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ENRIQUE'S JOURNEY / CHAPTER SIX

At Journey's End, a Dark River, Perhaps a New Life

Enrique's Journey

October 07, 2002|SONIA NAZARIO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 1 a.m., Enrique waits on the edge of the water.

"If you get caught, I don't know you," says the man called El Tirindaro. He is stern.

Enrique nods. So do two other immigrants, a Mexican brother and sister, waiting with him. They strip to their underwear.

Across the Rio Grande stands a 50-foot pole equipped with U.S. Border Patrol cameras. In daylight, Enrique has counted four sport utility vehicles near the pole, each with agents. Now, in the darkness, he cannot see any.

He leaves it up to El Tirindaro, a subspecies of smuggler known as a patero because he pushes people across the river on inner tubes by paddling soundlessly with his feet, like a pato, or duck. El Tirindaro has spent hours at this spot studying everything that moves on the other side.

Enrique, 17, tears up a small piece of paper and scatters it on the riverbank. It is his mother's phone number. He has memorized it. Now the agents cannot use it to locate and deport her. She left him behind in Honduras more than 11 years ago and entered the United States illegally to seek work. In all, Enrique has spent four months trying to find her.

El Tirindaro holds an inner tube. The Mexicans climb on. He paddles them to an island in midstream. He returns for Enrique with the tube.

He steadies it in the water.

Carefully, Enrique climbs aboard. The Rio Bravo, as it is called here, is swollen with rain. Two nights before, it had killed a youngster he knew. Enrique cannot swim, and he is afraid.

El Tirindaro places a plastic garbage bag on Enrique's lap. It contains dry clothing for the four of them. Then El Tirindaro paddles and starts to push. A swift current grabs the tube and sweeps it into the river. Wind whips off Enrique's cap. Drizzle coats his face. He dips in a hand. The water is cold.

All at once, he sees a flash of white--one of the SUVs, probably with a dog in back, inching along a trail above the river.

Silence. No bullhorn barks, "Turn back."

The inner tube lurches along. It is May 21, 2000. Agents will catch 108,973 migrants in this area alone during fiscal 2000. The tube sloshes and bounces. Enrique grips the valve stem. The sky is overcast, and the river is dark. In the distance, bits of lights dance on the surface.

At last, he sees the island, overgrown with willows and reeds. He seizes the limb of a willow. It tears off. With both hands, he lays hold of a larger branch, and the inner tube swings onto the silt and grass. They have crossed the southern channel. On the other side of the island flows the northern channel, even more frightening because it is closer to the United States.

El Tirindaro circles the island on foot and looks across the water. The white SUV reappears, less than 100 yards away. It is moving slowly along the dirt trail, high on the riverbank.

Its roof lights flash red and blue on the water, creating a psychedelic sheen. Agents turn to aim a spotlight straight at the island.

Enrique and the Mexicans dive to the ground face-first. If the agents spot them and lie in wait, it could spell doom for Enrique. He is closer to his mother than ever. Authorities could deport the Mexicans back across the river, but they could send him all the way to Honduras. It would mean starting out for the ninth time.

For half an hour, everyone lies stone-still.

Crickets sing, and water rushes around the rocks. Finally the agents seem to give up. El Tirindaro waits and watches. He makes certain, then returns.

Enrique whispers: Take the others first.

El Tirindaro loads the Mexicans onto the tube. Their weight sinks it almost out of sight. Slowly, they lumber across the water.

Minutes later, El Tirindaro returns. "Get over here," he says to Enrique. "Climb up." He has other instructions: Don't rustle the garbage bag holding the clothes. Don't step on twigs. Don't paddle; it makes noise.

El Tirindaro slips into the water behind the tube and kicks his legs beneath the surface. It takes only a minute or two. He and Enrique reach a spot where the river slows, and Enrique grabs another branch. They pull ashore and touch soft, slippery mud.

In his underwear, Enrique stands for the first time on U.S. soil.

*

NEARLY FROZEN

As El Tirindaro hides the inner tube, he spots the Border Patrol.

He and the three immigrants hurry along the edge of the Rio Grande to a tributary called Zacate Creek.

Get in, El Tirindaro says.

Enrique walks into the creek. It is cold. He bends his knees and lowers himself to his chin. His broken teeth chatter so hard they hurt; he cups a hand over his mouth, trying to stop them. For an hour and a half, they stand in Zacate Creek in silence. Effluent spills into the water from a three-foot-wide pipe close by. It is connected to a sewage treatment plant on the edge of Laredo, Texas. Enrique can smell it.

El Tirindaro walks ahead, scouting as he goes.

At his command, Enrique and the others climb out of the water. Enrique is numb. He falls to the ground, nearly frozen.

"Dress quickly," El Tirindaro says.

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