ALTAR, MEXICO — On a cloudless afternoon in northern Sonora, migrants and drug runners lounge in equal numbers under scattered mesquite trees, playing cards or sipping water. The sun climbs high and the temperature rises well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In such heat, nothing, human or otherwise, moves more than required.
Known as La Sierrita, this otherwise unremarkable patch of Mexican desert is a final stop for those looking to enter the U.S. illegally. The Arizona border is only a 40-minute walk north. As soon as the sun sets, everyone here will be gone.
It is not difficult to distinguish between those trying to smuggle themselves and the burreros looking to haul marijuana or cocaine. The former wear ill-fitting pants and keep their eyes cast toward the ground. The latter dress head to toe in black, a curious fashion choice for a trip through the desert. Some wear ski masks.
Angel de Jesus Pereda, the local coordinator for the governmental immigration agency Grupo Beta, approaches one of the burreros. With a weary sigh, he asks the man to stand up, lift his shirt, and turn around. The man complies; Pereda finds no weapons. He tells the young man to be careful in the desert. The man spits and turns back to his card game.
"My specific mission is to look for and protect migrants, to try and convince them to turn back," Pereda said. "There isn't anything I can do about guys like that. They might just be moving drugs, but they might also be planning to assault the others."
It was not always like this; migrants and drugs once occupied separate worlds. But tougher border enforcement has pushed the groups into the same obscure parts of the desert. The close company adds a new element of danger to migrants' already perilous journey, and may be responsible for a drop in immigration and economic decline in towns that depend on the migrants.
"The burreros sit there together with the migrants during the day and then attack and rob them after they move on at night," said Pereda, sliding into his government-issued pickup truck. "That's one reason why they have the masks."
Before arriving at La Sierrita, a migrant looking to cross this section of the border must pass through Altar, also in Sonora state. Once a sleepy agricultural outpost, Altar has reorganized its economy around human smuggling. Rows of stores sell backpacks, canned goods and electrolyte-infused soft drinks, while headhunters slip up behind the shoppers, whispering that they can arrange for a competent guide and a safe journey into the U.S.
During busy years, as many as half a million migrants pass through this town of 10,000, according to Grupo Beta. But fewer are coming through, and Altar is hurting.
Arrests in the Tucson border area were down by nearly a third between October and April, according to U.S. border officials. The Mexican government reports a 25% dip in its emigration rate. The recession is largely to blame, but analysts in the U.S. say the lack of jobs offers an incomplete explanation for why immigration in the region is apparently dropping. Mexico's drug cartels have become a more formidable presence here, taxing the coyotes and threatening their human cargo as they make their way to the border.
As drug smuggling groups find their profits pinched by tighter border enforcement, they have moved into human smuggling, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. And with good reason: The average migrant pays about $1,300 to $1,800 to be smuggled past the bolstered Border Patrol as well as fences, surveillance towers and other new security measures. What once was a wildcat operation with marginal profits has become big business.
"It's always been a cat-and-mouse game with the narcos," said Danny Rodriguez, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector. "As we seize more firearms and narcotics, they rethink their business. They are improving their operations while we improve ours."
The residents of Altar worry about the local economy, and talk of little else. The town's entrepreneurs are convinced that the cartels have scared off much of their client base.
A flophouse, one of dozens scattered throughout the town, sat empty, three blocks off the central plaza. Its four tiny rooms resemble prison cells: concrete walls and tightly arranged bunk beds. Guests pay about $3 a night for a plank of plywood and a tattered blanket. A pit-bull puppy is leashed next to the open-air shower.
"When we're full, we'll have 100 migrants staying here at a time," said the manager, who, like many businesspeople here, asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "This year, we haven't had more than 40 people in a single day."
Early on a recent workday, a man and his wife set up their pushcart in the central plaza, offering instant coffee and tamales to the migrants waiting to head to the border.