Smugglers

“It was because of Mitch. They let me in because of Hurricane Mitch.” Wizard sprinkles a bump of shitty cocaine onto the tip of a gold key. It quickly disappears up his nostril. Wrists, arms, and trunk contort in a brief narcotic-induced form of cerebral palsy. “I fucking love coke, bro! Why the fuck would I ever go back to the United States? I make thousands of dollars a month in Mexico. I make more than I ever did selling drugs in the U.S. Nah, viejo, I ain’t never going back.”

He produces a tattered billfold fat with thousands of Mexican pesos. “I just sent money back to my family, bro. Look at these [Western Union] receipts. I got a kid in Honduras. I love him so much. I swear to God.” Wizard kisses an invisible rosary around his neck and points to the heavens.

One of his two cell phones chirps: an update on another job. His goddamn phones are always making noises. 

“I’m going back to Honduras after this to bring a mother with some kids up here. There’s a lot of money in that.” 

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Mexicali, Mexico, May 2016. Photo by Jason de León.

He’s not kidding. In the boom and bust world of human smuggling, Wizard is temporarily rolling in dough. I last saw him in Chiapas when he barely had enough money to buy beer and weed to keep his crew of enforcers and cadre of paying clients entertained as they ambled north. They subsisted on iguanas hunted with a slingshot and small periodic payments that the families of his charges wired to him. Tonight, however, there is cash to buy beer, coke, and an endless supply of mota (marijuana).

I ask about Tiny and Brayan, two teenage Hondurans whom Wizard was tasked with transporting the two thousand miles from Chiapas to the northern Mexican border. They weren’t alive when Hurricane Mitch touched down, but now they find themselves running away from the long-term economic aftermath of the storm and the hail of bullets shot by gangs that now control most of their country. “They got picked up by another coyote [smuggler] who will help them,” Wizard explains. Tiny later tells a different story: “My family wired Wizard $2500 to get me across. He said to wait for him in a park while he went to pick up the money. He never came back.” After weeks of camaraderie on the migrant trail, Wizard pulled the stereotypical fast one. The coyote–client relationship is ultimately about negative reciprocity, no matter how many adventures you share. Tiny and Brayan eventually crossed into Arizona with a pack of drug mules. They paid their passage by carrying dope for the American consumer market on their backs.

                                                                    * * *

Every time a migrant dies from heat or some other environmentally induced death blow along America’s southern boundary, a Border Patrol spokesperson steps up to a microphone and spews some public relations bullshit along the lines of: “The Sonoran Desert is extremely vast and remote with very few water sources. . . . It is important to realize illegal immigrants are being victimized and lied to by smugglers who lead them through treacherous terrain and expose them to extreme conditions.”

It’s as if smugglers like taking death-defying nature hikes. Few officials acknowledge that since the mid-1990s, the Border Patrol has relied on an enforcement strategy called “prevention through deterrence” that purposefully directs people away from urban zones toward remote, “hostile” sections of the U.S./Mexico border. The hope is that nature will physically punish unauthorized migrants, sometimes to the point of death. The government blames coyotes for the five million arrests of border crossers and the 3,196 bodies recovered in Arizona between 2000 and 2016. It’s also under this questionable logic that the U.S. spends millions of dollars each year fruitlessly trying to break up smuggling rings. Little attention is ever paid to the direct linkage between security infrastructure and migrant suffering. Blaming nature and smugglers shifts culpability for this crisis away from a federal government that doesn’t want to admit that mountains, hyperthermia, and Western diamondbacks are undocumented employees of the Border Patrol. This is by no means unique to Arizona. Global boundary enforcement in the Anthropocene is powered by the labor of many unrecognized actants.

A decade ago, there was little work in Mexico for entrepreneurs like Wizard. Central Americans could cheaply make their way across Mexico by hopping on la bestia, the freight-train version of the puzzle box from Hellraiser that annihilates many who latch onto it. Things changed in 2014, when Americans briefly paused to gawk at the thousands of unaccompanied minors who suddenly showed up on the shores of the Rio Grande. These were kids seeking refuge from the poverty and unfathomable levels of everyday violence that made Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador contenders for a new suburb in Dante’s Seventh Circle. However, within a few months, these scenes of human jetsam disappeared. With support from the United States, Mexico launched Plan Frontera Sur, a program aimed at controlling the undocumented migration of Central Americans entering their country. The unstated goal was to make Mexico an invisible wall defending America’s southern border. Ironically, this beefed-up security means that Mexico now deports more Central Americans than the United States. Changes in American border policies keep Honduran smugglers like Wizard swimming in Mexican pesos and Colombian perico (coke).

The people whose movements Wizard profits from are running from the lingering economic, social, and political damage of the same hurricane that set him adrift on the migrant trail in 1998. Environmental catastrophe pushed them from their homes, and the U.S. federal government will use the increasingly hot Sonoran Desert to stop them dead in their tracks. This seemingly guarantees steady work for the Wizards of the world. The smuggler is no longer the simple villain that he is often portrayed to be. The smuggler (and the cultural and human baggage he carries) is the direct and expected product of the political economy of sovereignty and the growing climatic nightmare that is the Anthropocene. Somewhere, a cell phone is buzzing.