'People will always find a way to get through': the children who work in smuggling
With few ways to earn income on the border, many young men turn to the dangerous but well-paid work of people smuggling
Advisory: this story contains depictions of violence.
I have worked doing a lot of things. I’ve installed internet cables and electricity. Done construction work and sold clothing downtown. One time I even helped tear down a hill with one of those huge machines that you use to make holes.
I started looking for a job when I was 14, maybe 15. I wasn’t studying – I wasn’t doing anything – and I didn’t want to be wasting time. I wanted to buy things for myself. The first thing I bought was a pair of sneakers and some clothes. I gave the rest to my mother. Whenever I got paid I’d give some to La Jefa – my mom – and whatever I had left I spent on what I wanted.
Construction is the hardest work I’ve ever done. You spend a lot of time under the sun and all you do is heavy-duty work. You mix concrete, carry it around in buckets, stuff like that. The heat of the desert makes it worse. You can easily get heat stroke because there is no shade whatsoever. It’s also dangerous. I’ve seen people fall from scaffolds because the planks come loose or a rotary hammer throws them backwards. I saw some guys fall from about three metres up. It was nasty. There’s no insurance or anything, so if you get injured the most the foremen do for you is let you go.
I started to work construction with my brothers. A man who lived near my house would come pick us up every day at 7 a.m. and take us to the site. Some guys were my age, the others were older men. Most days we’d come back around five but it could be as late as eight or nine at night. We worked five days a week and half a day on Saturdays, so it was a lot of time under the sun. For all that we were paid 1800 Mexican pesos a week (US$88). Back then I would come home Saturday and go out the rest of the weekend. But I don’t do that anymore after what happened to my brother. I do not leave the house.
They asked why I’d be searching for the American dream if I lived so close.
Immigration caught us the first time we went over the border to El Chuco (El Paso, TX). A friend from there invited me and my brother to come. His father works in construction. My friend offered us a job and a place to stay, so that’s why we wanted to leave.
I thought I’d find work there and come back to Juárez sometime later with my own car. And I thought I’d make some money from whatever I could do over there. But to be quite honest, the environment in El Chuco is nasty. Over there you don’t have a life. You can’t go outside, especially if you are a migrant. Just from home to work and that’s it. You live like a prisoner. You can’t live there the way you live here. The only reason I was going was for the job.
That first time there were about six of us trying to cross. The others had come from different places, like Honduras. We were … we were nervous. You are scared. You are just really scared.
We walked to the spot where there was no more fence. We managed to cross the border, and we also crossed the tracks. We reached the meeting point all right, but it took a while for the transporter to arrive so la migra (US immigration police) caught us. They arrived in their big trucks. They treated us bad. Especially when you’re born here, from the neighbourhoods close to the border, they immediately think you are the one who is guiding the people.
I told them I wasn’t a guide, of course. I said sarcastically that ‘I was after the American dream’. They said I should already know how things worked, and asked why I’d be searching for the American dream if I lived so close. I got upset. They locked me up in a cell they call the icebox. It was cold in there and they refused to give me a blanket. When I asked for one they said it wasn’t a hotel. I wasn’t there long, though. They kicked me out overnight and sent me back to Mexico.
US immigration didn’t ask me questions, but the staff who interrogated us once we were sent back to Juárez did. They wanted to know how many migrants we were crossing. They asked that over and over again. I told them I was going on my own. Otherwise they treated me well. At the place there were bunkbeds and a TV and I got to eat some noodles. My parents scolded me once they arrived to pick me up, of course. They kept saying I should never cross again. They said I had to listen to them – the usual boring stuff.
I tried taking people over about a month or two ago. This time it was different. I wanted to make some money, and the offer was US$300 per person. There were four in all, and I led the group on my own. Immigration caught them as we were coming in, but I made it all the way to the meeting spot. I waited for about five hours in hiding. The people on the Texas side never sent the transporter so I had to surrender myself. I spent three days locked up in the shelter that time around.
There’s a lot of this kind of work right now, but it’s really hot everywhere. The national guard have been deployed alongside the police to contain the migrants. The towns and the border are really fortified. I think it helps the gringos to have many policemen there. But people will always find a way to get through.
They see my tattoos and they think I am a criminal.
I got all of these tattoos. This is from a cartoon. This is from the Simpsons. This is my mom’s name. This other one I got because they said that if I could handle the pain I could get it for free. And this one I got for my brother, the one who was murdered.
My mom worries because the tattoos make people treat us like criminals. The other day I went out to see a girl and my mobile stopped working. I asked a few people if I could borrow their phone to call my mom and everyone said they had no credit. They feared I would steal their phones or something like it.
Same with the polis. They see my tattoos and they think I am a criminal. They pick me up – once they took me to a police station, another time to the prosecutor’s office. One time they found me with a bit of weed and wrote down that I had like 10 or 15 packages on me – I had to spend three days in there for that. Other times they just drive me around the neighbourhood in their patrol cars and then let me go.
I worry about my parents when this happens. It is messed up to be locked up without knowing anything, without your family knowing what happened to you. And the food the police give you sucks. That last time I was there they gave me a piece of hard bread with mayo. I did not tell the guards anything, but I did not eat it. Other people ate it. Not me.
I do not know how to explain how I feel these days. I really don’t know how to put it into words. I was shot in the face at the same time my brother was killed, and ended up in the hospital for 12 days. I’m ok now – it’s just the pain of the teeth. My gums hurt, everything hurts. There are many things I can’t do anymore. I’ve got a plate in my jaw, and I could get hurt again if somebody hit me or if I fall. Then I’d have to pay for more treatment. My first surgery was very expensive and my parents still haven’t finished paying for everything. They had to get a loan to get the loan. But they do everything they can.
Other than that, thank God I’m still here. I barely go out anymore since the accident. I just sit around and watch TV. At some point I’m going to find work in a maquiladora, and once that happens I can start building my own house. We have a lot of land and I’ll put my house right next to my mother’s. I’ve already started collecting bricks to build some rooms and live there.
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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