Madueno, who is of Mexican descent himself, spent six years in the Marine Corps as a military policeman. But he never saw anything there to compare with what he sees now working on human-smuggling cases.
“Many times, the illegals strike a deal with the polleros about getting crossed, and they’re not even told how they’re going to do it.” Madueno sounds incredulous. “I’m surprised, time and again, when I ask them what was the deal about how they were going to get across, and they don’t know. All they know is, they were going to be crossed.”
One Who Made It
Victor is from Guadalajara. He’s been in the United States since 1997. Back then, he walked across the border through East County.
“My cousin find a coyote for me,” Victor says, speaking good English but with a thick accent. Victor, who is 28 years old, stands about five feet six and has short dark hair and a youthful face. Today, he works as a busboy at a local restaurant.
“I think he find him here in San Diego,” Victor says. “And when I get to Tijuana, I call my cousin and talk to him, and he say somebody is going to go and pick up you and cross you the border.”
Victor met his coyote at a Tijuana hotel. “He didn’t even talk to me,” Victor says. “He was so serious. He was just, like, ‘Let’s go.’ And that’s it. He just wanted to cross me and get the money, and that’s it.”
Victor’s cousin paid $750 to have him crossed in 1997. “But it’s a lot more now,” Victor acknowledges. “Every time it’s more expensive, because it’s a lot more harder now.”
So what was the plan when Victor crossed? Did the coyote provide food and water?
“No, no,” he says. “It’s more organized now, you know. But back then they just encouraged us to have food and water.”
And how many people crossed with Victor?
“We started with 22 people and 1 coyote,” Victor says, “but we cross only 5.”
Seventeen couldn’t make it?
“Yeah,” he says. “They got caught by immigration.”
All at once?
“No, no,” he says. “We got chased a lot. The first time, they caught 5. The second time, like, 4. And it was like this, you know. They even caught the coyote. And I ran every time. I was lucky, you know. And then I had to wait for another coyote. And then, finally, another coyote came along, and I talked to him, and he said, ‘Sure, I cross you, and you give me $750.’ ”
How did Victor find another coyote?
“There’s paths out there,” he says. “But you have to know the way.”
And the paths go down cliffs and through rivers and over mountains?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Victor says. “Rivers, mountains, yeah. We walk for three days.”
And then what?
“Then we walk to a road, and a car pick us up and bring us to a house in San Diego,” says Victor.
And his cousin met him at the house and paid for him?
“Yeah,” he says. “That the way it work.”
One Who Got Caught
“I’ve got this gal. She’s just turned 24, but she looks 16,” Don Levine says, referring to one of his clients. “She’s got two little kids.
“So she worked at a couple of maquiladoras for so many years, at Mitsubishi and places like that. And they pay, like, nothing to assemble electronic parts or whatever. And so she’s working for, like, $50 a week, barely making ends meet and, in fact, working overtime to try to do that.
“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.
“So then she goes to work for another maquiladora, Sony, I think it is, and she works there for another 24 months, and then they fire her. And then she goes to the next one. And everybody does it this way.
“And by now, her bills are outdistancing her income, and one of her coworkers comes up to her and says, ‘Hey, you can make a quick thousand by bringing a couple of illegal aliens across.’ So, you know, she gives in to the temptation. And of course she gets busted.
“Her two kids are living with relatives in Mexicali now. And I’m hoping to get her time served because she’s just so pathetic.”
“Border Patrol and CBP do the reactive cases,” Johnny Martin says, leaning on a desk in his striped shirt. Martin, the group supervisor of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unit for the San Ysidro port of entry, is balding and has a graying mustache and friendly eyes. “They process what they catch,” he says. “They react to what’s happening. But what we do with ICE, we do the proactive stuff. We do investigations. We go after the organizations. Our goal is to take all the heads out of the organizations and to seize their assets.”
In 2007, Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized nearly $6 million in assets and forfeitures from human-smuggling organizations. In 2006, nearly $3 million was seized.
One way the agency conducts investigations is to notice a pattern and follow where it leads. In a recent case called Blackjack, all the drivers were from Delano, California, and all the cars were rigged the same way for smuggling, namely, people were stowed in the passenger-side dashboard, with their upper bodies in the dash and their legs under the floorboards.
The 100 or so arrests related to Blackjack led to over 30 prosecutions and the seizure of a house and multiple bank accounts.
Rob Rogers looks like an ex–football player, thickset, with a puffy face and a reddish goatee. Rogers is the group supervisor in between the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry.