work for the gang.
Eddy told one story of seeing a mafia member use a machete to cut off an immigrant’s hand after he questioned the payment demands just prior to crossing.
“These people are the dangerous people in Mexico,” Eddy said.
These “dangerous people” are only facets within the multinational drug cartels spanning Mexico, many other Latin American countries, and well into the U.S. Their prevalence, however, is a relatively new phenomenon–gaining the greatest ground only over the past two decades.
John Messing, an immigration attorney in Tucson, explained that most of the world’s most dangerous drug cartels are, in many ways, a product of the U.S. itself, in the purest form.
“From what I understand, [these gangs] arose from undocumented families coming to the United States and winding up in very rough neighborhoods,” Messing said.
In positions of poverty, especially in areas of Los Angeles, and in a foreign country, “kids became members of gangs” as part of the community formation. However, as their criminal activity grew, the police became more aware, eventually determined to stop the gangs from growing anymore.
“[Gang members] become detained for being illegal and were deported to their countries of origin,” Messing said, “and in their countries of origin reorganized as gangs.”
In addition to Mexico, many of these gangs restructured themselves in countries such as Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras–growing in members and expanding their violent activity. The power held by these cartels is far stronger within the mostly unstable governments of these particular Latin American countries, allowing the gangs to grow not only in number, but also in severity of criminality.
“Victims of these activities have then come to the United States and sought political asylum on the basis of the activities of the gangs,” Messing said.
However, political asylum is rarely granted in such situations, leaving these unofficial refugees to join the statistics of undocumented immigrants crossing north through Mexico in an attempt to reach the U.S.
While the majority of immigrants in the latter decades of the 20th century were day laborers seeking seasonal employment, the increase in both gangs and immigrants crossing out of safety and desperation has compounded to create the violent epidemic now dominating America’s southern border.
The violence exists at the southern points of Mexico. A 2011 report by the Heritage Foundation, of the reported kidnappings and ransoms during 2010, 65 percent occurred in southern Mexico states, namely Veracruz and Tabasco. The same report estimated a profit of more than $50 million per year for criminal organizations from kidnap ransoms alone.
According to an article by Samuel Logan focusing on illegal migration moving through Mexico toward the U.S., 40 percent of undocumented immigrants deported from Mexico in 2002 and 2004 were from Guatemala, and another 40 percent from Honduras–two of the countries most associated with the networks of transnational gangs.
Statistics in Logan’s 2006 article also cite Mexican Senator Maria Elena Orantes, who alleged that along the Mexican-Guatemalan border, more than 100,000 women and 2000 young girls are captured before illegally crossing and forced into prostitution. The Heritage report valued the sex-trafficking industry in the area at $16 billion annually–excluding child trafficking–and this region reaches right to America’s back door.
The violence may begin thousands of miles from the U.S. border, but it spans the entire southern portion of the continent. At the U.S.-Mexico border, undocumented immigrants preparing to cross are also many times forced to carry drugs across for the members of cartels, so they themselves do not risk arrest by U.S. authority.
Brent Cagen, a Border Patrol agent in the Tucson/Nogales area, explained that border security shifted in 2012 to adapt to the high rates of incoming drugs, adapting greater “technology, manpower, and infrastructure.” The number of border patrol agents in the Tucson sector alone increased from 1500 agents to 4000 agents between 2000 and 2012.
“These criminal organizations are using all sorts of different persons to bring in these narcotics,” Cagen said. “They will use everyone from the elderly to the very young.”
Cagen cited agents finding drugs under carseats and in undergarments regularly. The cartels “are becoming far more desperate,” according to Cagen, and the amount of drugs crossing by way of compromised undocumented and documented immigrants is massive.
“We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana in one seizure,” Cagen said, “[and] we’re seeing [the harder narcotics, including meth and cocaine] with a lot of checkpoint seizures lately.”
As border security has adapted itself to the growing drug and human trafficking problem crossing the nation’s border on a daily basis, undocumented immigrants have had to seek routes into the country by way of roads far less traveled. Heritage’s report estimated 80-95 percent of undocumented crossers employ smugglers to assist in the foreign and climate-dangerous Sonoran desert, as well as for protection against the border mafias.
Known as coyotes, these border guides are young boys meant to assist those crossing into the U.S. illegally. However, the coyotes themselves are often employed by one cartel or another, and provide what is, for many, an unavoidable source of violence, but the only means of crossing.
“The responsibility of [guiding] twenty adults [is] in the hands of a 14-year-old,” said Juanita Molina, director of Border Action Network, a Tucson organization aimed at helping the undocumented community and migrants crossing through the treacherous desert in the region.
Molina explained that the system of crossing the border is, in most cases, a lose-lose situation.
Molina explained that as security at the border has increased, the paths immigrants are having to take are a far greater distance from what used to be the routine migration paths–causing more deaths not only by compromised coyotes, but also the elements of the Arizona desert itself.
“People are dying closer to the physical border, but further and further from the roads,” Molina explained.
A number of Tucson organizations are specifically in place to provide humanitarian aid to migrants crossing the desert. But as travel patterns have become more sporadic and remote, aid often cannot reach the most isolated and dangerous parts of the Sonoran desert.
In 2009, the Arizona Daily Star reported an increase in the death risk for illegal border-crossers in the Sonoran desert of 17 times greater than in 1998, and 1 ½ greater than it had been in 2004.
Heritage cited that of the deaths along the entirety of the U.S.-Mexico border, approximately 75 percent can be attributed to the Tucson sector, which claims 262 miles of the border. The report named a death increase of 11 in 1998 to more than 225 in 2010. According to records compiled by the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona using data from the Pima County Medical Examiner, the Tucson sector found and examined the remains of 2,238 migrants between 1998 and 2012.
Eddy stands as one of the survivors of the all-too-common deadly web of border mafia and threatening climate. He escaped the demands of the coyotes and instead last crossed with a small group who, like him, had made the trek before. He now works in numerous construction jobs, avoiding any gang activity that might be near his home.
“I got lucky,” Eddy recounted. “After three days of walking and sleeping in the middle of nowhere, eating once a day, with almost no water, we got here.”