Through his balaclava, the smuggler screamed: women and children first, then men, no questions while they walked. And they walked for eight hours. Across gritty terrain, passing by a tunnel and a river, listening for border patrol trucks and rattlesnakes. They heard sirens and some tried to hide, holding their breath. Others escaped running. That’s when Juan, 23, heard the first gunshots. “The hardest moment was when we were intercepted by the drug cartel,” he says, “but later it was fun.”
Millions of other Mexicans have had a similar experience. Then, after crossing the US–Mexico border, they have ended up harvesting almonds and apricots in central California, running restaurant kitchens in New York, or waiting on street corners and in parking lots for construction jobs all over the United States. Juan, however, ended up back where he started in Parque EcoAlberto, an “ecotourism resort” in the small town of El Alberto in Hidalgo Province, Mexico, where tourists can ride a boat through the River Tula, rappel down a 90-meter climbing wall, and play “migrant” in a dramatization of the US–Mexico desert border crossing, called Caminata Nocturna, or Night Walk.
Most of El Alberto’s population really did travel the 1,300 kilometers north to walk across the border and into the United States, leaving the town nearly empty by the early 2000s. In 2012, one in 10 Mexican citizens lived in the United States, making up the biggest immigrant community in the world. But since Caminata Nocturna was first offered in 2004, the migrants it mimics have started to come back. The number of Mexicans returning from the United States has doubled over the past decade and new houses paneled, painted and fenced like those of the American suburbs, are appearing in El Alberto, built by returning families.
Some returnees lost their jobs in the north after the 2008 global financial crisis: many American families could no longer afford the luxury of a house cleaner or gardener, while demand for construction workers fell with the US housing market’s collapse. Others returned as the US deported a record number of illegal immigrants. Mexico has also become more attractive to its citizens abroad: the economy is growing steadily and the country’s recently elected government has invested in education and anti-corruption measures. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of Mexicans hoping to leave their homeland fell by half, according to one Gallup poll. Juan, a medical student from Mexico City, paid 250 pesos (US$20) in EcoAlberto for an experience that he may never have in real life. “Going like this, in the dark, without knowing what’s ahead of you,” he says. “Now I am even surer that I will never do it. I want to change things from here, from my country.”
Thirteen cameras, US$2 million dollars and 40,000 people staring at their screens: the Texas Virtual Border Watch allowed citizens to survey the US-Mexico border themselves, but only led to three arrests over six months in 2009. Apparently, smugglers were using the service to check for US Border Patrol trucks.
Helium balloons are now patrolling the US-Mexico border in the US Air Force’s Tethered Aerostat Radar System, which monitors vehicles and low-altitude aircrafts entering US border states. The surveillance balloon in New Mexico overlooks only 10 percent of the 3,185-kilometer border.
In October 2012, alleged smugglers got stuck on top of a four-meter-high border fence in Yuma, Arizona, when they tried to drive over it using their own ramp. In some parts of Arizona, the border fence can be as high as six meters tall.
Mexican cars packed with drugs and migrants used to flow constantly through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument into the United States. Then, in 2004, the National Park Service built 50 kilometers of vehicle barriers, citing the health benefits of traffic reduction for native cactus ferruginous pygmy owls and Sonoran pronghorns.
Widely used in Afghanistan, US Predator drones now fly over the US-Mexico border, an area populated by 12 million people. The fleet of 10 usually searches for illegal immigrants, but after one crashed in January 2014, the remaining nine have been grounded.
Over the past five years, more than 75 smuggling tunnels were discovered under the US-Mexico border. Since early 2014, US Border Protection officers can peek inside safely using wireless, camera-equipped robots. Although the $40,000 robots are unarmed for now, they were designed and built to carry shotguns.
Equipment mounted on the back of this truck spins night and day to get a 360° view of the Arizona desert: a motion-detecting radar and infrared camera spot illegal border crossers, and a laser picks them out in the dark for Border Protection officers.
In the latest addition to the US Border Protection agency’s arsenal of anti-immigrant spyware, powerful X-ray scanners are being now disguised inside delivery vans. In Arizona, the rolling X-rays discreetly scan cars coming in from Nogales, Mexico, a popular stopping point for illegal border crossers.