Pubdate: Sun, 21 Aug 2005
Source: Arizona Republic (AZ)
Copyright: 2005 The Arizona Republic


ALTAR, Mexico -- The good and the evil come in equal measure here, roaring 
in on dusty buses to this gritty bend in the road in the middle of the 
Sonoran Desert.

The immigrants come here by the hundreds every day, buying supplies, 
renting rooms and hiring drivers in Altar, the main staging area for 
illegal treks across the Arizona border. They bring fistfuls of pesos to a 
town that likely would dry up and die without them.

And then there is the dark side.

The dirty flophouses on every street. The drug traffickers moving through 
the night. The sad and defeated men at the town's migrant shelter. And the 
knowledge that many of those who pass through Altar will die soon in the 

Last week, the governors of Arizona and Sonora pledged to crack down on 
illegal immigration and drug traffic, citing all the problems they bring to 
communities along the 389-mile border between the two states.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano pledged 13 law officers per shift to help 
officials in four border counties crack down on document fraud and vehicle 

Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours promised police checkpoints on smuggling routes 
and beefed up security in tourist areas.

But here in Altar, no one believes the new measures will have any effect. 
Mexican police cannot legally stop their countrymen from crossing the border.

In the end, the line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, often is 
hard to see through the dust of all the shuttle buses heading north.

For many in the United States, places like Altar symbolize all that is 
sinful and wrong about the border. For many Mexicans, they are the doors to 
the American Dream.

The Gatekeepers

Armando Figueroa takes these new arrivals to the edge of Mexico.

He drives one of the stretched vans that carry immigrants and their guides, 
known as "coyotes," or polleros, from Altar to the wire fence that marks 
the U.S. border near the town of Sasabe. The trip is 60 miles down an 
axle-cracking dirt road. The fare is $10.

Like many people in Altar, Figueroa comes from an old farming family.

"This town used to depend completely on cattle, and on planting and 
harvesting," Figueroa said. "Now it lives off the migrants."

He sipped an orange drink in Altar's main plaza, which is surrounded by 
stalls selling everything a border crosser needs: backpacks, first-aid 
kits, wide-brimmed hats, foot powder and glue for fixing repairing shoes.

Down the street, the PH Super Tienda does a brisk business selling syrupy, 
fruit-flavored rehydration formula at $1.80 a pint. During peak months, the 
store sells 500 to 600 bottles a day.

There are telephone centers, where immigrants call their families back home 
for 40 cents a minute. There are tire shops and mechanics, who mend the 
battered vehicles that shuttle people into the wilderness.

All over town, there are dingy flophouses where $3 will get you a blanket 
and a wooden bunk or half of a dirty mattress laid on the floor.

And then there are the immigrant smugglers themselves, who charge $1,500 to 
$2,500 per person for their services.

"You have to recognize that 70 percent of the economy comes from . . . 
people who are crossing into the United States," police Commissioner 
Santiago Gongora Romero said.

In the summer, 100 to 200 immigrants pass through Altar every day, he said. 
In cooler months, estimates range from 600 to 1,500, he said.

Altar wasn't always like this.

Before the 1990s, it was just a sleepy stop on Highway 2. Immigrants 
preferred to cross in Texas or California, where the cities were closer and 
the climate less harsh.

But in the 1990s, the U.S. government began bolstering security in Texas, 
California and Nogales in three measures called Operation Hold the Line, 
Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Safeguard. It was the start of a 
multibillion-dollar fortification that continues.

As walls began going up in bigger border cities, the immigrant traffic 
began moving toward the desert. Altar's population rose from 6,458 in 1990 
to nearly 15,000 today.

The Turning Point

In the dining hall of the Community Center for Migrants and the Needy, 
where destitute travelers bow their heads over meals of beans and sliced 
hot dogs, three pieces of tape mark Hold the Line, Gatekeeper and Safeguard 
on a map of Mexico.

They were landmarks in history, said Francisco Garcia Aten, the center's 
human rights coordinator.

"When those operations started . . . the entire business of migration 
reorganized," Garcia said.

Instead of simply swimming across the Rio Grande or walking into San Diego, 
immigrants needed smugglers to guide them through the desert. The smugglers 
are professional criminals. Dangerous people.

"The migration is not a problem, it's the people who control the 
migration," Garcia said. "The (smuggling) has brought drugs and an 
apprentice system for gangs. And Altar, which never had prostitution, now 
has it."

There have been a number of spectacular crimes, like one several weeks ago 
when kidnappers took 30 immigrants captive near the border. The kidnappers 
fought an hourlong gunbattle with police from nearby Sasabe before slipping 
away in the night.

"The migrants who pass through Altar are working people, peaceful people," 
said Gongora, the police commissioner. "But they're being exposed to all 
kinds of dangers: robberies, kidnappings, cons. And that has undoubtedly 
increased as the flow of immigrants increases."

No Stopping

At the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, Ernesto Romero and Jorge Espinoza of 
the city of Los Mochis knelt and said a final prayer before heading into 
the wilderness.

They were nervous about the heat, bandits and the U.S. Border Patrol. But 
Mexican authorities were the least of their worries, they said, despite 
Bours' promise of a crackdown.

"They won't stop anybody," Romero said.

In Altar, everyone knows that the right of free travel is guaranteed in the 
Mexican Constitution. Mexican authorities simply don't have the power to 
stop their citizens from crossing the border.

Even if they did, the immigrants would get around them somehow, said 
Guadalupe Ruiz, a vendor of bandannas and backpacks.

"The people who come here are determined," she said. "They will keep coming."


Like an unyielding river, the flow of people through the town has even 
changed the landscape. In the desert where the municipality of Altar 
touches the border, 15 miles west of the town of Sasabe, the non-stop 
traffic has carved a web of trails through the wilderness.

Clearings are littered with plastic bags and empty bottles of rehydration 

"You get a lot of garbage, people getting rid of anything they don't need," 
said Arturo Sanders of Mexico's Grupo Beta immigrant protection service.

He stood at an open gate along a flimsy wire fence. Beyond the gate, the 
United States beckoned. Sells, Ariz., is 30 miles to the north.

Four years ago, Grupo Beta put up a tower with a flashing light to guide 
immigrants to a tank of drinking water at the gate. But somebody - probably 
drug smugglers - shot up the tower so badly that the government took it 
down two years later, Sanders said.

Because of the threat of armed men in the darkness, Grupo Beta agents don't 
patrol at night.

As he spoke, a Blackhawk helicopter with "POLICE" on the side clattered 
over from the U.S. side. It circled the open gate three times, cutting into 
Mexican airspace each time.

Sanders watched the trespasser and shrugged. The line gets crossed all the 
time, he said. "That's just how it is."
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