I was hobbling back from the store with a liter of milk, when I saw three young men sitting on the steps in front of a house in my Tijuana neighborhood. My friend Trini’s son lives in that house. He was supposed to be renting out part of it to one other guy, but something must have happened to change that. Another neighbor has a nephew crashing on his property. I have no problems with any of this, but when Trini’s son saw me, he came outside and filled me in.
César is the name of my neighbor’s nephew. He was the first to show up. César had spent the last couple of weeks in a hotel in downtown Tijuana after being deported from the United States. He is 19 years old, of medium height, and stockily built. His voice is average in volume, but he has an unmistakable laugh that over the next few days I would hear barreling up the block.
He was arrested in Oregon in November 2009 and deported to Tijuana in late July 2010. César has spent the last 12 years of his life in the United States. When he was seven, his parents immigrated from Guadalajara, and ever since he’s been immersed in American culture. He is by far the most Americanized of the three men. After their ordeal, César was the first one I interviewed. Within minutes of beginning our conversation, we slipped into the English/Spanish mix common among Chicanos.
César’s English is very good, much better than my Spanish, but what I noticed more was his attitude. He has an American mentality, that “nobody better fk with me” posture, as opposed to the Mexican attitude, which is more akin to “I’ve been screwed over so much in my life I can deal with it.” That American attitude would cost him during the trio’s two-day nightmare.
The other two young men are Lazaro and Alfredo. Both are from Vera Cruz on Mexico’s east coast. Both lived and worked in Washington State before being arrested and deported, after which they met César.
Lazaro is 27, tall and lanky, with a medium complexion. He’s worked in construction and is the father of two children, one aged three, the other ten months, and he’d been living in the U.S. for five years when he was arrested and deported.
Alfredo is shorter than his fellow veracruzano, and a bit thicker. He is 20 years old, and before his arrest worked cleaning apartments. At the time, he’d been living and working in the U.S. for about two-and-a-half years.
The three young men told me that life in downtown Tijuana for a recently deported immigrant is pure hell. “The cops mess with us, the thieves mess with us, everybody messes with us down there,” one said. Another chimed in, “We’re afraid to go to the store, so we stay inside, and if we want something from the store we have to pay somebody at the hotel to go for us!” The first said, “And they charge a lot!”
“How long have you been downtown?” I asked.
“A couple of weeks.”
These guys had just been deported but were still hanging around Tijuana instead of going back to Vera Cruz or Guadalajara.
Later, when I interviewed them at length, I saw that their ties to the United States are so great they would risk death to be reunited with the ones they love, the ones they’ve left behind there. At that moment, though, I just thought they were crazy.
They were planning to go back to the U.S. I didn’t think this was a prudent decision. César had crossed the border 12 years ago, Lazaro 5 years ago, and Alfredo almost 3 years back. The border has changed a lot since then. It is much more dangerous. I advised them to return to their native states and maybe lie low for a while. The trio smiled politely. They asked if they could rent some space for a couple of days. I told them it wasn’t my house, and therefore it wasn’t my call, but I had no problem with them staying there.
On Wednesday morning, August 18, 2010, the three left to rendezvous with a guide at a prearranged location. The four men were driven north on Highway 2000 before being dropped off at a spot approximately ten minutes away from the Tijuana-Tecate toll booth. This area is easy to locate on the Reader neighborhood map: just follow the 2000 north. You’ll see that it’s some pretty rough country.
The three undocumented immigrants and their guide began hiking up into the mountains. After less than an hour of climbing, they could see the border fence in the distance. Every one of them breathed a sigh of relief. If they could just get over that fence, the most dangerous part would be over. Each man relaxed and dropped his guard. That’s when four heavily armed men surrounded them.
The four gunmen had their faces covered throughout the kidnapping. “When they would drink water, one would cover us with a gun while the other turned his back, lifted his mask, and drank,” one of the immigrants later told me. The three would-be crossers and their guide were moved behind some nearby rocks, where they could be searched for money and valuables without being detected. One of the robbers took a liking to Lazaro’s almost-new Nikes. Within moments, Lazaro was wearing a ratty-looking pair of veracruzano knockoffs.
Two of the gunmen appeared to be in their mid-20s, while the other two were in the 30–40 range. One from each age group spoke with a Chilango (resident of federal district–Mexico City) accent. As they were searching the men for valuables, a gunman joked that they were “seeking donations for a house” he was building.
After being robbed, the captives were led up a mountainside to a large rock formation that formed a sort of cave. Inside were almost two dozen other victims. All were men who’d been captured in the last day or so, within the immediate area. When César, Lazaro, Alfredo, and their guide were added to the prisoners, it came out to 18 pollos (undocumented immigrants) and five coyotes (guides). That was when the kidnappers separated them one at a time from the rest. Each victim was given a cell phone and told to start calling or they’d die.