When it comes to the story of the American Dream, it often takes immigrants through a small Mexican town that few have ventured through before.
Altar — with a population of 9,000 people and sitting 100 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border — is a company town, and the business here is immigration.
“The economy is all based on the immigrants,” said Sister Mercedes in Spanish. She helps run a migrant shelter and is untouched by the cartels. “The immigrants sustain the town.”
The heart of town, the zócalo, or center square, is often the first meeting point for migrants and coyotes, who sit in white vans waiting for the immigrants.
Their gutted vehicles line the square, equipped with wooden benches to transport an overload of immigrants, often more than 30 in one van.
Sister Mercedes says her experience is that these guys charge each of those “sardines” about 3,000 pesos, or $230, for the two-hour drive to the border.
But the coyote swears the price is only 100 pesos per head, about $8.
Stores line the streets of Altar, all equipped with gear for the long journey ahead. Bags, jackets, ski masks, blankets — the desert gets surprisingly cold in the fall. Everything is in camouflage.
Hanging up in every shop is an item you won’t see at Saks, or even Wal-Mart: carpet shoes. They’re shoes with carpeting attached to the bottom, and they only cost $10.
“That’s what they put on so that they don’t leave footprints in the desert,” Sister Mercedes explains. “So that the Border Patrol doesn’t find them…the wind erases everything.”
Efrain, one of the migrants shopping for carpet shoes, is on a return trip.
He lived in the U.S. for five years, but returned to Mexico to visit family and now is having trouble crossing again. The Border Patrol crackdown and the cartels make this a dangerous journey.
So far, Efrain says he has spent 7,000 pesos, about $560, to make it this far. But that final leg looms ahead and the price tag to actually cross the border is real money. About $4,000.
And there are serious risks, including dehydration, snakes, and the possibility of getting kidnapped.
Their next and final step here in Altar is one of the most risky: their meeting with the coyote.
Only one coyote was willing to speak with Fusion, and then only if we did not show his face or identify him.
“It depends [how much it costs], but usually to go to Phoenix, we ask $3,500,” he said in Spanish. “My job is get him from the crossing point in Mexico to the U.S. side…guide them to the other side and once they get to a certain point, we send cars to pick them up and take them to Phoenix.”
He says he has a 50 percent success rate. When asked if he thought it was OK to break the law, he said yes, as long as you “treat him well” and “don’t rob them.”
“It’s fine,” he said. “I believe we are offering them a service,” he said, adding that sometimes there are “bad people.”
“In fact, it’s rare that a coyote only dedicates himself to the smuggling of migrants,” he said. “Now some of the coyotes in Altar use Central American migrants as drug mules.”