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.
The house lower center is where the trio showered; they slept in another house a half block away.
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.
On the east side of Highway 2000, the Altiplano neighborhood is where undocumented immigrants are held prior to crossing the border.
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, Lazaro, and Alfredo took a bus from downtown Tijuana heading east on Highway 2000, looking to find a coyote to take them across the border.
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.
The ransom was set at around $2000 a life but varied. It amounted to more or less what that person would pay to cross the border. The trio told me that some families paid as little as $1000, while others paid up to $3000 for the release of their loved ones. As each victim made the ransom-demand call, the kidnappers slapped and punched them, while threatening worse. They wanted the victims’ families to hear the terror their loved ones were experiencing.
When it became César’s turn to call, the kidnappers slugged him across his broad shoulders, but César would only grunt and tell his mother that everything was okay. This infuriated the gunmen who began to strike him harder. They wanted him to plead, but he refused. Eventually, he was beaten so badly across his back he complied with their demands.
When I asked César about that part of his ordeal, he never mentioned the beating. The look on his face never changed. Later, Lazaro said, “You should have asked to see his back.” Alfredo nodded in agreement. “Purple and black.”
“Did they beat you too?” I asked.
Lazaro and Alfredo laughed. “Not after what we saw them do to César. All they had to do was raise their hands, and we started squawking like chickens.”
By Thursday evening, the ransoms of 14 out of the 18 crossers being held hostage had been paid into a bank account. On that night, the kidnappers told them all that they would be set free. Even the four who couldn’t make ransom would be released. The captives believed that they would be freed that night. Then the leader’s cell phone rang.
Whoever was on the other end of the call ordered the gunmen not to move anybody that night. This was because a large shipment of drugs was going to go through that sector, and they didn’t want anybody drawing attention to the area. César, Lazaro, Alfredo, and the other hostages had to spend another night in captivity.
In the morning, the 18 men were herded down from their makeshift prison and told to march toward the border. None of the three wanted to continue the journey northward. As they later told me, “We were broke. They’d even stolen most of our food. All the good stuff. We just wanted to return to Tijuana and figure out what to do next.” But the gunmen would not let them return. They told the prisoners to head toward the border and not to “come back that way for nothing.” No doubt they didn’t want them interfering with the next batch of victims. To show they meant business, they fired several rounds over the heads of the fleeing men.
The entire group of 18 were tracked by Homeland Security agents as they crossed. Fifteen were apprehended as they entered the US. Only César, Lazaro, and Alfredo managed to elude the agents.
“The agents began pressuring the others to tell them where we were hiding. We could hear him yelling. He was telling them that they knew how many were in the group.”
“Where are the other three?”
The agents told the tired and hungry crossers that they weren’t going anywhere until the rest were found. Someone eventually told the agents where the three lay hidden, and they were caught.
I wanted to ask, “Why were you hiding from the migra if you hadn’t wanted to cross at all?” But I already knew the answer. You have to think like a crosser. They’d already been deported once — twice in Lazaro’s case. If they were caught again, they’d be in trouble. Once on the U.S. side, they had no choice but to try and avoid detection.
I asked if there was any physical coercion of the detainees, and all three men said no. Not once did they see a border agent strike anyone. But there was extensive verbal abuse. César speaks perfect English and understood every word. He translated for the others, so they all knew what the agents had been saying: “All of you m----rf-----s suck, ’cause you got caught!”
On Saturday, the former hostages filled out a report with Homeland Security. Lazaro later told me that one of the agents said a total of $30,000 had been extorted from the families of the 14 who’d paid. The kidnappers had grabbed their victims on Wednesday, and by Thursday evening the money was in an account. Only the drug shipment had prevented them from dumping their quarry and gathering up another group. What should have taken two days wound up taking three. That still came out to $10,000 a day, $70,000 a week — if you don’t take a day off.
A recent article in one of Tijuana’s dailies stated that “40 percent of the undocumented immigrants being deported from the United States are dumped at the Tijuana port of entry.” I normally pass through there several times a week and always see lines of deportees.
I asked Lazaro and Alfredo about their treatment by the private security firm known as Wackenhut, which houses and transports deportees to the border — “the men in gray,” as they referred to them. “Those guys are way worse than the guys in green,” meaning the federal agents. “They hit you and always yell at you.”
By that Sunday, all three were back on my block and recovering from their ordeal. When I found out what happened, I asked if I could interview them and write an article about their trek. They agreed. And then I told them that I would protect their identities.
César asked to be interviewed first because he’d already bought a bus ticket south. His family in the U.S. had convinced him not to try the journey again until a safer way could be secured. They’d wired him money and informed relatives in Guadalajara that their son was on his way. César was the youngest of the three crossers, and it was obvious that his mother had been worried sick about him.
Lazaro and Alfredo had still not confirmed their plans, but they were talking about returning to Vera Cruz. They went so far as to give me the few cans of tuna they had left because they said they wouldn’t need them in coastal Vera Cruz. Lazaro went out and purchased a pair of white tennis shoes (a cheap Chinese import) that were far too bright and attention-grabbing to be crossing the border in.
I spoke alone with César, and later that day with Lazaro and Alfredo. When I asked César what he’d been arrested for up in Washington, he said that he was a “19-year-old with a 16-year-old girlfriend.” I told him about how, in 1980, when I was 18 and living in Los Angeles, I’d had a 17-year-old girlfriend. One night we were in my van, parked alongside a local park, a well-known makeout spot. It was about 3:00 in the morning when a patrol car pulled up behind us. The officer told me I was breaking the law with a minor, but since there was no booze or dope involved, and maybe because we were less than a year apart in age, he let me go. When I told César this, he grinned. “But you didn’t get deported.”
Lazaro sat down next for his interview and was shortly joined by Alfredo. I asked Lazaro what he’d been arrested for, and he said, “Fighting with a gringo. He started it. Then he called the cops on me. Who called the migra.” I told him about how when I was his age, I got into a fight with a guy who called the cops on me, and I went to jail. Lazaro smiled and said, “But you didn’t get deported.”
When I asked Alfredo the same question, he said that on June 20, 2009, he’d been arrested for public intoxication. When I told him that I’d been busted several times for public drunkenness during my wayward youth, he smiled and replied, “But you have your papers.” Translation: but you didn’t get deported.
After Alfredo said he’d been arrested in June of 2009, I checked my notes. Lazaro had been picked up March 21, 2009 and César in November that same year. They’d spent a lot of time behind bars. That they would even contemplate trying to return to the U.S. and face possible reincarceration (or worse) was mind-boggling. But they did try, and they failed, and now they were back to square one. At least, Lazaro and Alfredo were. César was already on his way to Guadalajara.
Later that day, Lazaro approached me as I sat talking with Trini. In his hands he held the white tennis shoes he’d just purchased. “Would you like to buy my new tennis shoes?” Lazaro asked me. “I think we wear the same size.” His wanting to sell his brand-new tennis shoes meant that the two young men had decided to try again to cross into the U.S. I looked into Lazaro’s face, but he dropped his gaze and wouldn’t make eye contact. Deep down, I wasn’t surprised.
When I’d first interviewed the three after their kidnapping and release, I was struck by the similar emotions, or lack thereof, shown by the trio. The best way to describe their demeanor is “shell shocked.” They had a faraway look in their eyes as they related their experiences. Growing up on the tough streets of East Los Angeles, I’d seen that look before. It’s the face of a crime victim trying to digest everything that has just taken place.
Only Lazaro showed any real feeling during the interviews. It was when I asked about his family in the U.S. When he started describing his children and their mother, his eyes brimmed with tears. He turned his head away from me several times and wiped at his eyes. Of the three men, he was the one I thought would try and return immediately. César and Alfredo are 19 and 20, and while they have girlfriends in the U.S., they could bide their time. Lazaro, a father of two at age 27, wouldn’t allow himself to do that.
The next morning, Lazaro and Alfredo were gone. They said they were going east to the city of Monterey in the state of Nuevo León. This is an area of intense violence among cartels and federal troops. They told me that the Zeta cartel have a much more efficient system of smuggling undocumented immigrants than what we’ve seen out west. Since Lazaro and Alfredo are originally from Vera Cruz, it made sense that they were more connected to operations there than in Tijuana.
Within a couple of days, César called and said he’d arrived in Guadalajara and was doing fine. Later that week, news broke of the massacre of 72 would-be crossers in the state of Tamaulipas near Monterey, N.L. Shortly afterward, a call came in from Lazaro and Alfredo. They’d reached their destination in Monterey and were seeking a contact/guide. They haven’t been heard from since.
On September 3, I’ll be undergoing surgery. When I walk across the border into the U.S., I’ll be wearing the white tennis shoes I bought off of Lazaro. I’ll be thinking of those guys.