In a decrepit and run-down community center sitting on the brink of the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Felipe, a “pollero,” or “human smuggler,” who does not want his last name known, sits at a picnic table discussing how he will get his next group of migrants across the border and into the United States.
“The border patrol has lots of ‘mosquitoes’ now,” he says, as he motions with his hand to describe the U.S. drones that hover over the vast deserts that connect the United States with Mexico.
“One time I waited 2 days in the brink of a river for them to pass. I gave up and turned back,” he says.
Within view just over his right shoulder through a cracked window, a parked white and green striped Border Patrol SUV sits no more than 100-yards away on the opposite side of the border fence. Seemingly staring in.
“It’s much harder to get past ‘La Migra’ now,” he says, using the slang for Border Patrol agents. “And much more dangerous. Now we need permission from ‘La Linea’ (a local gang) to use their routes.”
Felipe spent 4-years in prison after getting caught on his final attempt to cross the border. It was one of countless times he said, and now he’s preparing to face up against “La Migra” once again.
According to reports from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Felipe faces a five-fold increase in the amount of Border Patrol from just 10-years-ago. Plus, an unusual new domestic role for the U.S. Military, deployments of drones and other sophisticated technology, and hundreds of more miles of fences.
Still, more drugs are crossing the border than ever before.
Despite undocumented immigrant detentions being down by 61 percent since 2005, WOLA says that the security policies, which were designed to combat terrorism and drug trafficking, have created a humanitarian crisis for those who do decide to cross.
“Migrants face higher risks of death in the desert than in previous years,” the report stated. “Also, certain deportation practices put migrants at risk. For example, migrants can be deported at night and/or to cities hundreds of miles from where they were detained. These same cities are also some of the border region’s most dangerous.”
Through initiatives referred to as “prevention through deterrence,” border enforcement operations have been directed at moving migrants towards more remote and inhospitable areas of the border.
According to Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, around 370 to 800 migrants are dying every year in U.S. territory while trying to cross the border. The U.S. government estimates the number to be closer to 300 – 400. The majority of these deaths result from dehydration, hypothermia in the desert, or drowning in the Rio Grande canals.
In Arizona, despite a decrease in flows since 2007 and an increase in Border Patrol and National Guard presence, the Tucson-based “Coalicion de Derechos Humanos,” (Coalition of Human Rights) found 2010 to have been one of the deadliest years for migrants, with 253 bodies found in the Arizona desert.
Their data showed that while migrant deaths in Arizona dropped in 2011, the number of remains found per 100,000 apprehensions actually increased.
In Mexico, as many as 20,000 migrants, mostly from Central America, are kidnapped – some tortured, raped or even murder – by organized crime each year on their way through Mexico and to the north, according to Mexico’s independent National Human Rights Commission.
Sitting with Felipe at that table on the edge of the Rio Grande was one of those Central American immigrants who decided to take that risk.
Maribel Pineda, 52, a Honduran immigrant began to tear up. She plans to be in Felipe’s next group of migrants to cross the border, but it’s her memories from her last trip across “la frontera” that is stirring her emotions.
“It was 2 a.m. and we were about to get some rest, but we could hear the coyotes near by, so we kept walking,” she says.
Pineda’s group decided to take a more isolated route in the outskirts of Nogales, Arizona — out of the watchful eye of the border patrol.
“One group in front of us was being followed by coyotes too. They climbed the trees, but one lady couldn’t get into the tree because she was carrying a baby,” she cries. “They ate her … and the baby.”
“There was also a 5-year-old boy who was bitten by a snake. He died after just 5-minutes. I just couldn’t believe it,” she says.
Worn and beaten, Pineda made it to the I-10 highway in Arizona, but before they could reach the city, her and the others were picked up by the Border Patrol.
“When we were in holding, everyone told the same stories,” says Pineda.
Pineda had successfully made it across the border years ago to live with her daughter and 11-year-old grandson in Denver, Colorado. After voluntarily returning to Honduras to visit her dying father, her daughter was deported from the U.S. leaving the grandson all alone.
Now she’s back at the border, ready to risk it all at the chance she will make it across the border to care for her grandson.
“I’m willing to go through this again,” she says, “but only for my grandson.”
Alex Peña is a freelance foreign correspondent currently covering Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Previously, Pena was based in Nairobi, Kenya covering East Africa for Voice of America TV, and has also filed stories from the Middle East, including the border of Jordan and Syria. He graduated from the journalism program at Florida Gulf Coast University in December 2011.