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Indigenous & Latina Women & Children's Human Rights News from the Americas 


Latin America
Women & Children at Risk
After the crossing, danger to migrants isn't over
Publisher: The New York Times Co.
Publish Date: 2003-11-10

PHOENIX - A new Spanish word has entered the American lexicon: bajadero.

Human smugglers along the Mexican border are known as polleros -- chicken ranchers. People they smuggle into the United States are called pollos, a reference to the barnyard treatment they receive at the hands of their herders.

Since the black market abhors a vacuum, it was perhaps inevitable that the border would see the rise of the bajadero -- loosely translated, a chicken-stealing member of the underworld, who makes money kidnapping illegal immigrants from their smugglers, holding them for ransom and in the worst case killing them if not paid promptly.

Law-enforcement officials along the border say the bajaderos are behind a wave of violence and death in southern Arizona that is reminiscent of the drug wars of years past. Just last week, four people were killed in a high-speed highway shootout south of Phoenix between smugglers and a rival gang from whom they had kidnapped a group of Mexicans.

Border authorities attribute the surge of violence to the law of supply and demand. With increased border patrols since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the price charged to take Mexican immigrants over the border to Phoenix has tripled, to more than $1,500, officials say. The price charged to Central and South Americans has climbed to as much as $4,000 and for Eastern Europeans the bill can top $10,000.

Prices like these make the smuggling of people almost as profitable as smuggling drugs, officials say, and the penalty for getting caught is a matter of months in prison rather than years. And gangs are figuring out that they do not need to smuggle to make money. It is easier to steal people once someone has done the hard work of getting them here.

''Human smuggling organizations are targeting one another with innocent civilians caught in the crossfire and paying a very high price,'' said Michael J. Garcia, assistant secretary of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. ''With the rise of this organized criminal enterprise here in Phoenix we've seen an incredible rise in violence.''

The smuggling arrangement is supposed to work on a cash-on- delivery basis. For example, the hopeful migrant arrives by bus at a Mexican border town like Agua Prieta near the southeastern corner of this state and is hidden until the appointed hour. He is then driven out into the desert, where he embarks with others who follow a pollero across the mountains and needled bush.

The trip is an arduous three-day journey, usually by night, with the migrant carrying little more than a plastic bag to keep the dew off, a plastic jug of water and perhaps a tin of sardines. The migrant risks death by rattlesnake, scorpion, dehydration, exposure, abandonment and broken bones.

Once in the United States, the migrant walks to an appointed spot, usually some barren patch at the edge of a town where a van or truck takes him to a city like Phoenix. Once in town, the immigrant is locked in a house where he is held until a friend comes to buy his freedom.

The system breaks down when the immigrants are stolen at the appointed place of pickup.

In Phoenix alone, law enforcement officials blame warfare between rival smuggling cartels for the 45 percent rise in killings over the past year. Violent crimes like kidnapping, home invasions and extortion are up more than 400 percent, and authorities attribute most of that crime to rival bajaderos and polleros as well.

''Killers, rapists, kidnappers,'' are the words Paul Charlton, the United States attorney here, uses to describe the smuggling cartels. ''The standards that only applied to narco-trafficking now apply to human trafficking. We now know we have to focus on these individuals because it's not just a border problem anymore.''

To that effect, the authorities announced on Monday that a multiagency task force in Arizona would work to combat the smuggling problem on the ground, in the courts and through bank accounts. The immigration service will station 50 more agents in Arizona along with financial crimes experts in order to dismantle the cartels. The federal authorities will work closely with regional police and prosecutors, Mr. Garcia said. Military hardware like helicopters will also be dispatched to patrol the border.

After crackdowns in California and Texas, the 261 miles of devilish desert border along Arizona has become the nation's busiest area for illegal crossing over the past five years, officials said, describing it as the bottleneck of human smuggling in the Western Hemisphere.

The early morning kidnapping of a group of migrants last Tuesday and the subsequent shootout that left four dead and a man clutching his severed toe on the side of Interstate 10, showed that the ability to smuggle people across the border is an increasingly lucrative proposition.

''I believe it's drug smugglers dabbling in another business, seeing if they can expand their markets,'' said State Senator Peter Rios. ''They've been in crime so long they think they can get away with it. It's arrogance.''

The highway shootout was not an isolated incident. For instance, in Phoenix last month, a smuggling organization threatened to sever the hand of a 9-year-old girl if they did not receive a ransom. In Red Rock last October, a group of a dozen immigrants were fired upon by two men wearing camouflage. The police later found two corpses riddled with bullets, one witness, and no sign of the other immigrants, who authorities believe were loaded into vehicles and spirited away.

In Maricopa County last year, eight men were found dead in the desert west of Phoenix gagged and bound. Seven had been shot in the head; the eighth was stabbed.

Last month, three men were kidnapped and held for $15,000 ransom. They were found alive by authorities, bound from head to toe in duct tape.

''These alien smugglers are the lowest form of life,'' said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., the agent in charge of the Douglas sector of the Border Patrol. ''They are rapists and glue sniffers and they have no regard for human life. They sell someone a dream and quite often they steal it.''

On Tuesday, a group of immigrants who had made the trek from Mexico were waiting in a field south of Phoenix for a van to take them to a safe house. Mike Minter, a spokesman for the Pinal County sheriff's office, said the immigrants had apparently got into the vehicle of a rival group of smugglers; it is not clear whether they did so unwittingly or by the barrel of a gun. Mr. Minter said the original group of smugglers then began chasing their rivals along I-10 and shooting at the vehicle with semiautomatic weapons.

Officials say they believe the four victims were smugglers. Twenty-four other people were arrested, including the four who opened fire.

Despite the growing violence, Mexicans say they will keep coming for a better life even if it means losing their lives on the chance.

Take Jose G. Pina and his entourage, who were standing in Agua Prieta having just been deported by the Americans and waiting for their wives to be released. These peasant farmers fled Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico, when it became apparent that the spring floods had destroyed their land.

Early Wednesday morning, in the bright light of the moon, these seven men and five women struck out on their own across the mountains. An hour into the walk, two bandits with pistols stepped out from the bush and robbed them of everything: $3,000.

''At least they didn't touch the women,'' said Mr. Pina, an erect and regal man in an oily cap.

Word of the highway gun battle reached him while he spent the evening in a detention cell, where he said, he was treated well and with respect by the American authorities.

The trip used to be so easy, Mr. Pina said. He has made it at least 30 times. ''It's so much more difficult now,'' he said. ''There are 100 percent more bandits and criminals out there. It's a new profession. They rape women and take children.''

He took a drag on an American cigarette as he considered the totality of his existence, and waited for his wife so that they could try the journey again.

''It's a sad thing,'' he said. ''It's hard enough, this life.''

Photos: There has been a surge of violence at Arizona's border with Mexico. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times)(pg. A1); Three men in custody last Tuesday south of Phoenix after the kidnapping of a group of migrants and a subsequent shootout that left four dead. The sheriff's office said it was a battle between rival smugglers. (Photo by Russell Gates/The Arizona Republic, via Associated Press); Water bottles in the desert where illegal immigrants enter Arizona. (Photo by J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times)(pg. A16)

November 11, 2003, Tuesday Late Edition - Final Section: SECTA Page: 1 Column: 02 Desk: National Desk Length: 1504 words

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