NOGALES, Mexico—One by one, men and women crawled on their knees and bellies across the hot red desert sands less than 100 yards from where rumbling tractor-trailer rigs crossed from Mexico into Arizona.
In temperatures approaching 100 degrees, they looked like they were on a military reconnaissance mission, but their tattered clothing said these weren't soldiers. They were would-be illegal immigrants making their way from southern Mexico to the United States.
President Bush and Congress have vowed to seal America's porous border with thousands of National Guard troops, miles of fences, surveillance cameras and aerial drones.
But here in the Mariposa Canyon, the government's plan faces a reality check.
In groups of 10 to 16, men, women and children routinely cross the border, led by brazen smugglers called polleros. It all happens in broad daylight, under a blazing sun at high noon, around and through the 12-foot high wall that Uncle Sam erected in the late 1990s to keep them out.
The scene unfolds under the noses of Customs and Border Patrol agents. Once across, the immigrants dash to a warehouse parking lot, where their ride awaits to take them to a safe house in the Arizona border town of Nogales.
On May 22, the polleros allowed a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer to view their seedy world up close. The men, many in their 20s, earn about $100 a head for sneaking mostly Mexicans into the United States. From there, the illegal immigrants will fan out to look for work just about anywhere they can find it.
After first hurling rocks down a gulch at the reporters and threatening them, the smugglers loosened up and let the journalists watch, photograph and accompany their operations.
Finding smugglers is easy along this stretch of border. At one wooden shack, more than a dozen of them were gathered, all talking at once on their cell phones and walkie-talkies.
The shack was a stone's throw from the Mexican government's border crossing, where an agent shooed away reporters. The smugglers passed around a marijuana joint in plain view of the authorities.
In turn, the polleros led groups of Mexicans down a trash-covered ravine to the 12-foot-high metal fence that guards the border here. It's routinely blow-torched or cut to make space for passage.
At the point closest to the U.S. crossing station, the immigrants crawled on their bellies and through a cattle gate instead of the high metal fence.
"They should've gone that way," said one smuggler as he watched from the top of the canyon. There was a crowd around the rickety shack, and the men all commented and criticized the tactics of the smugglers below, as if analyzing a soccer game or bullfight.
A few hours later, a Border Patrol agent in his trademark dark green outfit started walking the U.S. side of the ravine, putting an end to several hours of uninterrupted traffic.
Now it was a race back into Mexico for a group of about 16 aliens, including a mother and a daughter younger than 5. When the U.S. lawman slipped on the steep terrain, the gathered smugglers pumped their fists and cheered loudly as if someone just scored a goal.
Undaunted, the 16 marched back along the Mexican side of the border to regroup safely behind the large metal border fence.
Three smugglers, all young men from the state of Sinaloa, a drug-trafficking hub, waved over a Knight Ridder reporter to accompany them as they tried again.
The smugglers identified themselves only by their street-gang nicknames—El Chumi, El Cholo and El Tacohuayo. They were all in their early 20s and seemed half-mobster and half-Beavis and Butthead. They joked and bantered constantly, razzing each other and using language that would make a sailor blush. But look at the fear in the eyes of their human cargo, however, and you knew these three weren't choirboys.
"Why do you want to build a wall when we'll just find a way around it?" said Chumi, defiantly.
The pudgy, baby-faced smuggler complained repeatedly that Mexicans were just seeking work and shouldn't face such obstacles to entry. All efforts to stop smugglers will fail, he insisted.
Since Oct. 1, 2005, more than 288,000 illegal immigrants have been apprehended in and around Nogales. Almost 489,000 were caught here in the 2005 fiscal year. Clearly, not everyone is getting across.
But with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, lots do, as was evident on this scorching afternoon.
Juan Carlos, a timid man from the state of Puebla, quietly interrupted the sermon of the man smuggling him to America.
"If the U.S. doesn't want illegal workers, why are companies coming here to contract them," he asked, telling of recruiters who come through his region south of Mexico City with buses. They offer to take people across to waiting jobs, he said. The cost of the illicit transit would be deducted from their pay.
During the only moment the smugglers were out of earshot, one man said he paid $1,000 to be taken across the border. Another angrily referred to the smugglers as "corruptos," or the corrupt ones.
When the smugglers returned to the resting spot in the canyon—littered with discarded water bottles, dirty clothing and toilet paper—the sun-baked immigrants fell silent again. No one wanted to be interviewed, especially not the mother, who shielded her daughter from the camera.
Already, Chumi had been forced to snatch up the scared little girl and run with her to keep the group moving quickly. Then they all caught their breaths a few hundred yards west, beyond the Mexican cattle import-export corrals where horses neighed and the sound of mooing competed with the distant grumble of tractor-trailers.
Chumi and Tacohuayo, a serious-looking dark-skinned man with a mustache and a sweat-soaked green golf shirt, shared their strategy.
They pointed to the pole-mounted cameras on the other side of the high fence. They would have to time their sprint across the border to the movement of the cameras, which are remotely operated from a control room in a Border Patrol station. The men were patient. They watched the cameras closely over nearly an hour to see if they could detect a pattern.
Meanwhile, the pot-smoking Cholo passed around a couple of gallons of water. It seemed to have appeared magically. The men weren't carrying it during the sprints and belly-crawling beforehand.
Along the rusting fence, blue metal hacksaw blades littered the ground, used to cut peepholes that would help determine when to run across.
The smugglers mercilessly teased one young man for his bright-red hooded sweatshirt, no doubt brought along to keep him warm in the bone-chilling desert nights.
"Didn't you have something in yellow or orange?" they asked sarcastically as the man, embarrassed, yanked it off over his head.
Suddenly, it was time to move.
Tacohuayo swiftly led the first group of six through a makeshift door cut out of the American fence.
The pudgy Chumi brought up the rear. The immigrants scurried across the desert on their knees to a rancher's chain-link fence, which they'll slide under.
"Andale," or come on, Chumi yelled before passing through the fence, encouraging the reporter to see this smuggling run through to its end on the Arizona side.
The offer was declined.
A Border Patrol van appeared to watch much of the attempt from a few hundred feet away. Later that evening, during a tour of the Border Control station, it was clear the cameras probably did see it all.
So how did it happen? The smugglers insisted Border Patrol agents are paid to look the other way.
Nonsense, said Manuel Coppola, publisher of Nogales International, the Arizona border city's twice-weekly newspaper.
Coppola's May 19 editorial blasted Bush's plan to send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the border, calling it "lame." Like many on the border, Coppola said that far more boots on the ground are needed and that the Border Patrol is forced to leave smaller groups alone while it concentrates on larger numbers of crossers.
"Do we stop everything? No," senior agent Jim Hawkins, a Nogales Border Patrol spokesman, said when asked about the daylight crossings.
He cautioned that crossing the border doesn't mean victory for the immigrants. The Border Patrol routinely finds the safe houses and focuses heavily on the roads leading out of Nogales.
Earlier this month, agents stopped an unmarked box truck, similar to a UPS delivery truck, and found 91 illegal immigrants stuffed on top of each other inside.
"I don't think people understand the sheer scope of this issue," Hawkins said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BORDER
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060525 IMMIGRATION
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