Mike is one of Tijuana’s newer immigrants from the United States. He moved here during the twenty-first century. He recently found himself involved in what the law broadly refers to “human trafficking”. In our local slang, he was a coyote. Or, as he says, “I helped people get into the U.S. without all the red tape.”
Mike had been a salesman in southern California who was “transitioned” into a commission-only job. He came to Tijuana because he couldn’t afford the place where he used to live. He wound up near the Otay crossing because, as he says, “the rents are low and we’re real close to the border”. Unfortunately for Mike, sales jobs were still far away.
“I tried a lot of jobs. Another gringo in the Zona Norte hooked me up with a telemarketing gig, a boilerroom in Mira Mesa, but I couldn’t meet their sales quotas. I walked the streets of Bonita for a remodeling contractor, telling people they had mold in their homes in order to get them to sign up. I started a website but it isn’t making any money. I went to Telvista because they said I only need to speak English, but that wasn’t true – I also need to permission to work in Mexico!” Mike hasn’t bothered to do any immigration paperwork.
“One day I was walking down Calle Coahuila and a chicano from Sylmar came up to me asking if I wanted a job. All I had to do was drive somebody else’s car across the border and they’d pay me a thousand dollars. ‘What’s the catch?’ I asked. The guy said it wasn’t anything illegal or dangerous but Juan would be the one to explain.”
This guy from Sylmar talked Mike into buying him lunch while they waited for Juan to show up. And then he asked Mike for twenty bucks as a tip for turning him on to such a great job. “Rule number one in Tijuana,” says Mike, “don’t trust anyone who speaks English, they do that to suck up to you. Yeah, I bought him lunch but I knew Juan was going to pay him for making our introduction.”
Juan showed up late, deep in conversation on his cell phone. He told Mike the deal was to drive across the border with people in the trunk of the car, that his operation works with a number of corrupt CBP agents who wave his cars through, and because of that there was very little risk to their drivers. “If they catch you and you’re a U.S. citizen, you just get a slap on the wrist. But if you’re Mexican, they take your papers away from you for ten years. So we’re always looking for U.S. citizens, especially ones with passports.”
Mike had a passport. He said he’d give the gig a try.
Juan stepped onto the sidewalk to call his boss, claiming he needed better reception, and the chicano said it was time to head home. Once they were both outside, Juan slipped the chicano some money. When Juan came back into the restaurant, Mike had a new job.
Juan didn’t speak much English and Mike didn’t speak much Spanish, but they were able to make themselves understood. Mike was to stay on call pretty much around the clock and would be making between one and four trips each week, depending on conditions.
Mike’s handler picked Mike up at his house and drove him to the staging area, where he’d get behind the wheel of a nondescript car already loaded with passengers. Once he cleared the checkpoint he’d go to a Starbucks in National City. Someone else collected the travelers from there and drove them farther into the U.S. while Mike returned the car to the staging area and collected his thousand dollars.
“One of the guys in the group supplied the cars. He buys them at Homeland Security impound auctions in San Diego and El Centro. Some of our cars had been impounded, auctioned, and reimpounded several times over. I asked the guy if we couldn’t put some padding in the trunks, because they’re really uncomfortable, but that never happened.”
Most of Mike’s passengers crossed the border to be reunited with family, some as far away as Chicago and Atlanta. He met his passengers as he helped them come out of the trunk. “My youngest passenger was a year old, my oldest might have been in her late fifties. They were all very grateful for the service. Their attitude surprised me every time. I mean, here they had paid fifteen hundred bucks and had just spent like three hours crammed into the trunk of a car, and the first thing they all said when they came out was ‘thank you, thank you very much’.”
One day Mike got caught. He had almost made it to the checkpoint when one of the dogs walked by. Then the dog doubled back to Mike’s trunk. In no time the car was surrounded by DHS agents. “They looked like kids under a busted piñata” said Mike. “Someone yanked me out of the car and told me to put my hands on the roof. Then three of them asked all at once if the car was mine and what was in the trunk and did I know that smuggling is a felony. I remembered Juan’s advice to play dumb. I admitted nothing. Next thing I know, the trunk is open and the agents are handcuffing me.”
After the agents emptied Mike’s pockets – “They take away everything! Your wallet, your watch, eyeglasses, everything!” – they fingerprinted him on an electronic scanner, took a webcam mugshot, and put him in a holding cell with about thirty other men. For most of these men it was not their first time. Mike’s next fifteen hours were like a master class for coyotes.
“When to cross, what kind of car to use, how to dress, who to trust, these guys knew everything” said Mike. “I told them that my handler claimed he was paying off the Customs inspectors and they laughed at me. The cajuelazos, the ones who cross in the trunks of cars, they don’t bribe the inspectors, they just rely on the luck of the dogs. The inspectors who get paid off, that’s a different business, they let people come in at places where the surveillance cameras are turned off.”
Los chuchos – the dogs – are the biggest problem for cajuelazos. “There are always three dogs per shift,” one veteran told Mike, “and only one is trained to find drugs. The other two are search-and-rescue dogs, trained to smell human fear under snow. I only take people across, never drugs, and this time they caught me because I didn’t bring any coffee with me. Coffee throws off their sense of smell.” Mike was not supplied with coffee, either.
The holding tank was designed to be very uncomfortable. Bright fluorescent lighting, video cameras, and microphones are mounted throughout the ceiling. The only furniture are a narrow steel bench fixed to the wall and a couple of toilets open for the entire room to see. It was cold and there were only enough blankets for about half of the prisoners. There were at least two other holding tanks nearby, one for more men and one for women. “About eight o’clock the guards brought us box lunches from Costco, a small bottle of water and a really dry sandwich. They brought us the same thing again for breakfast about twelve hours later. Fortunately, I can go a day without eating.”
At one point the San Diego police showed up to take away another driver, a young kid who looked like Bill Cosby’s Fat Albert in a Chargers jersey the size of a circus tent. Evidently the car he was driving had been stolen. “The Border Patrol guys really enjoyed playing with that kid” said Mike. “They were on him for a good hour with stories about how much hard time he’d get for using a stolen vehicle. The poor kid was barely eighteen. He was really scared by the time the cops took him away. He looked like a cartoon, all you could see was the whites of his eyes.”
New prisoners filtered into the holding tank fairly steadily between 6:00pm and midnight, and then they stopped arriving. Without watches or clocks, telling time was a matter of counting heartbeats. Mike couldn’t sleep. He watched as the prisoners with blankets used their blankets to sleep on the linoleum floor. The other prisoners swapped stories while nodding in and out of catnaps.
“About three in the morning we started seeing some activity. One by one the drivers were quietly woken up and taken to an interview room. Some came back to the tank, some didn’t. When it was my turn, around four o’clock, I found out why. I got to spend half an hour with a guy whose job it was to get me to incriminate myself. But I stuck to my story, that I was doing a friend a favor by taking his car to a cousin in Chula Vista, and the Border Patrol guy finally got tired of telling me he didn’t believe me. He told me that Homeland Security would fine me five thousand dollars and that the IRS would make sure I paid the fine. He called for another agent to walk me back to the tank. Four or five hours later, they gave me back my stuff and let me leave the building.”
Mike had some business to take care of in San Ysidro. When he reentered Tijuana a couple hours later, he was surprised to find that the Mexican nationals from his tank were just being processed in by INM’s Grupo Beta. “It was pretty funny to run into them all again, we were saying to each other ‘dude, so they let you go, too?’. It was good not to have cameras and microphones on us anymore. We hung out near the McDonalds for a while, exchanged phone numbers, talked about their next attempts to cross the border. Some were going to try the sierra, which is where they walk across the hills east of town. Others asked me for Juan’s number because they wanted to try a cajuelazo.”
We had to ask Mike what he had learned from this experience and whether he would work as a coyote again. “It was exciting and I felt like I was really helping people,” Mike said, “but there’s something not quite right about the whole business. For the Border Patrol guys it’s like an orgasm when they catch us and they’re paid eighty or ninety grand a year to get off on this. Juan and his crew also make a lot of money for their work. Us drivers are pretty much disposable, Juan dropped me as soon as I was busted. But the people who have really been left out of the equation are the ones in the trunks – they’re doing this to stay connected to their families and everyone else involved in this business just takes advantage of that need. Every time I helped them out of the trunk I saw how bad our immigration policies really are. Those policies are not meant to serve the population, they’re not meant to promote our general welfare or to secure for anyone the blessings of liberty etc., they’re meant for some political or economic purpose that we’re not part of.”