It's simply not possible to carry enough water to survive several days in the 100-plus degree desert heat. A Palm Beach Post reporter comes along as one group tries to beat the odds
By John Lantigua
Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Monday Dec. 8, 2003
SASABE, Mexico -- The nine migrants trudged across the border into the blazing Arizona desert just before sunset.
Eight men and one woman who wanted work in the U.S., they had traveled by bus some 1,500 miles from southern Mexico. But the next 50 miles they had to walk, and it would be, by far, the most difficult and dangerous leg of their journey.
It was late July. Temperatures reached 104 in the shade in Tucson, and several notches higher in the desert sun. Already in 2003, the Sonora Desert had claimed at least 99 victims who had dared the crossing, almost all of them dead from dehydration. According to Border Patrol agents, that many bodies had been found. They figured many more lay baking in thousands of square miles of wilderness.
The group, all but one from the same small town near the Guatemalan border, was led by a "coyote" -- a people-smuggler.
In one flash of lightning, they saw a small shrine apparently created for a person who had died there. They passed it without saying a word.
His name was Cesar, 45, and the migrants -- or "chickens," as they are labeled -- had tremendous confidence in him. He not only lived in the same village as they, but for 20 years he had crossed the border to find employment. And he once had been a noted Pentecostal preacher.
They had all sought him out, and for this one trip, Cesar also agreed to take along a Palm Beach Post reporter.
After hiking 75 minutes over hills from the fly-ridden town of Sasabe, and just before crossing the unmarked border, Cesar asked the group to kneel. They closed their eyes, and he prayed for 15 minutes, invoking Old Testament figures such as Isaac, Jacob, Ezekiel and, of course, Moses.
"My Lord, you have led your people through the desert before," intoned Cesar. "Please, do it for us. Help us find our daily bread. I know it will not be me who gets us there. It will be you."
Cesar beseeched God to protect them from the heat, from "the snouts of poisonous snakes," from bandits, from la migra -- immigration agents -- and also from rains approaching from the south.
The migrants then stood up and entered the United States, the first steps toward finding jobs to support themselves and their loved ones, jobs that do not exist in Mexico. Their ages were 17 to 28, and their stories were much alike. All their families had once depended on the cultivation of coffee and corn, but the prices in Mexico for those products had plummeted in the past decade. A couple of them had been earning �5 per day in pickup jobs back home, and the others made even less.
"There are people in our village who some days eat only tortilla and salt," said Emigdio, 23, whose dream was to become a legal U.S. resident and join the U.S. military.
Two of the men had young children, two had widowed mothers, others had lived with elderly parents or younger siblings who needed support. They also dreamed of making enough money to build small houses for themselves and some day starting their own families. They all had heard of the dangers of crossing but had decided to come anyway.
"Me, I'd rather die than go back," said Bestor, 24, the smallest of the migrants. He had more education than most, a high school diploma, and he wanted to be a physician but could not afford even to begin university.
They carried swollen backpacks filled with food and water -- each person lugging three or four gallon jugs, weighing 8 pounds apiece. Despite the heat, they wore long-sleeved shirts to protect against thorns and cactus. But the first danger they faced would be neither thirst nor thorns; it would be bandits.
Over the years, many would-be migrants had been ambushed by border bandits from Mexico who sneak across the U.S. line and lie in wait, knowing that most chickens carry some money.
Ten minutes after the group crossed the border, six young men suddenly leapt from behind boulders, all with bandannas concealing their lower faces and carrying pistols. Five of them stared down from above, but the nearest assailant was on the ground just 15 feet away, crouched and pointing a chrome-plated revolver, tilting it sideways. The American journalist happened to be the closest. Behind him the migrants froze in their tracks.
For several suspended moments, it appeared this desperate attempt to find new lives would end right there on a rocky hillside far from any dream. But the bandits didn't rob them. The man with the chromed pistol studied them with calculating eyes and finally said, "Move ahead."
Cesar, staring warily at the handgun, inched backward between the rocks. The others did exactly the same, in small shuffling steps along the curving trail, until they were out of sight of the assailants.
"Run," Cesar called out. For the next 10 minutes, the migrants ran as fast as they could, dodging behind clumps of chaparral and mesquite bushes, jumping into dry arroyos and scrambling up the other side. Finally, Cesar told them to stop and, out of breath, they looked back. The bandits were nowhere to be seen.
Later, they speculated that the thieves had seen the journalist among them and didn't want to risk assaulting an American, possibly drawing the attention of U.S. authorities.
Cesar offered his own explanation: "That shows you the power of God."
Then they set off again over the rocky terrain.
Enduring rain and bone-chilling wind
The first four hours of the trek, over low foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains, would prove the trickiest of the entire trip. The sun soon set, and rain clouds drifted over, blocking any starlight. The half moon was not due up until after midnight, and it grew very dark. The chances of stepping into a crevice and snapping an ankle were high.
But the nine chickens all had been raised in the countryside, and the silent line of humans, everyone within 3 feet of each other, moved slowly but steadily. Flashes of sheet lightning illuminated the way, although a moment after each flash, the migrants were thrown into even deeper darkness, the effect being much like that of a flashbulb.
About 10:30 p.m., they descended out of the foothills into a valley -- the Altar Valley -- and onto flatter terrain. But then it started to rain.
It began as a drizzle, and everyone agreed it felt refreshing after the grueling heat of the day. They continued to walk another half hour, but then it poured down harder, and a sudden wind whipped it at them. Cesar decided to take refuge in a ravine. He and Emigdio carried large plastic garbage bags, in which they tore head and arm holes, and wore them as rain gear. Nely, 18, the lone woman, carried a rain poncho, but everyone else was soon soaked to the bone.
After a half hour of downpour, the ravine ran with water, first a trickle, then a rush. The migrants scrambled out and stood silently in a tight circle in the open desert, trying to cut the chilling effects of the wind. Most of them started to shiver, given the drop of 30-plus degrees in a few hours, and some shook convulsively. Concerned with the blistering heat of the day, they were taken by surprise by the sudden cold of the night desert.
After midnight, the rain finally stopped. Cesar decided to build a fire in a drier, adjacent ravine in order to warm up and dry clothes.
"I don't want any of you people getting sick on me," he said. The wood around them was wet, and for kindling he used a box of Ramen noodles he had brought for food, employing both the cardboard container and the noodles themselves. He also had packed tequila in half-pint plastic bottles, and he passed one around to help heat up his charges.
The group huddled around the fire the next hour, and in that time the half moon came up. The clouds had dissipated, the night leveled off to a pleasant temperature and the walking was much easier.
They crossed a narrow dirt road, the kind the Border Patrol uses to search the desert. Soon, they spotted headlights, but they were miles away and no threat. The group crawled under the first barbed wire fence, entering private ranch land.
Cesar led them, stopping periodically to listen, as if he heard sounds no one else could hear.
"I use the mountain peaks to guide me, and I trust in God," he explained. He pointed in particular to Mt. Baboquivari, a domed peak that stood majestically above the surrounding mountains. If he left it to the west, he would be on the right route.
They walked until 5:30 a.m., when the sun came up, a gold fireball behind the buff-colored mountains to the east. Due to the rain delay, they were still traveling close to the Mexican line where many Border Patrol agents were assigned, and Cesar decided to hole up and avoid the daylight.
They found a clump of mesquite bushes that cast decent shade, and they ate breakfast -- mostly apples and sweet bread. They swept away stones and twigs and prepared spots to sleep. They also removed much of their clothing, still wet from the rain, and spread it to dry on surrounding thorn bushes.
They settled in, but suddenly the sound of an approaching helicopter roused them. Cesar, who refers to the copters as moscas, or flies, scrambled into a crouch and ordered everyone to quickly retrieve the drying clothes. He also told them to hide the many jugs of water that could be seen easily from overhead. The migrants scrambled under the bushes and tensely waited. But the helicopter never flew directly overhead, and the thwacking sound died away, leaving again the throbbing silence of the desert.
That first day, some slept a few hours, but others barely at all due to adrenaline and the suffocating heat. Late in the afternoon, they ate. Cesar passed around foot powder: Damp sneakers and socks soften feet and lead quickly to blisters. He also noticed a dripping backpack: A thorn had punctured a water jug, and he produced a kit for plugging plastic.
The migrants were impressed by his preparedness and also discussed how lucky they were to be with a coyote who was acquainted with their families. One advantage: Cesar was charging them only �800 apiece to reach Phoenix, when the going price was twice as much. That is also what he asked the reporter to pay to make the crossing with the group.
Also, many migrants who contracted coyotes near the border -- men they had never met before -- eventually had been abandoned in the desert. Some had lived to tell the tale; others had died. The nine traveling with Cesar had no such fears.
In conversation between fitful attempts at sleep, Cesar admitted he had once done time in a Mexican prison, although he wouldn't reveal for what. And while some consider him and other coyotes to be criminals, his clients emphatically disagreed.
Marco Antonio, 24, who was entering the U.S. to try to support his wife and young daughter, spoke for the rest: "Cesar has helped many families in our town. Many. Many."
Crossing ravines, dodging thorns
Cesar waited until sunset to move. Clouds rolled in, and again the first hours of night would be very dark. Nonetheless, he set an ambitious agenda, pointing at Baboquivari in the distance.
"In two hours, I want to be passing that mountain," he said.
Again, before setting off, they prayed. Cesar pleaded for protection from the elements and from the Border Patrol. He also thanked God for saving the group from the bandits.
They set out, but the going was slow. The nine couldn't see clearly, and most of them simply tried to walk where the person in front had just stepped.
One ravine after another cut across the landscape. The migrants were forced to jump or slide down the sides of the ravines and often had to pull each other up the far sides. The flat sections were studded with chaparral and stunted mesquite. Thorny branches inflicted scratches and small puncture wounds, especially in their arms and hands, and made them advance carefully.
Cesar also struggled to find the way. "The darkness makes it hard to find the trails," he said, "and the desert plays tricks on you."
They walked six hours before they finally found themselves abreast of Baboquivari. Cesar complained of being behind schedule and pushed on.
That night, the Border Patrol vehicles came closer. Several times Cesar suddenly told the group to hit the dirt and stay absolutely quiet as the lonely headlights appeared within a few hundred yards of them. Occasionally, Cesar fell back to the end of the line, and after everyone had crossed a dirt road, he dragged a tree branch across it to erase the footprints. He said some coyotes go even further.
"They have their chickens walk across the roads backwards so that it seems they are headed back toward the border."
As the sun rose, Cesar announced they would continue to walk into the morning.
"We have to make up the four hours we lost the first night because of the rain," he said.
Evading the approach of danger
By 7 a.m., the slanting desert sun burned so strongly it seared eyelids and cheekbones. The American journalist alone carried sun block. He passed it around, and it was soon depleted. The line of march spooked jack rabbits and lizards, which hopped and scrambled out of the way. A 6-foot black snake was encountered sunning itself on the trail. Although summer is rattlesnake season, the group never saw one.
The migrants grew thirsty in the morning heat, but Cesar found a remedy for that as well. They reached a nopal cactus plant bearing spiny pink fruit, and he instructed everyone in how to make a whisk broom out of desert grass to brush off the spines. Once they were clean, the fruits were broken open and revealed a crimson-colored pulp that was full of seeds but still refreshing.
Not once during the three and half days of walking did the migrants encounter another group. But they found plenty of artifacts, especially discarded plastic water bottles. At one point they saw a jeans shirt hanging on a thorn, with a piece of paper stuffed in the pocket: a man's honorable discharge from the Mexican army, obviously a document he meant to present in the U.S. to increase his employability, but which he had left in the discarded shirt.
They also saw something that scared them: a pair of sneakers.
"Maybe the person brought extra shoes," said Emigdio. But that was unlikely. It was probable that the sneakers caused blisters, were discarded and that the individual had been forced to walk through the spiny, scorpion-infested desert in bare feet. It was a harrowing prospect.
At 9 a.m., Cesar announced they would stop for the day and sleep. But it wasn't to be.
They were just settling in when, suddenly, they heard the sound of a vehicle nearby, a motorcycle or dune buggy. Cesar jumped up into a tense crouch. The group lay just off a wide ravine, and the vehicle seemed to be approaching right down the middle of it it. Cesar ordered everyone to gather their things quickly but not to run.
He later explained that when people run from the immigration agents, tragedy occurs. "They get separated from the others and lost, and then they are out here on their own and they die of thirst."
Scuttling bent over, he led the migrants into thicker brush. But the vehicle changed direction and seemed to head again right toward them. Cesar retreated farther, but the vehicle still closed in.
Finally, Cesar ordered them to follow him in a line, and he set off at a trot. They crossed back through strands of barbed wire they had recently passed and then dove under bushes.
"That was public land," Cesar said. "This is private land, ranch land, and he won't come in here."
He was right. The vehicle went away and stayed away, but another problem had developed. The spot they now inhabited provided much less shade than where they had originally stopped.
They struggled all day to outwit the moving sun, shifting from place to place in their clump of mesquite, but the best they could find was dappled shade. The temperature climbed so high -- well into triple digits -- that one migrant, Onofre, 24, started to bleed from the nose.
The climate was not the only problem. Fire ants swarmed, biting several in the group. Many later complained of not sleeping at all that day and of not being able to think in the buzzing heat.
To pass the time, they conversed in whispers. Many had never left home before, and they talked and joked about characters from their small hometown they had been dying to leave behind. The precarious desert had made them homesick already.
And anything to laugh. At one point, the journalist complained about the "hotel accommodations," and the migrants would make it a running joke of the trip, rating the bushes they slept under.
They spot the radio tower lights
Then Cesar shifted into high gear.
Before they set out at 6 p.m. he advised everyone to eat well "because we're behind and we're going to be walking many hours tonight." Again, they prayed for protection.
That night, the terrain and vegetation changed. They encountered fewer ravines but crossed more barbed wire fences between ranches. They squeezed through narrow trails bordered by cactus, the worst of which were the "jumping chollas." They are round balls covered with spines, and just touching one causes it to penetrate and stick to the skin. Trying to remove them by hand, the migrants found their fingers covered with the painful spurs. Again, Cesar had the solution:
"Use a comb and rake them off," he instructed, which the chickens did many times during the night.
In the early evening, large clouds caught up with them. The group stumbled on, many holding onto the shirttail or backpack of the person ahead.
Lightning flashed intermittently, creating startling and beautiful views of the valley. In the far distance to the east, they saw the lights of a building, the first they had spotted in more than 48 hours. Cesar said it was a ranch.
Then they were forced to stop. Nely was spiked in the thigh by a particularly large cactus spine, and she was in bad pain. Cesar recommended she go behind a bush for privacy and remove it. The extraction was difficult, but after 10 minutes, she returned and the march continued.
At about 10:30 p.m., they crested a rise and saw the red lights of a radio tower. Cesar told them it was located on Route 86 in the town of Three Points, near their destination and only four hours away. The group took heart; they now had a visible goal.
The clouds cleared, a sliver of moon came up, and they made good time. Cesar spotted the Kitt Peak astronomical observatory, atop a mountain to the west, another landmark. Cesar was trying to cross the highway before dawn and they walked much faster for the next two hours. When they finally lay down for a rest, some of the walkers were out of breath.
"Nobody can match me," Cesar laughed. "When it comes to walking, I am as good as a dog."
In the darkness, Cesar heard someone pour out water. His head snapped around angrily.
"What are you doing?" he called out. A voice answered that the rainwater collected from a trough along the way smelled bad.
"It's good, I tell you," Cesar insisted. "God has given us this water. We can't be throwing it away. We aren't there yet. That's how people die in the desert."
They set off again, following trails that headed, in general, toward the radio tower, but hour after hour it seemed to get no closer. It became clear that Cesar's estimate of four hours to reach Route 86 had been, at best, optimistic.
The migrants found more pieces of clothing as they neared Route 86. In one flash of lightning, they saw, just off the trail, a small shrine -- a bouquet of flowers -- apparently created for a person who had died there. Border Patrol agents say many people die within 5 miles of the road, having almost made it. They passed the shrine without comment.
As the eastern sky began to lighten, Cesar pushed them harder. But it soon became clear they would not reach Route 86 before dawn, and the trip would be extended by a day. Cesar was clearly irritated. They advanced another hour and a half, then he picked a spot to stop, although the shade was only partial. He told the nine they had to hide themselves well under bushes because more Border Patrol helicopters worked the area near the highway.
Again, they struggled to sleep in the blistering heat. By this time, they appeared much more ragged than when they had set out. They were soiled from sliding under barbed wire fences, and some clothes were ripped. They had lain perspiring for long hours at a time, and no one had bathed.
Thorns had scratched them all. Some cactus spines, which had passed right through clothes into their flesh, began to reemerge as the body rejected them. Bestor, the shortest, suffered leg cramps from trying to keep up. Elvis, the lone Guatemalan, displayed severe blisters on the pads of both feet.
Others were simply weary, sleep-deprived, including Cesar. The good thing: They hadn't run out of food or water.
Sneaking beneath the state highway
That day, they lay low until almost 9 p.m.
"Usually, the best time to cross the highway is between midnight and 1 a.m.," Cesar said. "The traffic has died then, and the Border Patrol shift is changing."
But given the advantage of cloud cover, Cesar chose to move earlier. They crept close to the two-lane state highway. Border Patrol trucks with infrared cameras and sensors are posted along it. Road signs label it a "high intensity enforcement area," but it is impossible to monitor every stretch of it all night.
Cesar advanced and, once at the edge of the road, summoned the others. They did not cross the blacktop but sneaked under it, through a round corrugated metal storm culvert about 4 feet high, moving bent over, one by one, and dashing about 100 yards into the brush on the other side. They made it without a word and without incident.
Cesar said they were close now, but warned that they had to remain extremely quiet. They saw lights from residences, mostly trailers, not far away, and sneaked past them without detection, except for the distant barking of some dogs.
Cesar had estimated that the pickup point was about three hours the other side of the highway, but again that proved optimistic. It took twice that because Cesar had gotten lost again.
"I'm too tired. I haven't slept enough," he said.
They finally reached the pickup point. Just after dawn, Cesar used a cellphone to call a "pickup man" in Phoenix, two hours away, and told him where they could be found.
The truck did not arrive as soon as expected. Near noon, they heard a vehicle approaching without being able to see it. Cesar scuttled toward the road, and then the others heard his whistle. They emerged from hiding and ran toward a white, double-cabin pickup truck. Five of them piled into the front and back cabins along with the male driver, and four dove into the bed of the truck, which was as hot as a skillet. They covered themselves with sheets.
Everyone stayed down and out of sight as they rumbled down back roads and finally caught Interstate 10 to Phoenix. The driver stuck to the speed limit to avoid attention, and the last leg of the trip went without a hitch.
Two hours later, they were ensconced in a safe house -- actually a run-down motel outside the city. They were excited.
"We made it, thank God," said Emigdio. "Now we'll see what he has in store for us."
The orginal article contained eight photos by Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post
- Fearful vigil: Mexicans hoping to cross the border into Arizona wait in the bushes near Naco, Mexico. One of the Mexicans said they were waiting for a guide to take them across, but they may have been bothered by the presence of journalists.
- Faith and broken faith: At the migrant center in Altar, Mexico, a cross is covered with the names of hundreds of migrants who died after crossing the border into the United States. Their ages, home states and causes of death are also displayed.
- Bandits find prey at the border. Where it all starts: Every day, desperate people are gathered at different points south of the border, preparing to risk it all for the chance to work in America. Shortly after sunset, these migrants have climbed out of a van on a road running along the Mexican side of the border near Naco.
- The group that crossed: After traversing the desert from Sasabe, Mexico, into Arizona this summer, the nine migrants rest in a safe house - actually a run-down motel outside Phoenix.
- Erected in the 1990s: As part of stepped-up enforcement, the U.S. government constructed metal fences in popular crossing areas of the Mexican border. That sent those seeking to enter the U.S. into the more remote and perilous, unfenced stretches of desert.
- Snakes, scorpions and tarantulas: A poster at the migrant center in Altar, Mexico, warns of the desert's more exotic dangers, none of which Cesar's group ever encountered. But they did get pierced by cactus spines. Cesar's solution: Use a comb to rake them off.
- Propelled by hope and prayer: Carrying jugs of water and laden with backpacks, migrants walk toward the U.S. border in the scrubby hills outside the border town of Sasabe, Mexico.
- On perpetual watch: A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle checks the American side. The fence is not the official boundary between the two nations, but rather is maintained by landowners to fence cattle. At far left is a manned portable tower used by the Border Patrol for surveillance at locations popular with undocumented immigrants.