A Journey Along, Through, Over And Under The Mexico-USA frontier


Ciudad Juárez / El Paso

As darkness settles over Ciudad Juárez, the 40ºC heat abates and a warm gale blows in 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. In Juárez the bars are open since some time ago, expectant of the custom that has begun to trickle across the frontier from Texas, over the Santa Fé International Bridge and southwards to Mexico.

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

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.

Ciudad Juárez

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. The greener pastures are so close that you can smell them; you can almost taste them.

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, maybe, one million, or twice that number slip through La Linea uncounted each year.

In the absence of a Mexican economic overhaul, millions of undocumented Mexicans working in the fields, on construction sites, in restaurants, as pizza-boys, housemaids and gardeners, do the best they can. Every year, the economic migrants and Americans of Mexican-origin send over six-billion-dollars of remesas – remittances – to support families and relatives south of the Rio Grande. It is usually the relations on “the other side”, be they legal or not, who pledge the money to the traffickers who will ferry their blood north. And with it becoming more difficult to slip-in autonomously, the polleros are making a killing.

The Rio Grande (or Río Bravo del Norte) marks the frontier between the two nations for a distance of some 2000 kms, 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’, and been caught 30 times. 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.

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 stale American rock; the rest, a strictly Mexican affair. 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.

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.

El Paso

“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.”

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.

Above (clockwise): 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; a chain-link bent-down by migrants headed north from Mexico; downtown El Paso; Mickey Mouse and political posters in downtown Ciudad Juárez; a Mexican mini-mart in El Paso, which is now a Burger King car-park. Many parts of the north’s borderland neighbourhoods can appear to be a de facto Mexico where the food, language and feel can be very much south of the border. Perhaps the most marked difference between the two territories is the north’s seeming hostility to the public and collective that is strikingly manifested in the lack of public transport and the predominance of the motor car.

The Imperial Valley & All American Canal

Text first to locate area and use a wee map…

The rock outcrops at Pilot Knob are volcanic plug and the border fence separating the USA from the USA

Here, a whole bunch of text about Imperial Valley and the whole water question. It’s dry and difficult, more migrants are being forced out this way. Drownings. Deaths by dehydration. small map to go with irrigation pic.

Bad Neighbours

More text about the seepage from the dunes behind and the taking the river away. Talk about the navigation along the River Colorado… leads onto the following –

El Capitan of Pilot Knob

Nuevo Algodones
El Capitan carries some migrants over the All American Canal · Nuevo Algodones

Dozens of figures swarm over dusty mounds of baked earth and sand alongside the All American Canal. Like ants called to battle by the sticks of children smashing their nest, the migrants emerge into the searing daytime heat from their shaded lairs. This is America, but for practical purposes –those of securing the border– the useless, barren hundred-meter stretch has been ceded, informally, to Mexico. The wide canal waters are a better defence than any steel fence, but far from unbreachable.

Rubber inner-tubes and plastic dinghies drop into the canal. Migrants with plastic gallon water containers –the uniform of the desert walkers– haggle down prices before removing their trousers and flopping into the small craft. Trainers are held aloft and wallets shoved in mouths as a rubber flotilla ferries its passengers north. On a hill, two Border Patrol vehicles look down on the spectacle.

Above: Migrants and folks from the nearby town watch migrants cross the canal; a migrant from Oaxaca who eventually swam the canal; Pilot Knob and the border fence; “El Capitan” carries migrants of rubber inner-tubes.

“We’re not making ourselves rich here,” says el Capitán, a dinghy owner. “It’s better they pay a few pesos and don’t drown! It’s like a taxi service.” His passengers seem to be satisfied –most cannot swim– and where there would have been loathing and fear in their hearts, there are high spirits, smiles and giggles. They sound like excited infants as el Capitán pushes off.

On the far side, two youths who have swam across with their few possessions in plastic bin-liners emerge from the water. Hoots of laughter and shouts taunt the naked forms as they back away from the river, vainly trying to obscure their tracks with dry twigs. Facing northwards, brown buttocks wave to and fro: Hello America!

Migrant trails in the sand · Sonoran Desert

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 numbers of agents –currently 7,000– by 1000 per year, every year over the next decade.

The Desert Wall · California

As stretches of 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.


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.”

The border fence and Calexico

Above: 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; 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


About the episode of the Oaxacan migrant going through the Border Patrol car park.

Welcome to Tijuana

The Californias

Rising out of the Pacific Ocean, an iron curtain has been draw across the land. Twelve miles of recycled Gulf War military scrap surgically sequesters Tijuana –a city swelling on the underbelly of the California. It is a monument to the New World Order: as West embraces East; North faces-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. is the Differing political ideologies put aside, in the world 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.

Alfredo, 39, from Mexico City last crossed-over seven years ago. Then, a low, wire fence marked La Linea. Now, there is 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, 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 morning bus to San Diego. At three in the morning the four slip under the fence.

Above: near the Tijuana/San Ysidro border crossing & the official return gates from the USA; the House of the Poor where many migrants can attended to

Migrants consider their options – Imperial Beach · Tijuana

The Border Patrol

Border Patrol

Night Patrol on the 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.” I was eavesdropping the conversation between two Border Patrol agents – Louis, a soft-spoken patrolman from Louisiana who I was accompanying this night, and a colleague.

More text:

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, Kevin, says in his smooth Bayou tones: “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.”

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 jack rabbits 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 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.

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.


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