The Devil's Highway: Crossing the deadly frontier

Every year, more than a million Mexicans embark on a journey across the US border, lured by wages up to 20 times higher than at home - it is a perilous trek which many do not survive
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In the centre of the Mexican town of Altar, men with backpacks cluster in small groups, hiding from the blistering sun beneath trees, or else in the better-than-nothing shade of the shops that edge the plaza. The men are travellers, all residents of southern Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, and all heading north to the US border just 90 miles across the desert. They were lured by the prospect of a new life and new opportunity, of jobs that pay 10 or 20 times what they earned in their villages, and the chance to send some of those wages home. If, that is, they could make it across the border.

Countless thousands of migrants pour through Altar every year. In the summer the numbers fall sharply, for in the months of July and August the migrants are competing not just with the border guards and their trucks and helicopters, their scanners and sniffer dogs, but also with the weather. Here on the US-Mexican border these months of high summer are known as the death season - the months when the relentless, burning sun makes every attempt at crossing the desert a potentially lethal endeavour. On this particular afternoon the temperature stood at a steady 104F (40C).

Last year was a record for deaths in the desert. At least 473 migrants died trying to cross into the US, 260 of them in the US Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Tucson sector of south-eastern Arizona. Experts say this year's numbers are currently in line to break that record.

In Pima County, where authorities have recovered 80 corpses so far, compared to 60 at this time last year, officials have had to rent additional refrigeration facilities for the bodies. Around 100 lie unclaimed.

And yet the migrants keep coming. "Yes, it is very hot," said one, a 40-year-old man who, like every other migrant, spoke on the understanding his real name would not be published. He was the oldest of a group of four men from Oaxaca in southern Mexico who were preparing to cross the border. Recent crop failures in their state have added to an already tough economic situation and each man had contracted with a "coyote" - a cross-border guide - to transport them to Tennessee. They said they were each paying the coyote $2,000, (£1,080), most of which they would pay once they found work in the US.

"There is no work [at home]. With this we can send some money home," he said. Asked how long they planned to remain in the US, he and his compatriots shrugged. "It depends. Maybe two or three years."

In The Devil's Highway, his powerful reconstruction of how 14 members of a group of 26 migrants died in the desert during one 2001 crossing, the writer Luis Alberto Urrea notes that at this time of year there is work waiting to be done in the US - tomatoes and lettuce to be picked, beef waiting to be ground into burgers, burgers waiting to be flipped at McDonald's, Burger King and Wendy's. He adds: "And the western desert is waiting, too - its temperatures soaring, a fryer in its own right."

The scale of the migration that is taking place along the southern US border is vast and may represent the biggest voluntary cross-border migration in history. The CBP says that last year it made 1.1 million interceptions of illegal or undocumented migrants. They can only guess how many get through, but some estimates suggest 500,000 cross annually, the average migrant making five or six attempts before they are successful.

Of these, tens of thousands will pass through Altar, a small, scruffy town whose economic life-blood comes almost entirely from servicing the needs of these migrants. In recent years the population has grown from a few thousand to around 15,000 as business has boomed.

Most of the business is centred on the main plaza next to the Church of our Lady of Guadeloupe. Here, tightly packed shops sell row after row of back-packs, cheap running shoes, bandanas, gallon jugs of water and tinned food. They sell toilet paper, phone cards, sweatshirts, and thick coats for the winter months, when the night desert temperatures can fall towards zero, and large plastic bin-liners that purportedly double as both protection against the rain and the heat-detecting sensors of the border patrol's devices. "Everything is for the people crossing the border," said one shopkeeper. In the streets off the plaza are located basic hostels with $5-a-night dormitory beds, with more being built every week. There are cheap restaurants and places that offer to wash clothes.

On one edge of the plaza is a line of battered vans, their seats taken out and replaced with benches, that ferry the migrants on the last, driven leg of their journey. Throughout the day, and particularly in the late afternoon, these vans take migrants north through the desert to the poor and broken border village of Sasabe. It is there that the migrants and their coyotes disperse, taking to the thorn bushes and cacti of the desert, waiting for nightfall to make their way across the vast, unfenced border that represents the divide between the developing world and the richest nation on earth.

One of the drivers offered a lift to Sasabe for the equivalent of $10. "Very cheap," he said. But when asked about crossing the border he shook his head with a feigned annoyance as though he had just been asked about journeying to the moon.

Others are much more forthcoming about the migration. The Mexican Red Cross even staffs a permanent clinic, housed in a mobile van, to treat the migrants, to warn them of the dangers and to dissuade them from taking the journey. Inside, one of the paramedics, Amada Arrellano, leafed through the forms of those migrants he had seen that morning. There were around 35 and he reeled off where they were from - Veracruz, Chiapas, Acapulco, Honduras. "There are many people from the south, from the countryside," he said.

Most were men but there were women too, he said, some with newborn babies and some heavily pregnant. He clicked on his computer and showed a series of photographs of the injuries he and his colleagues dealt with - mostly horribly blistered feet, some with the skin entirely worn from the heels. He also clicked to show a photograph of a six-months-pregnant woman who was about to take to the desert.

"It's more than 100 degrees, much more than 100," said Mr Arrellano. "There are snakes, scorpions and spiders in the desert. [But] the biggest problem is a lack of water. Always we tell them not to go, it's very dangerous... It can take four or five days to cross. We tell them to take two gallons of water for each person for each day."

Inside the nearby church there were more signs of the danger. A prayer had been written out for "our migrant brothers". Meanwhile, on a notice-board was a photocopied sheet of paper asking for information about a 16-year-old called Ubalde Suarez Mesa, presumably another young man who took his chances in the desert. There was no date, but it said nothing had been heard from Ubalde or six others accompanying him.

Some migrants are better prepared than others. While some groups, like that of Juan, secure a guide to take them across, others are resigned to take their chances by themselves. In the plaza buying supplies were a group of four men from Chiapas, led by a teenager called "Manuel". He was aged 17, his friend was 16. They looked terribly young and slight. It had taken them 12 days to make their way here on buses.

They said they could not afford a coyote and would cross the border by themselves, making their way to Phoenix. Manuel was asked if they had any friends in Phoenix, any family - if they had any contacts whatsoever. "No," he said. "Nada."

As the migrants pointed out, this migration is not taking place in a vacuum but rather against a backdrop of vast economic disparity between the US and its neighbour. The reasons for this disparity may be disputed by economists, some claiming that the country has been hampered by a failure to develop and seize the benefits of the global market, while others say it is the policies enshrined by the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) - fewer restrictions on trade, fiscal conservatism - that have led to Mexico's poor position.

What is not disputed is that an unskilled labourer can earn 10 or 20 times more in the US than in Mexico. And since 1993, when Nafta was introduced, the estimated number of undocumented Mexicans in the US has doubled to more than four million.

In the US, migration has become an increasingly hot topic, with two different bills - one that wants to eject undocumented immigrants and build a vast wall along the border, the other which seeks to grant an amnesty - currently before Congress. A series of public meetings are seeking public opinion, while President George Bush has vowed to dispatch 6,000 National Guard troops to bolster border security.

But most observers who focus on the economic aspects of the situation believe that while such a disparity exists between north and south, no barrier will keep Mexican people out. Some have likened the situation to what would happen if Canada introduced a minimum wage of $70, and then tried to keep out US citizens. Somehow, people would get through.

"Mexico's most pressing economic problem is to restore economic growth. Like the region as a whole, the country has suffered a profound economic growth failure over the past 25 years," Mark Weisbrot, director of the Centre for Economic and Policy Research wrote recently.

"From 2000-05, Mexico's income per person grew only 2 per cent. From 1980 to 2000, it grew just 15 per cent." He added: "If Mexico had continued to grow at its pre-1980 rate, the country would have about the same per-capita income now as Spain."

Volunteer groups who try and save migrants' lives say the increased numbers of guards and soldiers at the border are causing the migrants to cross at increasingly remote parts of the border. Joe Nevins, spokesman for the group No More Deaths, said he believed the 500 or so deaths must be an under-count, because it is likely many die in the desert and their bodies are never found. His group, and others such as Humane Borders, place water tanks in parts of the desert where they believe the migrants pass. Some have been vandalised and the water left to seep into the sand, behaviour, say the activists, that could in effect sentence a migrant to death.

Later that scorching afternoon, the Independent left Altar and drove the route taken by the migrants, a road of sand and gravel that cuts through the harsh beauty of the desert past burnt-out vehicles and brightly painted memorials built amid the cacti. From time to time, one of the battered vans hurtled past, filled with blurred faces. Others passed from the opposite direction, emptied of their cargoes.

After two-and-half bone shaking hours on the track, the migrants' road emerged in the pueblo of Sasabe, yards from the US border. It was early evening and there was little to see, a few children playing on their bicycles, a few restaurants offering cheap meals, and a bar appropriately named Super Coyote.

A few hundred yards off to the north-west, a US border patrol helicopter hovered low, scouring and searching. Of the migrants there was no sign.