Agua Prieta, Mexico; Apr. 20, 2005 – For the past eleven years, Enrique Enriquez Palafox has worked on the Mexican border, rescuing migrants in need of food and water. As an employee with Grupo Beta, a Mexican government-sponsored agency whose mission, "ProtecciÃ³n a Migrantes," is stamped across the back of his jacket, Palafox is accustomed to the constant search for men, women and children lost in the 23 mile-long stretch of desert between the Mexican border towns of Agua Prieta and Naco.
Palafox was carrying out his humanitarian labor as he had for over a decade -- without fanfare -- when earlier this month a group of American vigilantes calling themselves the Minutemen began setting up lawn chairs along the north side of the border, bringing binoculars, pistols and countless reporters with them.
Since then, with armed border-watchers planted on the US side of the border with the express intent to disrupt illegal immigration and report undocumented immigrants to US authorities, Palafox and other service providers have seen a drop in the number of migrants crossing in the area, but the true impact of the Minuteman Project on migration remains to be seen.
The Spanish-language press has frequently run stories about the Minutemen, complete with footage of armed American civilians patrolling the border. In addition, Grupo Beta has posted flyers along the border and in Agua Prieta, warning potential border-crossers to avoid the area during the month of April.
It is unclear whether the resolve of the Minutemen is great enough to overpower the urgency of this journey.
But Bertha de la Rosa, the coordinator for Grupo Beta in Agua Prieta, thinks the Minuteman presence will have no long-term effect on the status quo. Aa short woman whose friendly smile belies her no-nonsense attitude, she said she believed that for the most part, migrants were not deciding to abandon their journey entirely. She suspected they were merely moving farther west towards the border city of Nogales, or perhaps simply waiting for the Minutemen to go home.
During the first week of April, Palafox and de la Rosa recalled they did not encounter any problems with the Minutemen, but Palafox in particular was concerned that trouble was on the horizon. "Look at them, they have guns," he said, pointing toward a group of volunteers on the US side, gathered in front of a truck displaying a flapping Arkansas state flag. Palafox, who has conducted his own border patrol for years without ever needing a weapon, asked, "Why would they be carrying guns if they are not planning on using them?"
"ProtecciÃ³n a Migrantes"
Of the 1.1 million migrants apprehended last year by US Border Patrol agents, according to the agency, 51 percent were attempting to cross at the Arizona border. As border-crossers have been forced to reroute in order to avoid Operation Gatekeeper, a US initiative launched in 1994 that has dramatically increased the number of agents along the California border, the number of people perishing in Arizonaâ€™s unforgiving deserts and mountains has skyrocketed. In 2003, the US Border Patrol reports, 139 migrants died while crossing. The following year, the Arizona Daily Star, after conducting an exhaustive research project, estimated that 193 had perished.
â€œIf they were in our position, they would do the same thing. A person has to eat.â€ -- Rodrigo Jacobo, Mexican cab driver
Grupo Betaâ€™s local headquarters is located in the small border town Agua Prieta, across the border from Douglas, Arizona. In the lobby of the building, which is simply a converted adobe house in a residential neighborhood, a framed map plots the locations of the twenty-nine migrants who died in 2003 en route between Agua Prieta and the town of Naco, which straddles the border to the west.
Some more fortunate migrants have managed to make Agua Prieta a destination rather than a way station.
Rodrigo Jacobo, moved with his family to Agua Prieta in 1991.But he recalls that during his years spent as a migrant worker in the US,, by his estimation, he was caught and deported by US immigration officials at least thirty times. On the last occasion, he mentioned that he spent four months in an Arizona jail in the city of Florence â€“ north of Tucson, Arizona -- after being apprehended by immigration officials while at his job picking vegetables.
Now that he is earning good money on the Mexican side of the border as a cab driver, Jacobo can support his wife and five children and has no plans to return to the US. "Mexico is beautiful, precious," he said. "But thereâ€™s just too much unemployment. I am making it, but so many others cannot."
Like most Mexicans in this town, Jacobo is curious about the Minutemen, having heard rumors that they are hunting down migrants with impunity. "What do they think they are doing, anyway?" he asked. "Who do they think picks the vegetables, cleans the homes, washes the dishes in their country?"
The prospect of returning home empty-handed was more distressing than eluding an additional civilian force, even if some of those civilians were armed.
"Here," said Jacobo, "people canâ€™t get even enough rice or tortillas to eat, and in the US they throw their food away," he stated. "So if they were in our position, they would do the same thing. A person has to eat," he said, echoing a phrase heard frequently here in discussions of why so many Mexicans make the journey north.
It is unclear whether the resolve of the Minutemen is great enough to overpower the urgency of this journey. De la Rosa noted that Grupo Beta normally encountered around 400 migrants each day, but that the number had been cut in half since the Minutemen arrived.
But when asked whether he thought the Minutemen would intimidate migrants to stay home, Jacobo laughed. "No, no, no!" he exclaimed, pounding his hands on the steering wheel of his cab. "Mexicans will keep crossing in order to survive."
On Guard, and Idle
By car, it is a fifteen-minute journey west along a paved highway from Agua Prieta to a private ranch, whose primitive dirt roads wind north to the border and are off-limits to private vehicles.
Hector Gabriel, a staff member of Grupo Beta, jumped out of an orange truck and introduced himself. He had just returned from the border on an obscure, primitive dirt road. Peering out from the back of the truck were the dusty, dark faces of ten young men. They climbed into another truck headed for the Agua Prieta office, while Gabriel paused briefly before turning around to make yet another trip to the border.
"The people we find come from all over Mexico and Central America," said Gabriel. "And we ask them if they would like some food and water and a ride back into town. They almost always say yes, especially now when we tell them about the Minutemen." In the back of the truck, empty water bottles and cans of tuna jostled with each bump of the road.
As the truck lumbered back onto the bumpy path, Gabrielâ€™s eyes showed lines of fatigue. He explained that everyone at Grupo Beta was now working seven days a week because of the Minutemenâ€™s presence.
He made clear that Grupo Beta does not detain migrants, or even deter them from making their trip. They simply offer migrants help, wherever they are headed.
Despite its place at the center of tense political controversy, the landscape of the border itself -- at least between Naco and Agua Prieta -- is mostly unremarkable. Much of the "line" is demarcated with only a barbed wire fence. Trails wind along the terrain, created by crossing migrants and their coyotes or polleros, as the human smugglers are called.
Blue flags that rise out of the desert, alerting migrants to the presence of water stations. The water stations are set up and replenished by Humane Borders, a religious organization based in Tucson whose chief mission, in their blunt words, is to "take death out of the immigration equation." Beneath each flag sit barrels of water marked "AGUA" in large black letters.
Since the arrival of the Minutemen, politics have been a bit more evident on the border.
On a typical day of the Minutemenâ€™s watch, on the US side, volunteers sat in chairs neatly assembled along a road beside the border, and stared toward Mexico.
The border-watchers themselves were under the watch of legal observers from the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona and American Friends Service Committee.
On the Mexican side, curious Grupo Beta employees, on the lookout for migrants, kept an eye on both groups.
Early in the day, Palafox encountered a group of men hunkered below a ridge within fifty feet of the border. The men, not knowing that they had been discovered, kept popping their heads up and sneaking glances across the border at the Minutemen.
Palafox approached the migrants with a greeting that he had adopted since the Minutemen arrived: "Are you going to evade the gringos?" He used the Spanish verb toriar to liken migrants to toros, or bullfighters, in the path of an antagonist.
Palafox later recalled that as he was handing out tuna and water to the men, they told him that they had spent the last hour peering over the ridge, wondering why so many Anglos were sitting around with guns.
After explaining the situation, Palafox was able to convince the group to return to Agua Prieta for a meal and shower.
"Last night we put out signs all along this area, telling people not to cross because of the armed vigilantes," Palafox said, pleased that he was able to do his part in keeping the Minutemen bored. In a transnational game of cat-and-mouse, the people from Grupo Beta were doing their best to round up immigrants before they fell within eyesight of the Minutemen, hoping to avoid any confrontations.
For Palafox, it was heartening to see the vigilantes wasting their time. "Let them sit there staring at us," he said. "If you ask me, they are just ignorant racists."
Resolve Persists Despite Fears of Violence
Despite the well-publicized presence of the Minutemen, desperate migrants continued to cross along the southeastern border of Arizona, albeit at a diminished rate. After saving money to hire a coyote and traveling hundreds of miles to the border, the prospect of returning home empty-handed was more distressing than eluding an additional civilian force, even if some of those civilians were armed.
At dusk during the first week of the Minuteman Project, one group of eight men, determined to continue their journey north at all costs, gathered at Centro de AtenciÃ³n al Migrante Exodus, or CAME, a short-stay center housed in a catholic church in Agua Prieta.
Founded in 2002, CAME provides meals and beds for travelers preparing to cross over to the US. Two days before, the men had left their homes in the Mexican city of Veracruz, where they said no work was available. It was the first attempt at crossing for everyone in the group.
At the shelter, Ray Ybarra from the ACLU office in the small border town Douglas had come to speak to the group about the Minutemen, after another day of monitoring their activities at the border. "So far, nothing is happening on the border, which is good," he said, with evident relief. "As long as things remain boring, Iâ€™m satisfied."
After dinner, Ybarra passed out flyers to the men, warning them about the Minutemen. As he explained the project, the migrants exchanged anxious glances. "This is the first time that they have come here?" asked Placido, a man in his twenties. Ybarra nodded, causing Placido and his companion Nicomendes, to laugh nervously. "Talk about good luck," Placido exclaimed sardonically.
"And you said that they have guns?" asked Nicomendes with a look of bewilderment. "Do you think they will shoot at us?" The other men in the group leaned forward; it was evidently the question on everyoneâ€™s mind.
For now, gunfire seemed unlikely. A man named John, who had spent the previous three days monitoring the Minutemen, explained that the Minutemen seemed resolved to just watch the border and call border patrol if they saw anyone.
Placido and Nicomendes looked at each other, then at the other men. "Well, weâ€™ll see," said Nicomendes. Placido shrugged. Despite the warnings, no one seemed eager to return to Veracruz after successfully making it this far.
"Â¡Chicos a dormir!" interrupted a woman that worked at the center, announcing it was time for bed. The men stood up, said goodbye, and disappeared into their sleeping quarters, passing through a door with a sign taped to it that read, "Migrants, you are not alone."