A Smuggler's Life
By S.D. Liddick | Photographs by Sergio M. Fernández
(page 1 of 3)BIG BROTHER—an introverted expatriate living in Mexico—had become accustomed to blue skies and brown hills, the perspective-shaping vistas of Baja California. Most mornings the small town of Rosarito filled with the smell of deep-frying corn flour, the racket of barking dogs and the staccato reverberations of untamed truck engines. By fall 2001, Big Brother—he refuses to give his real name—had notched more than five years in the sleepy beach town a dozen miles south of Tijuana.
Despite leaving the United States under legal duress, he’d landed on his feet with a new gig at the Alamo trailer park, two blocks from the ocean. At 55, after a long list of careers—everything from military duty to body shop ownership—he was inescapably wrapped up in exports. He was the recruiter for one of the scores of successful smuggling operations that carried undocumented immigrants through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Finishing the morning’s shave on September 11, Big Brother stared into his own green eyes. His saltand- pepper hair was going a bit saltier; the crooked half-Italian grin was the same as ever. Pulling on jeans and cowboy boots and cinching his oversized belt buckle, he plopped his sturdy 5-foot-10 frame down on the couch in his small trailer. Two vans of coyotes (human traffickers) had gone out that morning to pick up loaded cars waiting in Tijuana, promising a lucrative afternoon.
It was a quarter past 6 when he flicked on the television. Like almost everybody else in the world, he was stunned. He stared in disbelief, realizing the fall of New York’s twin towers wasn’t part of a movie. Big Brother had nine coyotes at the border, waiting their turn in line. With one unbelieving eye on the news, he began punching cell phone numbers.
“Drop your load,” he told coyote after coyote. “Pop the trunk, get out of your car, and walk away.” Nine trunks popped that morning, each carrying an average of five undocumented immigrants —$300 a head for the coyotes carrying them; $50 a head for Big Brother.
Fortunately for those immigrants—most of them poor, some shoeless—Big Brother’s operation was under the umbrella of a syndicate the coyotes called the Five Families, an enterprise that ran business operations behind the threat of violence. Though they operated on the principles of high risk and menace, the Families offered guaranteed passage to pollos (undocumented immigrants). If not successful the first time, a prospective border runner was guaranteed another ride the next day—and the next after that, until they were successfully delivered.
After aborting the day’s operation, Big Brother thought he’d seen the end of the game. By week’s end, however, word would come down from the Families: Double, even triple your loads . . . the border won’t shut down till January.
“We were surprised, to say least,” explains another smuggler called the Black Coyote, speaking in his peculiar English. “We thought for sure: There goes damned good-paying job. But Families [mafia bosses] come back with word that border stay wide open till January.”
Today, high crime in Baja California is anything but organized, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The Arellano Felix Organization (AFO), formerly the sole controller of the lucrative San Diego corridor, has been hurt by a concerted U.S./Mexico policing effort—and by blows from several other crime syndicates. At least three organizations are vying for control of the area in an all-out turf war; the body count runs at more than one a day in the new year.
But as the battle rages, much of the business goes on as usual. Drugs and undocumented immigrants cross the border every day as money flows south. Meanwhile, U.S. security forces and their invisible foes across the border play a highly complex, blackmarket game of cat-and-mouse—crime syndicates changing their tactics nearly as fast as the department of Customs and Border Protection can combat them.
“The smugglers are very sophisticated; they are on to us almost immediately,” says CBP director of field operations Adele Fasano. “Their communications equipment is often more sophisticated [than ours]. They often outgun us. It’s a dangerous business, and it’s a big challenge for the federal government.”
Ironically, it may have been Operation Gatekeeper, a rigorous U.S. effort in 1994 to reinforce the border, that pushed human trafficking (a multibillion-dollar international industry) into the scope of Mexican organized crime syndicates. As entering the United States became more difficult for undocumented immigrants, trafficking prices ballooned. Mafia structures, drawn by high profits—and unafraid of risk—began entering the market in the late 1990s as a surge in the U.S. economy created an unprecedented labor demand.
It’s not clear which mafia organization was responsible for the ring Big Brother worked for, which was part of its success. Top crime cartels of the new century heavily insulate themselves from exposure. As it turns out, the director of the outfit Big Brother worked for, a middleman named Armando, was little more than a subcontractor for a more complex structure.
Big Brother claims the ring was an offshoot of a Guadalajara crime family, but “Nancy,” another Armando employee, says the ring ran under the umbrella of the Tijuana Cartel (the AFO)— called the most violent cartel in Latin America. DEA special agent Misha Piastro says that though it’s been weakened in recent years through binational police pressure, the Tijuana Cartel is still alive and dangerous.
“The AFO controls a very desirable geographic part of Mexico,” Piastro says. “That’s Tijuana . . . the largest port of entry into the United States and the busiest probably in the world; that’s fantastic for smugglers. If they control that territory, they try to tax any other criminal organization operating [there]—drug smuggling, human smuggling, any criminal activity. By proxy, they’re involved in just about everything that’s going on.”