Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

'Only those we forget die': Losing a brother to smuggling gangs

Rodrigo used to smuggle people. Now he dreams of a life far from violence and poverty

12 May 2022, 6.00am

Between El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico


TT News Agency/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved


The first time we crossed over to the US we took a chicken with us. That’s what they call migrants on the border: chickens. The guy who organised it was a friend of ours, and the migrant was a relative of his who had just shown up. Five of us left, to start over. We made it to Clint (a suburb of El Paso) and rented a little mobile home there. We stayed for about three weeks, but my brothers and I couldn’t find jobs so we came back.

After that I crossed the border another five or six times. I ‘crowned’, meaning I successfully got the migrants I was bringing over to the other side. I only did it for the money. I didn’t have any, and when you’re on your last legs you make money however you can. I took them to El Paso and then came back. It’d be cool to live there myself someday. It would be another life. There’d still be crime and criminals of course, but not like here in Juárez. As a migrant without papers in Texas you never get to go out – you just go to work and return home. In Juárez problems come to your house by themselves.

Selling clothes was the only job I had where somebody wanted to kill me.

I’ve worked both crossing migrants and in other jobs: on construction sites, in restaurants, and so on. I sold clothes downtown for a little while, but gang members tried to kill my brother (Luís) and me there. A tattooed man came one day – very tall, very big. He told us, ‘You are going to work for me. You are going to sell coke, rock and weed.’ We got scared. The same thing had happened to a kid like us a little while earlier. They killed him the same day that they demanded he work for them. We were worried the same would happen to us.

We went home, but they had found our number and kept calling us on the phone. They said, ‘If you don’t come back and report to us, we are going to kill you.’ A little while later four or five guys showed up outside the house with weapons. I locked the door and managed to get out the back. I called a relative who knew that world and asked for help. He sorted it out for us, but for a long time we couldn’t set foot downtown. Selling clothes was the only job I had where somebody wanted to kill me. The other jobs … they were normal jobs.

Crossing chickens is risky, of course. It is dangerous out in the desert when you’re moving people across. There are snakes and things. The police can hurt you. There are also thugs out there trying to catch you. They’re young like us, but they have no heart, no soul. Not too long ago they killed another kid who was crossing people into El Paso. They’re killing many people.

I haven’t crossed in over a year, but there are a lot of people trying right now. Our neighbourhood is full of people who want to migrate and people who work to get them across the border. The cops recently caught over 100 migrants near where we live as they waited to cross. Down the hill they caught even more. It’s dangerous when the cops catch you because they beat you. There is risk everywhere.

Our tattoos don’t make us bad people.

People sometimes see my tattoos and think I’m like those guys killing people in the desert. But I just get tattoos because I like them. They tell my story. Others don’t understand that. Somebody beat me up because of them not too long ago. He said my tattoos were from some gang or another and hit me with brass knuckles. When I got home I could barely breathe.

My brothers and I are always getting harassed and discriminated against. My older brother has tattoos on his face, neck, back, hands, feet, legs, belly – everywhere. He’s always getting stopped by the cops. He tried to rent a house not long ago, but the landlord said, ‘We do not want people like you here – people on the wrong path.’ The same thing happened at the maquiladora (assembly factory). We applied for jobs, but at the screening they asked my brother Luís if he had ever had surgery. He said yes, because he had been shot in the jaw. They never called us back. I think the story scared them, or maybe they thought he was just applying to get the medical insurance. People don’t understand that our tattoos don’t make us bad people.

Read Luís' story

I wasn’t there when my brother Marcos was killed, but I could have been. I had gone home not even 20 minutes earlier. I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. I wasn’t able to cry when we buried him. I was still in shock. Now, whenever I remember him, I feel like crying. It is even harder when I dream. I dream that we’re hanging out, that everything is normal. Then I wake up and go looking for him, but he’s not there. That’s even worse.

Many of my tattoos relate to him. I have his name, another one says ‘Only those we forget die.’ Near there is a cross and the date he was killed. I’ve got another one that says ‘My mother is her love, her kisses, her prayers, and her blessing.’ My mom, she’s not doing well. She falls apart every month on the date of my brother’s death.

I wish that none of this had happened. I just want to live in a better place. Without any problems, without being surrounded by evil people. I wish we could go back to being the way we were. All of us, just being dumb, but together.

This story is part of a series of testimonies from children and mothers living in Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexico border. The children were all caught crossing into the US, either to pursue personal aspirations or to smuggle people, and are now receiving restorative justice services from the NGO Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción. The testimonies were prepared alongside DHIA's advocates and have been edited for clarity. The illustration of the speaker is a fictitious rendering produced by Carys Boughton (All rights reserved). The speaker's name has also been changed.

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