Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

Smuggling people into the United States, 'you risk a lot'

This teenager smuggled people across the U.S.-Mexico border, but the death of a friend made him think again

3 May 2022, 6.30am

'Happy travels' hangs over the border bridge in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico


Charles O. Cecil/Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Advisory: this story contains depictions of violence.


Sometimes I think about the people who have died crossing from Mexico into the US. They have drowned, gotten lost, or been killed. But they wanted to try it. Crossing: that was their dream.

I remember the time I took a man across the border. Some men had come by looking for somebody else; a guy they knew who worked as a guide. They couldn’t find him so they asked me if I wanted to go. I didn’t have a job and they offered me US$150. I said yes.

You risk a lot by crossing. Anything could happen along the way. You might get caught, but that’s not too much of a risk because if you are under 18 then US immigration lets you go. Much worse are the ways you can die. Sometimes the men you’re taking across want to kill you. Soldiers can also kill you if they see you.

One of my friends – Marcos, Luís’ brother – was killed because he stole from the people he was taking across. He used to take their cell phones and their money. Mexican cell phones are useless over there anyway; phones from the USA are the only ones that work. But the migrants complained and Marcos’ bosses found out. They didn’t like it, so they sent some people to kill him.

We were at a girl’s house when they came. They shouted ‘open up!’ and my first thought was: it is the cops. Then the door broke and they started shooting. I have a scratch here from a bullet – just a little higher and it would have hit me.

We were in the bedroom and Marcos, Luís and I were trying to hold the door shut. It wasn’t working, so I left them at the door and ran into the bathroom. Just in time too. The door came down and they grabbed Marcos. I heard them say ‘you know why’, and then they killed him. They shot him, he fell to the floor, and they shot him twice more.

Luís was on the floor shouting. They grabbed him by the head and shot him as well. He fell over but did not die. After they left I wrapped my sweater around his neck and told him not to faint. Then I ran.

So that’s the problem. It’s not just that you can get in trouble with the police. It’s the gangs. You have to do as you are told or they’ll kill you.

"I went the wrong way and they saw me on the cameras."

I’ve only gone over the border that one time. I wanted to know what it was like. I didn’t know what I was doing though. They just told me, ‘Go from here to there. You will see the houses. Then hide.’

I went with a friend. I was responsible for one migrant and he had two others. US Immigration saw us through their cameras as we crossed. They came on horses and motorbikes and caught my friend, but missed me because I had hid us in the canal. After that we managed to make it to the meeting point on the outskirts of El Paso, where some men picked us up. The guy I was crossing went to a hotel. I went to the bridge to get back into Juárez.

That’s where they caught me. I went the wrong way and they saw me on the cameras. My shoes were full of mud, my pants were full of mud, and my jacket was full of thorns. A guy called me into the booth by the bridge, where immigration officers surrounded me and searched me. They took my cap, my shirt, everything. Then they started asking questions: where I lived, where I came from, why I was there, why I crossed, what I wanted to do there, if I had relatives or not, if I came to work, steal, or something else. They ask you all that.

I told them that I was helped across, because it is a bigger crime if you’re the one moving people across the border. Besides, they will also look for the people you got across the border if you tell them you’re a guide. I was locked up for a day and a half before a Mexican officer came to get me. They do not let underage people leave unaccompanied. It’s worse when you’re over 18. Adults can be put in jail for years, but underage people get sent back home.

My mother scolded me, but I still got paid. The man I got across even gave me an extra 500 pesos (US$24) for the help. He had needed a lot of it. He was crying as we were going through the desert. He said he couldn’t do it anymore – couldn’t hold on any longer. But I waited for him, helped him get up, and told him that he could not stay where he was. In the end we managed to cross. They caught me, but he managed to get there. He arrived.

"Hiding isn’t normal."

The people who hired me paid me all my money when I got back. When I got out, I told them, ‘immigration caught me, but I sent him in the car. I do not know anything else.’ They told me, ‘That is your job. The rest is theirs. If they are caught, that is their problem. You have already done your job.’ They asked me to continue working but I refused. I want to get a visa to the USA someday, and if I get caught again I won’t be able to go for a long time. It takes years to clean your record.

I want to go, but I want to do things the right way. Why risk being caught? A friend of mine has no documents and has been there for years. He says it’s cool, but he can’t actually go out like a normal person. He is locked in a room. He only goes out to eat or work, and he can only work in places that accept him. He can still easily lose everything. The places that will give him jobs are also places that immigration officers might check. If the boss doesn’t hide him in the kitchen or something, they will take him.

That hiding isn’t normal. So I’m going to get my visa to make sure, and then I can go there. Imagine you go there and start a family. You marry a girl, you build a family, but then they come after you and send you back. You lose everything.


I haven’t gone out much since Marcos was shot. During the day I look after my nephew while my mom and sister are at work. And if I do go out at night I stay near home and make sure to come back early. I also don’t hang out with people in the business anymore; people who are being looked for. You never know. If they come looking for someone and I am there, they will kill us both. Or, if I hang around with the wrong people, they might mistake me for someone else. That happened once. A man in a car once pulled up and pointed a gun at me. ‘Come here’, he said, ‘let me see you’.

I took off my cap. He looked at me for a moment, and then he said to the driver: ‘This is not the one. Let’s go.’

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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