Crossing border can be dangerous for 'little chickens'

(This is the third in a four-part series of columns about Catarino Escobar Chavez, a Carson City resident who came to this country illegally from Mexico 23 years ago. Catarino is 40 today and an American citizen. He works as a correctional officer at Nevada State Prison. This column is dedicated to Catarino's journey to a New World and will hopefully knock down some of the walls and myths that keep us from constructive dialogue.)

After nearly four years of living the American Dream in Reno and Carson City, Catarino Escobar found himself back in Mexico.

It was the summer of 1980 and the U.S. Immigrations bus had dropped Catarino and the rest of the illegals at the border and herded them into Tijuana.

Catarino hadn't had time to pack when he was arrested a week earlier in Washoe County, so he didn't have a change of clothes or much money.

And he'd never been to Tijuana before.

"Tijuana is a pretty rough place," he said. "I'm walking down the street and there are prostitutes and drunks on every corner."

Mixed among the drunks and prostitutes are the ever-watchful "coyotes," waiting to prey on "pollos," or little chickens like Catarino. At the time, a coyote would sneak a little chicken from Tijuana to Los Angeles for around $500. Coyotes charge twice that today.

"You have to be careful when you're dealing with a coyote because they could be Mexican cops looking for a quick score," said Catarino.

It's also against the law in Mexico to sneak across the border, but the cops there tend to look the other way if the price is right. Mexican law enforcement is often a matter of economics.

Once a price is negotiated with a coyote, or "Mexican attorney," as Catarino refers to them, plans are hatched.

"You don't let the coyote know you have money right away," said Catarino. "He must understand that the money won't be handed over until you're safely across the border."

The payment usually comes from a relative or friend in the U.S. The coyote holds you until the money is paid. If the money never comes the coyote and his friends can be very unforgiving. "If you're lucky they'll just bring you back to Mexico," said Catarino. "If you're not you'll be beaten or worse."

Catarino's new coyote took him to a motel room where there were 20 or 30 other little chickens waiting to cross. "It got to the point where he had too many of us so he sold some of us to another coyote," remembered Catarino, who was one of those sold.

The next day around 6 p.m. the new coyote picked up Catarino and nine others and took them to San Luis Rio Colorado, a two-hour drive from Tijuana. "It was supposed to be easier to cross from there," said Catarino, who three years earlier had simply slipped beneath a fence and into the U.S. with an uncle and a man named Pancho.

They waited in another motel room while the coyote went out for bread and water for the trip.

"They didn't want 10 poorly-dressed illegals wandering the streets because the cops would come and ask the coyote for money," said Catarino.

The group walked about an hour to the border where they found a 20-foot fence with razor wire. "I was pretty agile, but I caught my hand on the wire," said Catarino. "My adrenaline was running, so I really didn't feel the pain. Besides, the coyote was yelling for us to hurry."

On the U.S. side of the border the illegals walked and ran for two hours, keeping an eye and ear open for the border patrol helicopters, or "mosquitoes," as Catarino called them.

"We walked for another three or four hours in fields and mud, but we didn't mind because the American Dream was just ahead," said Catarino.

The group came to a canal and waded in almost waist deep. "That was as close as I ever came to getting my back wet, so I'm not officially a wetback," Catarino chuckled.

In the desert not far from Yuma, Ariz., Catarino's group heard voices. "It was Immigration," he remembered. "I tried to hide in the plants and I could hear the others being captured. My heart was pounding because I knew I was about to be deported again."

A spotlight from a helicopter froze Catarino, and he was arrested again.

Border patrol agents sent the group back to San Luis Rio Colorado and the game of cat and mouse continued.

"It really is a game," said Catarino. "But it's a game that can be very costly, too, because in this game you can die."

The next morning they climbed the same fence and this time they made it to a farm house where the coyote had a connection. "They fed us and put us in a car and we only got a few blocks when INS agents swarmed us," said Catarino.

For the third time in less than a week Catarino was deported back to Mexico. This time he was returned to Tijuana.

"The coyote decided it might be better if we went to San Ysidro," said Catarino. "We found another hole in the fence and came across. It was like a festival down there. Hundreds of people waiting for the sun to go down to cross and vendors selling tacos while people wait."

This time the group made it to the coyote's "safe house," where phone calls were made to relatives asking for money to pay the coyotes.

"The coyote decided to take us to Los Angeles," said Catarino. "The next morning there were two cars in the garage and they told five of us to get into one of them and five into the other."

The coyote pointed to the trunk. "Granted, Mexicans aren't the tallest people in the world, but five of us in one trunk can be a bit crowded," said Catarino.

Even past the official border there are checkpoints along the highway and the two cars with illegals in the trunk still had to pass through one on the way to L.A.

"After the first 10 minutes in the trunk my side started to get hot because I was lying on top of where the manifold was," said Catarino. "When we were almost to the checkpoint the driver told us not to breathe or move until we were cleared."

Many illegals have died in trunks after the coyotes jumped from the cars with the agents in pursuit. "It doesn't take a long time to die in a trunk when it's 100 degrees outside," said Catarino.

They made it through the checkpoint and eventually into L.A., where Catarino's brother paid for his release and for a bus ticket to Reno.

Catarino was back and this time for good.

Next weeks final column on Catarino Escobar will detail his becoming a legal U.S. citizen and correctional officer for Nevada State Prison.


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