»The only thing the wall will give us is shade« – Meeting the Sinaloa Cartel at the US Mexican border

Donald Trump’s threat to build a wall between Mexico and the United States has increased the risks for migrants. Many are forced into the hands of the  Sinaloa Cartel – the world’s most powerful drug cartel – which uses migrants to smuggle drugs into the United States. Dagens Nyheter has visited one of the cartel’s headquarters, only a few hundred meters from the US border.

After several hours of driving at night through the Sonora desert, we arrive at a checkpoint with Mexican elite soldiers, who wear the same uniforms as the American soldiers did in the Iraqi war. They are standing in front of a sand-colored Hummer with machine guns on the roof. The soldiers, who hide their eyes behind dark glasses, ask us to wind down the windows.

– Where are you going?, asks one of the soldiers.

– We’re on our way to Santiago’s farmhouse, answers father Prisciliano Peraza,  who is driving us into the desert.

The soldiers look suspiciously at our faces in the backseat.

– What are you going to do there?

The Father, who wears his cowboy hat although the sun has set several hours ago, replies cockily.

– We will sleep there.

The soldiers back off and allow us to drive into one of the world’s most inhospitable deserts. It’s controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, until recently run by Joaquin »El Chapo« ‘Guzmán, the most powerful drug king in the world. Despite his arrest and extradition to the US, his cartel retains control of all the trafficking routes. I ask the Father how he dared to be so cocky with the armed elite soldiers.

– It’s theater. They pretend they are doing their job and I pretend that I respect them, says father Prisciliano.

He knows that the elite soldiers are bought by the cartel and the elite soldiers know that he knows.

The US is forcing Mexico to monitor the desert where the smuggling of migrants and drugs occurs and Mexico complies by sending its elite unit with the best equipment. But the fear of the cartel and the hunger for money is greater than professional pride. The soldiers are bribed into silence. The only thing that would get them to intervene, says Father Prisciliano, is if someone else began to use the desert for smuggling and did not to pay the military.

– Then they would start a war on them, he says.

It is almost midnight when we arrive at Santiago’s farmhouse, where migrants usually sleep on their journey towards the border to Arizona. It’s four degrees Celsius in the barracks and the sky is filled with stars. The border is only 30 kilometers away.

The Sonora Desert is the hottest in Mexico and extends well into California and Arizona. One of the few towns on the Mexican side of the barren region is Altar, with nearly 10 000 inhabitants. Altar has become the heart of the Mexican migration industry. Each night hundreds of migrants walk the desert to sneak into the United States. Around the white church in the Altar’s center, shops are selling equipment needed for the crossing. Here,  camouflage uniforms that make it easier for migrants to hide from American border patrols. There, the gloves, blankets, and caps needed for warmth in the chilly night. They also sell black water bottles that do not shine in the sunlight and black hiking boots for the three-day trek. For several years, the town has been under control of the Sinaloa Cartel. As such, vendors also unabashedly sell backpacks used to smuggle drugs. Even special slippers, with fuzzy soles that do not leave footprints in the sand, are sold openly.

– Border police can not track you if you use the slippers, says the vendor.

After Donald Trump became president, it has become increasingly difficult for migrants to enter the United States. This has meant that the migrants end up at the mercy of the Sinaloa Cartel because it controls the best routes. The problem is that the cartel has raised the price for migrants to pass, forcing many families to carry drugs as part of the payment. If they are caught, the migrants can be sentenced to long prison terms in the United States instead of being deported.

– The risks have become higher, says the vendor.

Behind the square is one of the pharmacies where migrants buy rehydration tablets and ointments to avoid blisters during the trek. The female migrants also buy morning-after pills. It is common that the smugglers, called polleros, rape the women during the night in the cold desert. For young women, it is more the rule than the exception that they are raped.

– Women are completely in the hands of traffickers. If they don’t accept to have sex the traffickers will abandon them alone in the desert, says the pharmacist Maria, who does not dare give her last name.

She also sells injections that give girls better pregnancy protection before they wander through the desert.

– No one wants to start their new life in the US impregnated by a pollero, says Maria.

When we’re in the pharmacy a guy steps through the door and asks what we are up to. I tell him that we come from a Swedish daily newspaper and are doing a story about how the conditions have changed for the migrants since Donald Trump became president. The guy does not seem to be particularly interested in politics. When he leaves the shop, without buying anything, the pharmacist says:

– The cartel sent him to let you know that you are under surveillance.

Sara Manriquez is head of the Casa de Migrante, the Catholic Church aid center for migrants in Altar. The center receives migrants who can not afford to stay at one of the hundreds of hostels in town. Families can stay for free and get three meals a day.

– We help as best as we can, says Sara Manriquez.

At the moment three members of the Obregón family from Nicaragua are staying in the Casa de Migrante. The 47-year-old father had to flee Managua after he had got a death threat from one of the gangs that control the capital. The gang said that he owed them money and would kill him if he didn’t pay. Walter Obregon had no chance to raise the money and fled with his nephew and the nephew’s 19-year-old girlfriend. They took the bus through Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and got smuggled across the river with Mexico on an inner tube from a tractor. In Mexico they ran out of money and began to sell food on the streets of Oaxaca. The girlfriend fried tortillas and he sold beer and canned soda. One evening when the trio packed up their stalls, the police came and asked where they came from. The trio said they were Mexican, but the police knew it was not true. As a message for other would-be migrants across the southern border, the policemen beat up Walter and stole the family’s money.

– Look, Walter says. The swelling has still not gone down.

Although nearly three weeks have passed, he still has a bruise on his left cheek. But Walter’s problem now is another. After the police stole their money, they hitched a freight train known as El Tren del Diablo (Devil’s Train). It gets 57 degrees on the roof when the train goes through the Sonoran Desert. Once the family arrived in Altar, they hoped to cross the border by themselves.

– But without a guide it’s not possible. All the guides work for the cartel and take scandalously high payments.

Before Trump was elected guides charged US$ 3,000 to take a small group of migrants through the desert. Now, they want US$ 6,000.

What’s worse for the Obregóns is that they can not even get out of Altar. The Sinaloa Cartel charges a tax of 6 000 Mexican pesos for any migrant who sets foot in Altar. If you don’t pay, you can’t leave. The cartel controls all bus operators and does not allow them to sell tickets to migrants who have not been given the green light to go. When the Obregóns explained that they have no money, the cartel said that one of them could smuggle a backpack with drugs into to the United States instead.

– My nephew said he could do it, but we said no. It’s easy to get caught if you do not know where to hide in the desert, says Walter Obregón.

It didn’t matter what they said. The following day his 37-year-old nephew agreed with the cartel, got the camouflage uniform and got transported to the headquarters in the desert.

– I told him we could solve it another way, but he didn’t listen, says his girlfriend Lilian Hernandez.

– How long has he been gone?, I ask.

– Three days. He should have been back by now.

Walter puts his arm around her.

– I just think he is late. Maybe there are many patrols guarding the border now. He will probably back soon.

Lilian Hernandez is not convinced. She believes her boyfriend was caught, or worse, disorientated in the desert.

– He promised to leave me a note on Facebook as soon as he had smuggled the drugs and was back at the cartel headquarters. But I see he has not even connected.

The dangers in the desert are not only the heat and the border patrol. The worst thing for the migrants is the desert fauna. At night there are crawling rattlesnakes, scorpions and spiders looking for body heat. Many of the deaths in the desert are due to snake or insect bites. On the wall in the Casa de Migrante is a sketch of the insects that are dangerous. It warns especially of the black millipede, which many believe is harmless, but has a poison that can kill.

– If you are healthy it will not be a hazard. But if you have walked for two days in the desert, are exhausted and dehydrated, the poison can kill you, whispers Sara Manriquez.

She does not want Lilian Hernandez from Nicaragua to hear it.

Lilian’s dream of a stable life in the US, where wages are fifteen times higher than in Nicaragua, has been replaced with doubts about whether she will get out of here alive.

– What if he was caught? Will the cartel let us go then? Or do we have to stay?

It’s seven o’clock in the morning when I wake up at Santiago’s farmhouse in the middle of the desert. Father Prisciliano is the first up and has put some wood in the fireplace. He warms beans from yesterday and puts some tortillas on the stove. When Prisciliano Peraza was a kid he moved freely across the border into the US. There was not even a fence. Some widely spaced sticks were the only thing that marked the border. At that time, the US welcomed Mexican migration. Guest workers picked oranges, grapes, built houses, watered the gardens and looked after the children. Today Donald Trump says that the Mexicans are criminals, rapists and killers.

Trump is aiming his criticism at Latino gangs that sell drugs to the middle class in US. The gangs are the final link of the chain for the Sinaloa Cartel, which almost has a monopoly on drug sales in the US. The cartel covers almost the whole of the US and had become the richest drug cartel in the world. It can afford to bribe or intimidate anyone it wants to silence. It’s naive to think that Donald Trump will solve those problems by building a seven-meter high wall.

– That wall will only kill the innocent, father Prisciliano says.

We begin our journey to the border, passing cactus, several meters high, along the way. Here and there I see the American desert hare jumping around and hungry vultures hanging in the sky. After a few kilometers we meet another Mexican elite unit in a Hummer. Just five minutes later, on the same dirt road, come four smiling men with black water bottles in their hands. They are dressed in the same camouflage uniform sold on the square and are wearing empty backpacks.

– They have left the drugs in the US and are happy coming back, says Father Prisciliano.

If the Mexican military had carried out their mission the smugglers would not be able to walk so openly.

– The soldiers are all bought, says the Father.

Just a few kilometers later we see another four guys in camouflage uniforms that are taking a break in the shade of some tall bushes. I ask Father Prisciliano to stop and greet them. They are so-called burreros, pack mules, who had left a backpack of 20 kilos marijuana each in the US overnight. The had marked the drop-off sites and sent the GPS coordinates to cartel members on the Arizona side.

– It was easy. No problem. We have done this before, says the eldest of the gang.

He will not give his name, but doesn’t mind answering my questions. If you work for the Sinaloa Cartel maybe you don’t have to be afraid. You have their protection. The smuggler says he usually get US$ 1,500 per 20 kg bag of marijuana or cocaine. I ask him how many drop-offs he needs to make to raise money to build a house in his home village.

– House?! I spend the money on fiestas, he says. His younger colleagues laugh.

– Aren’t the risks high?, I ask.

The smuggler gets serious.

– Well, it has become more difficult. The border patrols swarm on the other side.

The guys excuse themselves and stand up in the sand. They have two more days of hiking before they’re back home in Altar. We jump back into the Father’s pickup and continue towards the border. We can now see the mountains that rise in the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation in Arizona. The Father engages the four-wheel drive and the last few kilometers we go less than 10 kilometers per hour.

– Stop! Where are you going?

Another Mexican elite unit stops us on the dirt road.

– I’m the priest in Altar, and am showing the border to some journalists, says Father Prisciliano.

The soldiers take a look through our backpacks.

– Okay, drive on.

Fifteen minutes later, we arrive at two farms without cattle. A burnt-out jeep and some oil drums are rusting along the road. If it hadn’t been for some guys in camouflage smoking in the shade of a tree next to a trailer, I would had thought that the farms were abandoned. In fact, the farms are very active. We have arrived at the Sinaloa Cartel’s desert headquarters. Here, some 20 people coordinate the smuggling into the US.

The Father parks his pickup and introduces my photographer colleague and me. The cartel members gaze at us. The atmosphere gets tense. Journalists do not usually come this close to the cartel. Not until an elderly man shows up at the trailer does the atmosphere get better.

– Father Prisciliano! Good to see you. How are you, says the man, hugging him.

The older man opens a bag of Doritos and invites the team around. I dare to approach the trailer and ask one of the guys in camouflage how far it is to the border. The guy points.

– The border is there. A kilometer away.

I check my cell phone to see if I get a signal. Nothing.

– Put your phone here on the top of the water barrel, advises the guy. After a while you get a signal.

The ice is broken. We joke about the poor coverage that Mexican mobile operators offer. Suddenly he gets a signal and his mobile rings. In order not to move it from its position on the barrel, he hits the button for the speaker.

– Hola, he answers.

– Is that José, a man asks.

– Yes, it’s José, responds the guy.

The man at the other end has some migrants who want to cross the border tonight and would like to know how much it costs.

– US$ 5,000, says the guy.

The man is silent for a moment.

– Ok, I’ll let you know tonight.

The boss at the headquarters comes by in a dirty blue sweater. He is wearing a shoulder holster without a gun and carries a walkie talkie. I ask him what he thinks of Donald Trump’s plans to build a wall across the desert. He smiles.

– The only thing the wall will give us is shade, says the boss.

The guys in the camouflage break out in laughter.

– If Trump builds it seven meters high, we build our ladders one meter higher. If he digs the wall two meters down in the ground we will build tunnels even deeper. This wall is not going to stop anyone, he says.

I ask if it has become more difficult to cross since the US changed its president.

– There are more border patrols and they send heat-detecting drones over the desert. The chance to walk all the way to Phoenix on the first attempt is probably down to 20 percent. They will probably catch and deport you. The second time, you may have a 50 percent chance. The third time, you should get there, he says.

One of the other bosses with a black baseball cap, dark sunglasses and a clean t-shirt stares angrily at his colleague. He thinks his colleague talks too much. I feel it is time to leave, even though I would like to ask about Walter Obregón’s nephew. Is he around or did he get caught on the other side? I don’t dare to ask. Perhaps the cartel would think I’m an undercover agent and punish me by letting me walk back to Altar through the desert. Or something worse. Instead I go back to the Father’s pickup and we drive the last mile to the border. He stops below a chapel that is built on a hill. Here hangs a model of the Catholic patron saint Virgen de Guadalupe,  which many migrants worship. Around the chapel are hundreds of glass jars with burnt out candles lit by migrant families the night before their crossing.

– It’s so sad, says the Father. Many already live in the US and have gone back to visit a sick family member in Mexico. Now they want to get back home and can’t. Wife and children waiting for them in California. They are desperate.

Each month the American border police picks up around 50 corpses in the desert. The record is from 2009, when police found 232 dead migrants in one month.

Father Prisciliano strolls among cactus, left-behind clothes and tins that shows where migrants ate before they left. I examine the ground to make sure I am not be surprised by any rattlesnakes. When I look up I see a sharp line of shadow that stretches across the sand. I have arrived at the border between the United Mexican States and the United States of America. The border is made by rusty iron beams, filled with concrete. They are hammered into the ground at one meter intervals. Crosswise run beams that serve as springboards for those who want to jump over. Father Prisciliano puts his boots on the beam and points to the north.

– The nearest road is 70 kilometers away. Imagine walking there in this heat, he says.

Father Prisciliano shakes his head and makes the sign of the cross. He prays for the thousands of family members who have already died in the desert and thinks of those who in the future will suffocate to death in tunnels or fall off ladders when the wall is built. He looks steadily toward the horizon.

– What people need is a better life. Not more walls.




This reportage was published in Dagens Nyheter on the 2 of March, 2017. Many readers havet then contacted me to know what happened with the nephew. I’ve been in contact with the Casa de Migrante in Altar and they said that he got caught in the US. He went to prison for smuggling drugs, but managed to get deported after only a few month. He and Lilian are now trying to cross the border somewhere else.

Pollero means »the one who feeds the chickens«. The term is used for smugglers who are in charge of the migrants in the desert. The migrants are usually called pollos, chickens.

Translated by Paulo Prada


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