The game plan was to get to Altar before nightfall. We, UNM Cross-Border Issues Group members Richard Schaefer and Carolyn Gonzales, spent more time in Douglas, Ariz., than we thought we would and then the trip across northern Mexico proved to be more mountainous than we anticipated. The journey was also amazingly beautiful. The mountains were exquisite and the views breathtaking.
As a result, however, we were running later than we planned. We stopped in Magdalena de Kino, because we had no pesos. Some festival was going on and I suggested to Richard that we stay the night and drive in to Altar in the morning. He, however, was ready to get some cash and get back on the road.
We arrived in Altar, Sonora, about 9:30 p.m., so it was already dark. We found the church, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, where we later learned many of the migrants meet. We asked a few people about the location of the albergue, CCAMYN and wandered that direction, asking directions from several along the way. Finally, we stopped and asked a lady who was outside cooking under a tarp. She happened to be a volunteer at the mission and pulled out her cell phone to talk to the sisters working there. Before long we learned that the meal had been served, all had been cleaned up and no one was spending the night in the shelter. We figured we'd go check it out in the morning and just drive around to check out Altar that night. The woman became alarmed at that idea and got on the phone again, this time to talk to the priest from the mission. Before we could even think about our next step, Padre Prisciliano Peraza García pulled up behind us. He invited us to follow him to the albergue. We thanked the kind lady and headed off.
Padre Prisciliano showed us around the albergue - the check in area, dining room and kitchen, bathrooms and showers and dormitories. He showed us where the migrants wash their clothes and he pointed out a metal plaque into which a poem, A Los Caidos en los Desiertos de la Muerte, or, To the Fallen in the Deserts of Death, has been etched.
We saw the map on the wall that shows the distance one can travel by foot in one day, two and three. Red dots mark spots where bodies were found, a harsh reminder to the migrants of the perils of the journey. We saw a bulletin board with information about SB 1070 and other things migrants needed to understand once they were north of the border. We saw posters of people who are missing, possibly victims of kidnappings or of the desert. We saw a cross adorned with the flags of the nations from which migrants came. We also saw a cross that, from a distance, looked like it was decorated with shredded newspaper. Upon closer inspection, one sees that each strip bears the name and other defining characteristics of a migrant who had perished.
In many respects it was like many of the albergues we've visited, with one exception. There were no migrants staying the night. In every albergue, the migrants bring life to the shelter. Here, it was quiet. Even the air conditioning, which would have been pleasant, was quieted in the empty rooms.
Padre Prisciliano led us outside and we had a discussion about where we would stay the night. Sure, we told him, we'll stay at the albergue. But it was either necessary then for one of the sisters or a volunteer to stay or he didn't think Richard's Prius would be safe there, so again we followed his Suburban, this time to a hotel. He saw us safely checked in and then told us he would tour us around Altar.
We had an insightful journey full of stash houses and Casas de Huespedes. He drove around the town, occasionally calling out to someone nearby. As he drove, he pointed out places where kidnappers hold migrants for ransom. The stash houses are formidable, with 10 foot walls and concertina or barbed wire curled around the top of the wall. The houses are, in effect prisons, and the migrants prisoners until ransoms are paid. He showed us some of the nicer houses in the area, beautiful homes built with drug money. He also showed us the Casas de Huespedes, places we haven't seen in other Mexican towns that have albergues. He took us in one that is run by a man named "Omar," who was a migrant himself but found a way to work without having to go to the US.
Casas de Huespedes are places where coyotes put up the migrants who have paid them to get them across the border. The Padre said there are about 90 of them in Altar and that approximately 95 percent of Altar's economy is migration related.
The migrants don't pay for their stays; it's included in the price of admission. The establishment's owners feed them. The bunk beds they sleep on are made from welded iron with wooden boards. Some have carpet on them; others might have a thin mattress. Anything extra -- a sheet, pillow or blanket -- is paid for by the migrant. The other things the migrant might want - snacks and such - are sold by many of the Casa de Huespedes owners. Some have their own "abarrote," or mini-grocery/convenience store on site.
Up to 90 migrants might stay in one room. The migrants don't have a choice to stay in an albergue, which is much cleaner and humane, is that the coyote needs to be able to sweep in and collect his migrants when the time is right to cross. Each migrant pays about $3,000 USD.
The migrants didn't respond to our questions, undoubtedly because they are mistrustful and because their lives are in the hands of coyotes.
Padre Prisciliano returned us to our hotel. Richard and I talked about where we'd been and what we'd seen. We talked about our dumb luck in coming across someone who knew how to reach people at the albergue. We talked about the Padre and how generous he was with us in spending a couple hours with us unannounced. We often say that to the Mexicans we appear to be a missionary couple. We think the lady we spoke with initially was a bit alarmed about us driving around aimlessly in Altar.
I asked the Padre if the violence in the area was exaggerated and he said no. He said that it is worse than reported. In hindsight we think the Padre was trying to keep us safe by taking us around to see what we wanted to see without us stepping into something we couldn't get out of. We've visited many places considered dangerous, but there's an element on the border that exceeds what we'd seen.
The next morning we wanted to shoot some video of some of the places Padre Prisciliano had shown us. We went back to Omar's Casa de Huespedes. He is proud of his establishment. He showed us the cleanliness of the bathrooms and we saw someone deliver a very large ham or leg shank that he was going to use to feed those in his care. He allowed us to go in and speak to some migrants and this time we found a couple of men who were willing to speak to us.
"Lalo," originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán, was working on a construction site in Los Angeles until about two months ago when he and one other man were picked up by ICE as undocumented workers. They were deported. Lalo has lived in LA for 12 years and has an American wife and a 9-year-old daughter there. He came to Altar to cross because it is $6,000 for a coyote to cross in California as opposed to $3,000 organizing through Altar.
Another migrant, "Sam," told us how the Anglo Border Patrol agents treat the migrants better than the Latinos. He hadn't been deported, but after living in the Sacramento area for more than a decade and not seeing his family, he decided to go south to visit. He has spent the last two months trying to get back.
We wished them "buena suerte" and departed. We drove around trying to locate some of the sites Padre Prisciliano showed us the night before. As small a town as it is -- around 20,000 in population -- we still had some trouble locating the stash houses. We found a couple and took some photos. About that time we noticed that a white pick up truck had been following us. We decided it would be safer to head back to the center of town and perhaps start looking at making our way north through Sasabe where the wall between the US and Mexico ends.
Media contact: Carolyn Gonzales, 277-5920; e-mail: email@example.com