Fence, US Mexico Border. Photo courtesy Yesenia Trujillo

Rayo and Güera

This was your last little trip, pollero.
I am not a pollero, Chucho said.
Ha! Right. I have seen you crossing people, the rancher said, and I caught you in the act.
No. It is not the act what I deny. But I am not a pollero.

-Yuri Herrera. Signs that will Precede the End of the World

Fence, US Mexico Border. Photo courtesy Yesenia Trujillo

Fence, US Mexico Border. Photo courtesy Yesenia Trujillo

– or John Doe 46, according to his court indictment– is a medium -build, tall man of black, wavy hair in his 30s. Every day at 7:30am, he arrives at this run-down, two-story motel in Phoenix, and sits in the small, crowded room that serves as front office. There is a table covered with papers – wire transfer receipts, semi-torn business cards, pieces of cardboard covered with what appear to be cell phone numbers — and a small safe that does not lock where he keeps a ledger. There are also a few old cellphones, scratched and with cracked screens, signs they get used —and dropped—way too often. The cellphones are beeping. Rayo has messages or missed calls he must tend to but that he tries to ignore. First he must call Güera (Blondie), his girlfriend, who makes a living selling freshly squeezed juices and sandwiches to the employees of businesses in this predominantly migrant neighborhood in Phoenix. Rayo has to ask her to accompany him to pick up a wire transfer from a man in Indiana who just finished paying his smuggling fee. Güera, who is a U.S. citizen by birth, is the only one with a valid passport in this small group of friends who work “pasando gente” or “crossing people.”

Unable to further ignore the cell phones, Rayo tells himself I’ll just her call later and ask her,  pulling up a chair and finally sitting down to listen to the messages. Here in Phoenix Trini is asking for a call back; she has not been paid for the two young men she referred to Rayo, and her rent is now due. Roman is asking how many cars he should get this week and for how many people. One of the men Rayo asked to drive a small group to Los Angeles is running late. He also needs money or will not be able to afford gas. Rayo curses under his breath muttering what an idiot, a driver who runs out of gas, and starts making calls.

The stories of Rayo, Güera and their friends reflect some of the everyday dynamics of the provision of extra-legal border crossings in Arizona – an occupation which has become, despite its illicit nature, an income generating strategy along the routes of the migrant trail, a legitimate form of labor that is performed alongside day-time jobs, child care duties and housework, In Maricopa County, smuggling is a dignifying, often coveted form of work.

Few empirical analyses of smuggling have reflected on the practice as part of a socially embedded process carried out by those along borders to overcome multiple forms of marginalization. The more frequent efforts to map smuggling have instead focused on  identifying it as part of networks, enterprise and criminal structures,  or in the context of national security challenges, obscuring the individual experiences of smuggling’s actors like Rayo and Güera, but also the decision-making processes of those who rely on the assistance provided by facilitators for extra-legal border journeys.  The collaborative nature of smuggling and its socially-determined expectations of protection, support and care have therefore been consistently ignored in favor of narratives of physical and sexual victimization and financial exploitation, that while fundamental at understanding the highly specific nature of smuggling-related violence are often reduced to sensationalized, graphic and paternalistic representations of border crossers as infantile and ignorant.  These narratives have also hidden the processes by which those who cross borders clandestinely – and to a much lesser degree, those behind their transits—are criminalized by the state.

In 2004 the Arizona legislature approved with great fanfare SB1372, known locally as the Coyote Statute. The law was intended to serve as a mechanism to reduce the level of victimization allegedly experienced by border crossers at the hands of human smugglers. Yet only a few months following its enactment, the law started to be used to charge those crossing the border clandestinely with conspiracy to commit their own human smuggling. By the time the law was found to be unconstitutional, an estimated 4,000 people had been convicted in Maricopa County alone – most of them border crossers.

Why are so few smuggling facilitators arrested? How are they organized? If smuggling is not violent, then how do we explain the tragedies involving border crosser deaths, the kidnappings and the level of extortion suffered by migrants?

The answers are not present in media or law enforcement reports. Academia’s perspectives have also been limited, scholars fearing a market perceived as violent, and opting not to study smuggling, but rather the experiences of the most vulnerable of border crossers, who are also among those most likely to endure victimization at the hands of multiple actors  –not only of smuggling facilitators.

As I wait for Rayo to be done with his calls, I overhear his conversation with a potential customer:

“So you are Mr. Rayo, right? I was told to call you.
- I go by many names, ma’am.
-Well, they said you were just a pollero and to call you, that you would help me with what I needed.
-I go by many names ma’am. Rayo, Pantera, Chacho. Just use the name they gave you. I have a name. Don’t call me a pollero.”

Who are the smugglers, and how do they make sense of their role in the facilitation of clandestine border crossings? Rayo and Guera; the men who walk border crossers through the desert;  the women who house them at nighttime in their homes, and those who drive them into Phoenix’s  Central Station on Saturday afternoon taking advantage of La Migra’s shift change are the only ones who have the answers.

Gabriella Sanchez is a research fellow at the Border Crossing Observatory at Monash University and author of Border Crossings and Human Smuggling (Routledge, 2014).

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