The River Between

Two flags on one bridge between Mexico and the USA

Between Strange Friends – in the world of Neoliberalism, goods and money can flow freely but “have nots” cannot · Ciudad Juárez

Between Friends

Ciudad Juárez / El Paso

As darkness settles over Ciudad Juárez, the 40ºC heat abates and a warm gale blows off the desert. Plastic bags somersault, Coke cans rattle along the dry streets, and four flags – two Mexican tricolours, and two Stars and Stripes – pull tight and rasp in the wind.

Slide Picture Gallery:

In Juárez, the bars have been open for some time, expectant of the custom that has begun to trickle across the Santa Fé International Bridge from Texas and southwards to Mexico.

“Mexican girlfriend. Mexican girlfriend,” Mexican men call out to a gaggle of young, white males as they disembark the Santa Fé International Bridge.

Tourists pose with donkey painted like a zebra and Mexican sombrero hats

US tourists in Tijuana

Away from the stale, pounding American rock and American English babble, another of the borderlands’ night-time rituals has stirred from its slumber. Mute shadows wade through the rancid waters of the Rio Grande, slipping through and over the chain-link fence, while others scurry the first few steps of many north, through desert and hills. Here in El Paso/Juárez and all along the 2,000 mile border, countless thousands of economic refugees make their way towards el otro lado  – “the other side” – to a land of more promise… and dollars.

Minnie Mouse Piñata on Friendship Bridge between the USA and Mexico

Nowhere else on earth does North meet South with such glaring disparity; Nowhere else can the draw of migration be so tempting as where the Third World rubs up against a First World economy where the greener pastures are so close that you can smell them and almost taste them.

Metal Barrier Doors across railway bridge between USA and Mexico

No Paso to El Paso · Ciudad Juárez 1998

Just how many slip through the US’s southern border is hard to quantify. How does one number ephemeral shadows moving back and forth whose métier it is to elude detection? The US Border Patrol catch and deposit over one million Mexicans back on their side of the line every year and perhaps a million or more slip through La Linea uncounted.

Bent down chain-link fencing and USA flags

Migrant trail · El Paso

The Rio Grande (or Río Bravo del Norte) marks the frontier between the two nations for a distance of some 2000 km, entering Mexico at Ciudad Juárez -El Paso to Matamoros-Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico.

Arturo’s business is migration and he can make as much in a night as his clients make in a month… or even a year. He is a pollero. In 15 years he has bought himself two modest houses and a ‘nice car.’ He has been caught 30 times he tells. Most days, you’ll find him in his Nike cap and T-shirt in the Hotel Correo looking for customers, who are not so hard to find, as only migrants and German-speaking Mennonites (themselves one-time migrants, though southward bound) seem to frequent the hotel. And the Mennonites are readily identified by their uniform of blue dungarees and straw sombreros.

Migrants in the waters of the Rio Grande

Migrants being repelled back into the Río Grande / Bravo by Border Patrol agents · Ciudad Juárez / El Paso

Presently on offer, is an $800 run to Arizona. An additional $300 will get you a car ride to Chicago. So far, three Guatemalans, two Colombians and an Ecuadorian are on-board –“Where’s Ecuador?” asks Arturo – and he is looking for two more customers. He will take them on the first leg of the journey: over the border, and an eight-hour walk through the desert, using the flashing, red aircraft lights of radio masts as reference points, to a waiting vehicle.

We drink two-dollar cans of Tecate in Bar Pachanga, a strip joint frequented by polleros. The music is Mexican Norteña interspersed with American rock. Small men with big moustaches watch pot-bellied strippers in g-strings gyrate and rub crotches up and down a silver pole. I feel uncomfortable. Arturo gives me a “red-blooded male” nudge and a wink.

So! Why do you call them pollos? I ask. In the background a swaying drunk – dancing? – pushes his smiling face into the cleavage of a bored mini-skirted girl. “Because they look like chickens when we take them through the water,” he laughs. Seriously? Arturo performs –arms and legs a splay as if wading thigh-deep through the river – to extinguish my scepticism. Convincing. Like a plucked chicken with severed feet as it jumps from the freezer and dashes past the supermarket checkout, to freedom.

Dry hills and dusty streets in the outer neighbourhoods of Ciudad Juárez Mexico

Above: The outskirts of Ciudad Juárez where much of the population, particularly women, work in maquilas set up after the signing of the North America Free Trade Agreement – NAFTA. The Rio Grande

Daniel, 20, and Manuel, 25, from León are paying $2,000 for false papers – papeles chahuecos – and delivery to Chicago, where they have work in the kitchens of a Greek restaurant. Relatives in the US have pledged the money to the polleros, and the two will spend the first few months working off the debt. Daniel first worked in America when aged 16. This time, there is not the same sense of adventure as there was last. It will take two to three years to save the $10,000 he needs to build a small home in León.

“I don’t like how they live in the United States,” he says, fingering a passport-sized photo of his girlfriend back in León. “We don’t go out and drink, because you have one or two beers… and then twelve,” Daniel explains with a grin. “You think of your family and friends and get drunk and sad and start singing. We’re like that!”

Xicano Culture mural

Mural in El Paso – Xicano is the name adopted by Mexican-Americans born in Mexico and living in the USA who identify with the struggle for civil rights, and resistance to discriminatory and oppressive aspects of Anglo-American culture.

Like many Mexicans, Daniel views the great northern neighbour as sterile and impersonal. Being an illegal immigrant is undocumented purgatory. Austere living is generally the rule: working all hours and returning to cramped rooms, which they share with several fellow cost-cutting economic penitents. Life in Catholic, family-centred Mexico is so much more authentic.

Downtown Ciudad Juárez – Downtown El Paso


The Imperial Valley & the All-American Canal

Migrants wait on the shores of the a canal

The All-American Canal & Pilot Knob

The All-American Canal is the largest irrigation canal in the world and drains much of the water that remains in the Colorado River to irrigate the Imperial Valley, turning the 2000km2 of desertified soil into agricultural land. It is not uncommon for the riverbed to completely dry up before it reaches the Sea of Cortez.

Approximately 68,000 acre-feet of water per year are lost by seepage from the Canal, most as it crosses the Algodones Dune Field. Because of increased Border Patrol activity, many migrants cross the border through areas where nature has its own barriers. Many succumb to thirst and heat.

Footprints in the desert sand at dusk

Migrant trails · Sonoro Desert 1998

El Capitán of Pilot Knob

Nuevo Algodones

Migrants in inner-tube dingeys cross a canal

The Captain – the ferryman and his passengers on the way to another world. All American Canal · Algodones 1998

As the sun goes down, dozens of figures swarm over dusty mounds of baked earth and sand alongside the All-American Canal. They emerge from shade shelters and gather in small groups on the edge of the strip of water. To the east and west of the Algodones Dune Field, the metal fences mark the line of the frontier but here the first barrier is the treacherous waters of the canal and beyond that hundreds of kilometres of desert. It is a more formidable barrier than any metal fence.

Here in Algodones, a chunk of North American soil is isolated from the rest of the USA by the canal. The migrants waiting to cross the water and the locals who come out to watch the spectacle gather on what cartographers will tell you is North American soil but is a de facto part of Mexico. Rubber inner tubes and plastic dinghies drop into the canal and migrants with one-gallon plastic water containers haggle with the ferrymen. On agreeing on a sum, they begin to remove their trousers, folding and stashing them in plastic bags and then flopping into the small inflatables whilst holding their trainers aloft.

On the far bank, a 4×4 vehicle passes, kicking up swirls of dust and we hear shouts that could be insults aimed at where I stand with the migrants. Two Border Patrol vehicles sit on a small hill overlooking the scene. In turn, migrants pay the boatmen and then stuff their wallets between their teeth. Money is held in mouths to cross the waters to that other world. Their boatman is called El Capitán. He is clean-shaven with a moustache and a friendly demeanour. He reassures and jokes with his passengers as he pushes off and paddles towards the other side.

Migrants in inner-tube dingeys cross a canal

“We’re not making ourselves rich here,” el Capitán later explains. “It’s better they pay a few pesos and not drown! It’s like a taxi service.” Indeed, most of his passengers seem satisfied and appreciative. Many giggle and joke as they cross, chalking up another experience on their odyssey north. Most of them cannot swim and the alternative would be to be left wandering the banks of the All-American Canal forced to eventually seek an alternative route.

Man stands on river bank and looks into the USA

A migrant from Oaxaca looks north before swimming the canal · Algodones

Not all have the two dollars to pay the boatman. Two young men elect to swim across and wade out and paddle across with their clothes and very few possessions in plastic bin liners. On the far side, they emerge from the water exposing their naked buttocks to hoots of laughter and shouts from the southern bank. Unbothered, they turn and hurridly make to erase their tracks, sweeping them with dry twigs held in one hand, the other holding their plastic bags to cover their modesty.

One of the last migrants to leave tells me that he is heading for Los Angeles. On crossing the canal, he tells, he will walk around five kilometres and wait for the evening freight train and jump it to his destination. I supposed that all of the Algodones migrants would do the same, as the alternative is to walk fifty kilometres or more through the dunes and the desert. With less than a gallon of water, that alternative would mean certain death.

Gulf War scrap metal fence between the USA and Mexico

The border fence, made out of Gulf War scrap metal · Calexico / Mexicali

On The Carrousel


Since 1994, when ‘Operation Gatekeeper’ –equal to Texas’ ‘Hold the Line’– began in the San Diego Sector, Border Patrol agent numbers have increased from 906 to 2000. Nationally, the Border Patrol budget, $3.8 billion this year, has risen by nearly 200% since 1993. Next year $4.2 billion budget is proposed. The United States is clearly committed to policing its southern border, further proposing to strengthen the number of agents –currently 7,000– by 1000 per year, every year over the next decade.

The Anza-Borrego Desert · USA/México

As stretches of the frontier are fortified, migrants seek out new, often more hazardous routes. “The strategy of the United States provokes more migrant deaths by creating more risky routes,” says Blanca Villaseñor, the director of the Albergue Juvenil del Desierto, a shelter for juvenile migrants in Mexicali. Already, many migrants have abandoned the traditional route through San Diego and are crossing further to the east, through the eastern California and western Arizona desert regions. Border Patrol rescues of stricken migrants in this area are increasing (around 370 in 1996, and 650 in 1997), as are migrant fatalities, which this year look set to more than double last year’s total of 80. The majority of deaths are in the deserts, owing to heat stroke and dehydration, and, contrastingly, by drowning.

A deported migrant mother with her head in her hands as her children look on

A Mexican woman just arrived in Mexicali after being deported from the USA with her five children.

A mexican border agent receives deportees from the USA

Deported from the USA and on the carrousel · Mexicali, México 1998

Mrs Villaseñor also sees migrants as being pushed onto a “carousel”: crossing in the west and, when caught, being deported through the international bridges in the desert – Mexicali, San Luis del Rio Colorado and Algodones – where temperatures can soar to 50ºC and higher. “They go round and round until they run out of funds and then cross from wherever they are deported to,” she explains. “Here, the ‘wall’ is the distance and the desert. And people die.”

Border Patrol car parked by the border

Imperial Valley – a Border Patrol vehicle parked up by an irrigated field. The fence here is not particularly secure, but beyond Calexico, the barrier is the desert and Border Patrol checks on the highways out of the town.

Tattoo of a soldier bulldog with a rifle and a USA flag

Mexicali – a deported Mexican migrant. He didn’t want to show his face nor give his name but insisted that I take a photo of his tattoo. He had been in the US military, he told me, of which he was still fiercely proud despite having just been deported from the USA that very moment.

Pollero Express

Mexicali – Calexico

Silhouette of a migrant scaling the border

Mexicali/Calexico “Is this the way in?” the young man asked me frenetically, seemingly unsure of his own predicament. I was far from the best person to ask but I was the only person there, other than the guide or “pollero” who I presumed he’d paid a few pesos moments before and was insistently ushering him towards the fence, indicating that he should start to climb.

He had travelled from Oaxaca and carried nothing with him. I looked into his wide, questioning eyes and paused with the words in my mouth. Subject to the whims of others, he sought some reassurance I thought. I told him the only thing I knew. “That’s the Border Patrol car park,” I said.

The pressure was on and his ephemeral guide, keen to get rid himself of his charge, urged him to make haste. Quickly and deftly, he scaled the chainlink fence, scrambled over and dropped down on the other side. I watched him run across the parking lot, to the entrance and slip out of sight. I hoped that he would meet good people on his journey. He seemed so unprepared.


The Two Californias

Sign warning of a migrant crossing route

Migrant trails · Orange County 1998

Between Two Worlds

Welcome to Tijuana – Bienvenido a San Diego

Tijuana - a city swelling on the underbelly of the USA

Tijuana – a city swelling on the underbelly of the USA · San Diego / Tijuana

Rising out of the Pacific Ocean, an iron curtain has been drawn across the land. Twelve miles of recycled Gulf War military scrap surgically sequesters San Diego from the city of Tijuana, an urban conurbation swelling on the underbelly of California. The fence is a monument to the New World Order: as the West embraced the East; North faced off South. In the era of global economics, goods, trade and money must know no frontiers, but the poor hordes of the South must be kept at bay.

“It never used to be like this,” murmurs broad-faced Alfredo.

A migrant scales the border fence between Tijuana and San Diego.

Alfredo, 39, from Mexico City last crossed-over seven years ago. Then, a low, wire fence marked La Linea. Now, there are ten feet of steel. Tijuana’s shanties still squeeze up tight to the border, and the slum-dwellers still throw their trash into America. But, the hills on the San Diego side have been stripped bare. A gaping no-man’s-land watched over by powerful floodlights, Border Patrol vehicles, seismic sensors and cameras, barks an indisputable message south: ‘Stay right where you are!’ “Yes, it looks difficult. Very difficult,” agree Alfredo’s nephews, Martin, 30, and Miguel, 19. But, they have come this far, and at least must try. And if they fail? They will try again. And again. Until they exhaust their meagre funds. Mexicans are nothing if they are not patient!

The three intend to go to Oakland, California, where they’re sure they’ll, maybe, find work. The garment industry, they all agree, would be preferable. Alfredo, a driver and mechanic, has a wife and three children. He wants to save enough to start a small workshop. Martin, who sold ice lollies at traffic lights in Mexico City, has a wife and two small girls who are rapidly growing up. He wants to add two rooms to his hillside shanty home. Crop-haired Miguel is still smarting from his sacrifice. “Look!” he demands, passing me a photo of Status Quo, and one of himself: a youth with shoulder-length rocker’s locks.

They set about enlarging a half-dug hole they have found passing under the fence, and, the work done, settle down to wait for darkness. They talk of a holiday in Acapulco and eat tortillas–corn pancakes– and ham. As the sun drops into the Pacific, a lone migrant joins them. He has crossed here before and assures them it is best to wait until three, to meet the first bus of the morning to San Diego. At three in the morning the four slip under the fence.

Long line of men waiting to receive a meal

The “House of the Poor,” where migrants can stop over and receive lunch and basic medical attention.


Border Patrol vehicle seen through a gap in the border fence

The Border Patrol

Night Patrol – El Paso Border

“Well, I’ve been in this job for more than 20 years, and it’s the first time it’s happened to me.” Two Border Patrol agents chat in the dead of night discussing the lack of migrants passing through the frontier. I was accompanying Kevin, a soft-spoken patrolman from Louisiana who was dissecting the night’s anomaly with Louis who was of Latin-American heritage.

It was the heat they agreed. The year had been unusually hot with temperatures reaching the mid to high forties. It was no time to be hiking through the desert and having to carry your own water. Earlier that evening, as the last of the sun lit the desert landscape with its golden rays, Kevin took me to where he would invariably find migrants.

He had been with the Border Patrol for twenty years and felt for the migrants. “Sure, I sympathise with them. They just want to work. They have families back in Mexico. But, I’m just doing my job. I have a family too,” he said. He told me that he had never had to draw his weapon and that the migrants froze like jackrabbits when he came across them. He could detain many of them on his own as they did not offer resistance. the only limit was the size of the vehicle.

Border Patrol agent looks through binoculars

Agent Kevin · Santa Teresa Sector

I’d met Kevin as the sum was going down in the parking lot of a convenience store in Santa Teresa. The USA is car friendly or non-car-unfriendly, depending upon your point of view. I had to hitchhike to our meeting point, which was inconvenient but also presented its own opportunities.

Many Americans feel for the present-day migrants. Their own immigrant past is etched deep into the national psyche. The garden centre shrub delivery man on the New Mexican border highway, still unsure if his hitch-hiking passenger is an illegal or not, says: “Hell, what do I care if you are! I wouldn’t do those jobs just for a few bucks.” El Paso Border Patrol agent,

Patrolling the 66 miles of New Mexico/Texan desert border in Santa Teresa Station’s sector, Kevin and 24 other agents on the night shift see more coyotes and jackrabbits than migrants. Aiding their human senses are night-vision goggles, seismic sensors, horses, and infrared cameras –called ‘flare units’. Their .40 calibre Beretta pistols and shotguns are so rarely used they are almost obsolete. Migrants are not criminals: most stand stock-still when found, like jackrabbits caught in a flashlight.

It is the southern Mexican states parched barren by successive droughts that have traditionally fed the northward human tide. The devaluation of the Mexican peso in the 1990s and the ensuing economic collapse drove hundreds of thousands more into the flow. Unfortunately for the economic refugees, the 1994 toughening of US Border Patrol strategy preceded the peso crisis. No longer was there an ‘open’ frontier with agents “hanging back and catching” illegals, the policing had shifted right up to a few meters of Mexican soil. The Border Patrol now kept a constant, visible presence on the frontier, deterring would-be-illegals and aiming to catch those who tried in flagrante delicto.

Two Border Patrol agents wait by the border fence

In Texas, ‘Operation Hold the Line’ does seem to be working. Daily, the El Paso Sector –280 miles of New Mexico/Texas border– makes three to four hundred ‘apprehensions’. I encountered many home-bound migrants, forced to relinquish their objective by a failure of nerve, depleted funds, or because they could not afford the fees of the polleros – literally “chicken dealers” – who guide migrants through the border.

Plugging all the leaks is not possible, nor is the intention of the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol’s job, according to Doug Mosier, the affable Public Affairs Officer in El Paso, is to control the numbers as best they can. “For something to change there would have to be economic reform in Mexico,” he says.

Children play and a boy looks towards the USA at sunset on Imperial Beach

Tijuana / Imperial beach · 1998

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