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Violence rising along border

No end in sight as criminals tail eager migrants

Hernán Rozemberg
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 18, 2001

Agua Prieta, Sonora - Gilberto Corona filled his pockets with two months of savings and climbed on an old bus in Veracruz, leaving his wife and daughter behind.

Nearly three days later, tired, hungry and thirsty, he stepped off the bus in this border town and shelled out 7,000 pesos - about $780, almost all he had brought - to a stranger who promised to take him across to Arizona.

Then his American dream vanished along with his guide.

He tried to make it alone. But over the next two days, he was mugged at gunpoint, wandered for miles in the desert and was ditched in the middle of the night by a group of fellow dream-seekers he had joined.

Without a peso to his name and ready to collapse, Corona opted to stay alive instead of struggling on. He hailed a U.S. Border Patrol agent last week on Arizona 80 in Douglas, about a mile and a half into the United States.

Migrants heading into Arizona increasingly are getting robbed, mugged and beaten before crossing the border, officials and immigrants say. That's in large part because Arizona's border towns are among the busiest of all U.S.-Mexican crossings. The Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which includes Douglas and Nogales, reported 71,036 migrant arrests in 1992. Last year, agents caught 617,716 crossers.

As more undocumented migrants from Mexico and other Central American countries come here, criminals are right behind.

The shooting of a crosser by a Border Patrol agent March 5 made headlines, but migrants say they fear the trip up to the border more than U.S. law enforcement. The shooting was ruled accidental, but is still being investigated by state and federal agencies.

"I think that now there are more chances of getting killed on our side," said a man in his early 40s waiting to cross into Arizona last week. "The risks are definitely increasing."

Migrants are vulnerable because they carry large amounts of cash, cross in remote areas and many times must depend on strangers.

A study to be released this week reports that 648 people were murdered along the entire border from 1985 to 1998; 36 murders were committed along the Arizona-Mexico border. Researchers tracked the numbers through death certificates.

"Until just about two years ago, Arizona seemed to enjoy a free pass (from violence). But now, with a larger volume of migrant flow, it's becoming like California and Texas were like in the 1980s," explained Karl Eschbach, a University of Houston sociology professor who co-wrote the study, "Causes and Trends in Migrant Deaths Along the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1985-1998."

"Now you've got a free-for-all down there. The Douglas area is particularly out of control," he said.

Gang battles between border criminals intensify the violence, the study found. But opportunistic coyotes or polleros, guides hired to smuggle migrants to the other side, are more to blame, said Nestor Rodríguez, a co-author of the new report.

Twenty years ago, coyotes were difficult to find. Migrants felt comfortable crossing on their own. But as the United States beefed up border security, migrants started turning to experienced smugglers to guide them across.

Now, Rodríguez said, there are two distinct types of coyotes. Many long-time coyotes know the migrants and make the entire trip with them, starting in their hometowns. The new, less loyal type of coyote, is based at the border and usually meets clients there for the first time.

They take money from migrants, promising to smuggle them across the border, but often leave them stranded in harsh desert conditions, where they are easy prey for still more criminals.

"Mostly, (these newer coyotes) are petty criminals posing as freelance smugglers that are really after peoples' money," Rodríguez said.

'It's still worth it'

Hard statistics on border violence are difficult to come by. Mexican consulates started tracking migrant assaults in 1999. But officials say their numbers are extremely low because most migrants, especially those who make it through, don't want to risk going to authorities to report attacks.

"We only find out from the Border Patrol after they interview people they arrest. There must be tons of cases out there we'll never know about," said Roberto Burgos, record-keeper for the Mexican Consulate in Nogales.

Robbed by bandits

Last week, a group of 27 migrants trying to cross to Douglas in 30-degree weather flagged down a Border Patrol agent for help. Some other migrants down the road had been robbed by a group of five bandits armed with semiautomatic weapons and they were afraid they would be next. The agent allowed them over to the U.S. side, escorting them for two miles before the group crossed back to Mexico.

Despite the risks, migrants hoping to establish a better life in the United States are as determined as ever to keep trying. And trying.

Four college-age men walked alongside the Agua Prieta border last week. They had traveled 26 hours straight from Morelos in central Mexico. Earlier that day, they were sent back by the Border Patrol after failing to get in, their fourth botched attempt in six days. And apparently, not their last.

"I'm out of money, but I've got to get to my friends in (the state of) Washington," said a 20-year-old who gave only his first name, Ernesto. "Even if I have to make it across on my own. It's still worth it. I've got no future here."

If it doesn't work out in Agua Prieta, perhaps the foursome will try for better luck in Naco to the west. A town just a 10-minutes drive from Bisbee, Naco is starting to become a popular alternative.

'Ready to die'

"I'm ready to die if I have to," said Javier López, 48, who was traveling with three friends. "I'm not going over to rob or kill anybody, just to work. All I want to do is work. I can't be of much help in an office because I don't have an education, but I've got a good set of hands to work the fields."

Jesús "Chuy" Gallegos doesn't need statistics to know that violence is rising. He sees and hears it daily.

Gallegos runs the Frontera de Cristo ministry in Agua Prieta, where he has lived for 11 years. Many times, he has given shelter to migrants who were attacked. He's not a bit surprised about the rising criminal element in his town, considering how lucrative the people-smuggling business has become.

"Coyotes are all over the place here. In fact, many seem to be staking out their own territory along the border. And they have a free reign because they know nobody's going to turn them in," said Gallegos, noting that coyotes demand $700 to $1,000 per Mexican migrant and as much as $5,000 for other nationalities.

With warmer weather on the horizon, the number of migrants and number of attacks will rise. The Border Patrol began increased ground and air patrols west of Tucson last week. Officials said they hope the agents' presence will deter desert border crossings or allow agents to snatch border crossers before they fall prey to smugglers.

Residents of the Agua Prieta/Douglas community don't think law enforcement alone will stop the trouble. Healing Our Borders, a community group still forming with members on both sides of the fence, is pushing for alternative methods to ease the violence.

"I don't think that people have a good understanding of what goes on down here," said Father Bob Carney of St. Luke's Catholic Church in Douglas, one of the group's founders. "We're talking about what seems like organized crime that's draining people to their last drop of blood. Everything is up for sale nowadays - a little water, a spot on the ground to sleep on."

One idea that's gaining support from activists and politicians is to allow temporary work visas for undocumented migrants. Mexican President Vicente Fox supports the idea. President Bush is considering it.

Irma Villalobos de Terán, mayor of Agua Prieta, said the move would throw a lifeline to the formerly quiet town that, mainly due to the arrival of U.S.-bound migrants, has exploded from 50,000 to 130,000 residents in the past five years.

"This type of a program would cut down the pollero business and, thus, cut down violence," she said.

But even if the guest worker idea, based on the Bracero program established in the 1940s, were to pass, officials from both sides agree that, at the same time, the Mexican economy must improve and produce more and better-paying jobs.

"Between increased migration and the Border Patrol's raising the stakes with more enforcement, the violence isn't going to stop anytime soon," said Eschbach, the university professor involved in the border migrant death study. "For the foreseeable future, I see Arizona continuing to be the hotspot."

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