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Hathaway says that his friend’s family in Tijuana was moving at least 100 Mexicans across the border every month. “It was a family business, basically,” Hathaway says.

“They were pretty much like slaves until they’d pay off the money,” he adds. “And that’s how they talked about them. They’d say they owned these people if they couldn’t pay. And they’d keep them in these houses over here for months at a time if they couldn’t pay. Or the people over here would put up the money, but if they couldn’t pay right away, then they’d keep the people and make them work it off. It was $2000 to bring each one across.”

How They Get Across

“Since 1994, which is when Operation Gatekeeper began, it has become more difficult to cross the border,” says Rick Madueno. Madueno, 46, owns and operates Defense Investigative Agency. He interviews witnesses, evaluates crime scenes, develops theories, and coordinates with experts in the quest to discover what really happened when a crime has been committed.

“Back then,” Madueno says, “the fee was $300, which would be $100 for the guy who crosses you and then $200 for the guy that would drive you all the way to Los Angeles or other areas. Now the fee is anywhere from $1500 to $3500. And the fee depends on how you get crossed. You know, are you going to be walking through the pedestrian lanes at the port of entry with fake documents, or using stolen documents and you have a likeness to the person? Or are you going to climb the hills and run through the desert with a guide and then get picked up in a vehicle miles and miles inland? Or will you agree to be put into the trunk of a car to go through the port of entry?”

Madueno doesn’t use the term “coyote” to refer to people smugglers. “ ‘Coyote’ is a word that used to be used in the past,” Madueno says. “Now, pollero is the more popular word, because the illegals are called pollos, which is chickens. And a pollero is the one who carries or has pollos. And so, the lingo among the smugglers is, you know, ‘How many pollos do you have?’ It’s a trading game.”

Madueno’s worked on human-smuggling cases for over 13 years. “A lot of times they have recruiters in Mexico,” he says, “and they’ll be at a train station or a bus depot, and they’ll be asking you, ‘Do you want to go to the United States?’ And they gather all these people, the recruiters do, and then they go and sell them to the polleros, to the people who actually have an operation going to get them across. From there, you have your once-in-a-while kind-of pollero who does it only when he’s strapped for money, and then you have the organizations that have the whole network, from the recruiters to the guides to the drivers on this side of the border to the people who keep stash houses for piling up people so that when they have to go to L.A., they take as many as possible, to save on fuel and risk. Because you have checkpoints to go through. And they have spotters who drive up and down the checkpoint areas to see if they’re on or off, and then they relay that information to the drivers.”

“There’s a definite network, here as well as there,” defense attorney Don Levine explains. Levine, 55, has been doing federal alien-smuggling cases since 1985. Levine estimates that he’s defended at least 100 coyotes over the years. “The smugglers have operatives in, probably, I would guess, every major city in the United States. And they’re independent contractors, essentially. And they get a cut of the action for every illegal. You know, the drivers typically get $50 to $100 a head to drive them from point A to point B, and then another driver gets another amount to drive from point B to point C, and so on.”

Levine cocks his head as he talks, and it comes across as sincerity. Levine has graying hair, a graying beard and mustache, and a round face. He rolls up the sleeves of his red oxford shirt and carries a black leather bag full of files and papers.

“What happens is, you get all of these Mexican citizens that want to be brought across,” Levine goes on. “They don’t know how to do it. They come from the interior of Mexico, and they get to Tijuana or thereabouts, and they ask around, and that’s where your coyotes have runners and people that work for them to drum up business. So then the illegal alien is told, okay, so we’ll meet tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. at this park over here, or something. And they show up, and typically they’ll have a vehicle that’s been altered in some way.”

And how do they alter these vehicles?

“I remember one case where they actually did a type of bed on top of the engine,” Levine explains. “Basically just a steel plate on top of the engine. And they put a very tiny Hispanic lady in the engine compartment of a moving vehicle, if you can believe that. And I’ve seen a lot of cases where they stack people like cordwood in the back of a van. And many where they just shove as many as possible in the trunk. But the typical sort of thing is they build a compartment right next to or on top of the gas tank. And they run a rubber air hose from the compartment, and they will literally bolt the people in, so that it’s like a metal coffin. And some of these compartments are so tiny, if you were claustrophobic, you’d go nuts.”

Levine says the coyotes — polleros — often target minors to drive the altered vehicles because they know it’s difficult to prosecute minors in the United States.

“And then there’s also a lot of people that just make a run for it,” Levine says. “Over the fence, under the fence, around here, around there, and they don’t even pay a smuggler. But most of them, the way it works, they don’t pay any money up front. They agree to pay, and I think the going rate now is $3500. And the agreement is, there will be a series of transports to get them to wherever they’re going — Los Angeles, Michigan, Chicago. And they agree upon the amount, and if the family doesn’t come up with the money, I’ve actually seen smugglers go and kidnap the illegal alien and hold him for ransom. But that’s typically how it is, where the illegal alien doesn’t pay any money up front. Instead, they start working and making monthly payments.”

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Comments

Ponzi Oct. 8, 2008 @ 7:28 p.m.

All that work to try to get up here and do manual labor.

When we have high-tech companies import 100,000 people every year to take Americans jobs using H1-B Visas. If only those Mexicans had been born in India or China instead, they could just fly over in the comfort of a jet and take a nice cushy job from an American.

This is a nice side-show, but the real middle class jobs are being lost to the cheap H1-B labor we bring over here and the jobs we export and outsource.

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David Dodd Oct. 10, 2008 @ 10:34 a.m.

"But what happens is, when they work for, like, 24 months in a maquiladora, then they get fired because if they keep them longer than that, then they have to pay them benefits, and they don’t want to do that. So they let them go. It’s not like they have rights or anything."

This is, essentially, a very incorrect statement. Worker's rights are, unlike some laws in Mexico, enforced very fiercely when it comes to firings and lay-offs. And generally the maquiladoras constantly struggle against employee turnover, since the majority of their employees in assembly are under-educated and from farther down south and seek to return to where they came from every so often.

Mr. Levine obviously would love for everyone to believe that the polleros are simply filling this tremendous need for poor Mexicans to survive, but this is more the exception than the rule. Where twenty years ago crossing the border without documentation was very easy, and now it is almost impossible without help, the polleros are more often than not convincing poor and under-educated Mexicans that they can cross them and get them high-paying jobs (relative to Mexico) and that they can work off what they owe.

It is the greed of the pollero that perpetuates the illegal crossings more than the economic desperation of the pollos.

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a2zresource Oct. 12, 2008 @ 1:27 p.m.

"It is the greed of the pollero that perpetuates the illegal crossings more than the economic desperation of the pollos."

I'd believe that if the official minimum wage in the highest-paying urban areas like Mexico City were anywhere near $5 an hour.

Instead, it's more like $5 a day... and it's actually lower in the rural Mexican farming villages where most of the men crossing not at legal points of entry are coming from.

Compare that to the $80-a-day City-mandated wage here in San Diego on any job that involves a contract with the City... closer to $100 a day without health benefits (http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/metro/20050413-9999-7m13wage.html ... "Supporters, including labor unions and faith-based organizations, say the raise would help workers cope with the high cost of living in San Diego while benefiting businesses by reducing employee absenteeism and attrition. Passage of the law, said Bishop George McKinney of St. Stephen's Cathedral Church of God in Christ, would offer low-wage workers 'the bread of life that they may better support themselves and their families.' ")

I notice that since 2005, the standard asking wage in front of Home Depot for people without papers starts at $10 an hour.

I wonder: How many US citizens not already in jail or prison would be willing to work for $5 a day?

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David Dodd Oct. 13, 2008 @ 10:35 a.m.

"I wonder: How many US citizens not already in jail or prison would be willing to work for $5 a day?"

The answer, of course, is none. But you are comparing apples with oranges when you compare the economy of Mexico with that of the United States of America. The standard of living is obviously quite different here, and in fact, Tijuana's standards are also quite different than in rural villages in the southern parts of Mexico.

If minimum wage in the U.S. was, say, fifteen dollars per hour, then the cost of that upgrade would have to be reflected in price increases for everything - your average rent in San Diego would rise from $1,200.00 per month to perhaps $1,800.00 per month or more. Costs for food, clothing, and practically everything would have to rise because employers would have to pass that cost on in order to maintain an acceptable profit.

If the minimum wage in Mexico rises to your five dollars per hour, it would be a disaster. Most Mexicans do not purchase homes, they purchase land and then build their own homes, there usually isn't a large mortgage to pay off. Rent is very affordable here, although the standards aren't nearly what they are in the U.S. The Mexican government subsidizes several food staples so that even the poorest Mexican can afford to eat. Health care is also nationalized for the working class. The average high school dropout probably isn't going to get rich here working in the factories, but they manage to live on what they make.

Mexico wouldn't work if it ran like the U.S. does, any less than the U.S. would work if it ran like Mexico does. Yet, many Americans are very keen on insisting that Mexico should adopt economic strategies similar to those of the U.S. I would counter that the U.S. is just as much at fault for any problems with illegal immigration because the notion of an inflated minimum wage is counter-productive to a capitalist economy where the supply of labor against the demand for it should control wages.

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a2zresource Oct. 13, 2008 @ 12:17 p.m.

"The standard of living is obviously quite different here, and in fact, Tijuana's standards are also quite different than in rural villages in the southern parts of Mexico. ... If the minimum wage in Mexico rises to your five dollars per hour, it would be a disaster. ... I would counter that the U.S. is just as much at fault for any problems with illegal immigration because the notion of an inflated minimum wage is counter-productive to a capitalist economy where the supply of labor against the demand for it should control wages."

Well, there's our argument against globalization: it would be a disaster because if wages around the world were anywhere near ours, either our standards of living would have to fall due to rising competitive consumption around the globe or we would actually have to invest in real productivity to cover items not arriving on our shores, not derivative paper assets.

Of course, most international efforts like this weekend's are about saving existing financial arrangements, not about increasing real productivity in Amerca.

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