It’s another scorching hot, downright boring day on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. Twenty-year-old Alejandro (not his real name) has spent the past four weeks loitering at a migrant shelter here, trying to figure out how to cross the vast desert that lies before him so that he can begin making money to send back to Honduras. With each passing day, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he may have only one ally to assist him in crossing into the United States: the mafia.
On the Mexican side of the border, organized criminal groups control all the northbound smuggling (of humans and goods), charging a tax on every illicit movement into their territory. To pass through, migrants need to hire a smuggler, who then pays the required tax to that city’s dominant criminal group. There are no exceptions. Migrants looking to cross alone or smugglers trying to sneak someone across without paying the required dues are considered to be committing a serious underworld crime, punishable by death.
The brutally enforced business scheme is nothing new in the world of illicit migration, but steadily increasing U.S. border enforcement has directly influenced how it looks today. On the U.S. side, strategically placed walls, fences, surveillance technologies, and border patrol agents shut off the areas that are easiest to cross and push migrants into more desolate and dangerous zones. The results have been high body counts despite falling apprehensions — with over 80 bodies recovered from Arizona’s desert this year — and higher smuggling fees.
These pricier smuggling services reveal a lot about the economics of migrant smuggling markets. For decades, as border enforcement efforts have intensified, the crossing price has shifted upward from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Today, along the western part of the border, the smuggling price hovers around $4,000, with half demanded upfront and half upon arrival. For most people, scraping together this money on short notice would be tough, but for the poorest and least-connected migrants who lack U.S.-based family or friends, it’s downright impossible.
These migrants have only one way across the border: with a backpack.
This option — described as “backpacking” or “burro-ing,” — is well known among the most marginalized migrants. All they need to do is show up in specific border towns and say they want to cross with a backpack. At that point, they are assigned to a group, loaded down with a 50-pound backpack of marijuana, along with four gallons of water and food, and sent off on a guided eight- to 10-day trek into the desert. When they reach the predetermined place on the U.S. side, they drop the backpack, hopefully collect the promised $1,500 for their services, and head off into the United States.
Not all migrants, even the most desperate, are sold on the arrangement. “It’s so dangerous,” Alejandro sighs. “If you can’t take the weight or the desert heat, they’ll just pluck off your backpack and leave you there.” Getting caught also means five years in a U.S. jail and deportation back to Honduras.
It’s a risk that Alejandro hesitates to take. In fact, Alejandro had left Honduras only hoping to reach Mexico City. But when the job he had been promised never materialized, he thought his best bet was to keep heading north. At the border, his family could scrabble together only $1,800, less than half of what he needed to hire a smuggler. When he sought out work to earn the rest, he couldn’t find any Mexicans willing to hire an undocumented Central American even for a few hours.
Now, Alejandro is back to spending his days hanging around the shelter, debating whether to cross into the United States with the backpack or head back empty-handed to Honduras.
Only a small subset of unauthorized migrants crosses into the United States with a backpack of drugs (and the marijuana they haul is but a small portion of the drugs moving across the border). But like Alejandro, these migrants tend to be the poorest and the least connected in a migrant population that is itself generally low-income and marginalized. These are the migrants who were priced out of the smuggling market as border security blocked off the easiest crossing routes, and then effectively funneled into drug trafficking operations as cheap, expendable labor.
“When I left home, crossing with a backpack was never in my plans, really,” Alejandro says again quietly as we say goodbye. It’s not an explicit confirmation, but it also doesn’t feel as if he’ll be voluntarily heading home anytime soon. On the U.S.-Mexico border, with thousands of miles already behind him and a single drug-stuffed backpack between him and the United States, what may not have been his original plan is now his only option.
Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images