Crouched in the spiky terrain near this border city, a veteran smuggler known as Flaco points to the steel border fence and describes how he has taken drugs and people into the United States for more than three decades. His smuggling techniques include everything from throwing drugs over in gigantic catapults to hiding them in the engine cars of freight trains to making side tunnels off the cross-border sewage system.
When asked whether the border wall promised by President Trump will stop smugglers, he smiles. “This is never going to stop, neither the narco trafficking nor the illegals,” he says. “There will be more tunnels. More holes. If it doesn’t go over, it will go under.”
What will change? The fees that criminal networks charge to transport people and contraband across the border. Every time the wall goes up, so do smuggling profits.
The first time Flaco took people over the line was in 1984, when he was 15; he showed them a hole torn in a wire fence on the edge of Nogales for a tip of 50 cents. Today, many migrants pay smugglers as much as $5,000 to head north without papers, trekking for days through the Sonoran Desert. Most of that money goes to drug cartels that have taken over the profitable business.
“From 50 cents to $5,000,” Flaco says. “As the prices went up, the mafia, which is the Sinaloa cartel, took over everything here, drugs and people smuggling.” Sinaloa dominates Nogales and other parts of northwest Mexico, while rivals, including the Juarez, Gulf and Zetas cartels, control other sections of the border. Flaco finished a five-year prison sentence here for drug trafficking in 2009 and has continued to smuggle since.
His comments underline a problem that has frustrated successive American governments and is likely to haunt President Trump, even if the wall becomes more than a rallying cry and he finally gets the billions of dollars needed to fund it. Strengthening defenses does not stop smuggling. It only makes it more expensive, which inadvertently gives more money to criminal networks.
The cartels have taken advantage of this to build a multibillion industry, and they protect it with brutal violence that destabilizes Mexico and forces thousands of Mexicans to head north seeking asylum.
Stretching almost 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the border has proved treacherous to block. It traverses a sparsely populated desert, patches of soft earth that are easy to tunnel through, and the mammoth Rio Grande, which floods its banks, making fencing difficult. And it contains 52 legal crossing points, where millions of people, cars, trucks and trains enter the United States every week.
President Trump’s idea of a wall is not new. Chunks of walls, fencing and anti-car spikes have been erected periodically, particularly in 1990 and 2006. On April 30, Congress reached a deal to fund the federal budget through September that failed to approve any money for extending the barriers as President Trump has promised. However, it did allocate several hundred million dollars for repairing existing infrastructure, and the White House has said it will use this to replace some fencing with a more solid wall.
But rather than stopping smuggling, the barriers have just pushed it: farther into the desert, deeper into the ground, into more sophisticated secret compartments in cars and into the drug cartels’ hands.
It is particularly concerning how cartels have taken over the human smuggling business. Known as coyotes, these smugglers used to work independently, or in small groups. Now they have to work for the cartel, which takes a huge cut of the profits, Flaco says. If migrants try to cross the border without paying, they risk getting beaten or murdered.
The number of people detained without papers on the southern border has dropped markedly in the first months of the Trump administration, with fewer than 17,000 apprehended in March, the lowest since 2000. But this has nothing to do with the yet-to-be-built new wall. The president’s anti-immigrant rhetoric could be a deterrent — signaling that tweets can have a bigger effect than bricks. However, this may not last, and there is no sign of drug seizures going down.
Flaco grew up in a Nogales slum called Buenos Aires, which has produced generations of smugglers. The residents refer to the people who carry over backpacks full of drugs as burros, or donkeys. “When I first heard about this, I thought they used real donkeys to carry the marijuana,” Flaco says. “Then I realized, we were the donkeys.”
He was paid $500 for his first trip as a donkey when he was in high school, encouraging him to drop out for what seemed like easy money.
The fences haven’t stopped the burros, who use either ropes or their bare hands to scale them. This was captured in extraordinary footage from a Mexican TV crew, showing smugglers climbing into California. But solid walls offer no solution, as they can also be scaled and they make it harder for border patrol agents to spot what smugglers are up to on the Mexican side.
Flaco quickly graduated to building secret compartments in cars. Called clavos, they are fixed into gas tanks, on dashboards, on roofs. The cars, known by customs agents as trap cars, then drive right through the ports of entry. In fact, while most marijuana is caught in the desert, harder drugs such as heroin are far more likely to go over the bridge.
When customs agents learned to look for the switches that opened the secret compartments, smugglers figured out how to do without them. Some new trap cars can be opened only with complex procedures, such as when the driver is in the seat, all doors are closed, the defroster is turned on and a special card is swiped.
Equally sophisticated engineering goes into the tunnels that turn the border into a block of Swiss cheese. Between 1990 and 2016, 224 tunnels were discovered, some with air vents, rails and electric lights. While the drug lord Joaquin Guzman, known as El Chapo, became infamous for using them, Flaco says they are as old as the border itself and began as natural underground rivers.
Tunnels are particularly popular in Nogales, where Mexican federal agents regularly seize houses near the border for having them. Flaco even shows me a filled-in passage that started inside a graveyard tomb. “It’s because Nogales is one of the few border towns that is urbanized right up to the line,” explains Mayor David Cuauhtémoc Galindo. “There are houses that are on both sides of the border at a very short distance,” making it easy to tunnel from one to the other.
Nogales is also connected to its neighbor across the border in Arizona, also called Nogales, by a common drainage system. It cannot be blocked, because the ground slopes downward from Mexico to the United States. Police officers took me into the drainage system and showed me several smuggling tunnels that had been burrowed off it. They had been filled in with concrete, but the officers warned that smugglers could be lurking around to make new ones and that I should hit the ground if we ran into any.
Back above ground, catapults are one of the most spectacular smuggling methods. “We call them trampolines,” Flaco says. “They have a spring that is like a tripod, and two or three people operate them.” Border patrol agents captured one that had been attached to the fence near the city of Douglas, Ariz., in February and showed photos of what looked like a medieval siege weapon.
Freight trains also cross the border, on their way from southern Mexico up to Canada. While agents inspect them, it’s impossible to search all the carriages, which are packed with cargo from cars to canned chilies.
Flaco says the train workers are often paid off by the smugglers. He was once caught with a load of marijuana on a train in Arizona, but he managed to persuade police that he was a train worker and did only a month in jail.
While marijuana does less harm, the smugglers also bring heroin, crack cocaine and crystal meth to America, which kill many. Calls to wage war on drugs can be emotionally appealing. The way President Trump linked his promises of a wall to drug problems in rural America was most likely a factor in his victory.
But four decades after Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs,” despite trillions of dollars spent on agents, soldiers and barriers, drugs are still easy to buy all across America.
President Trump has taken power at a turning point in the drug policy debate. A majority of Americans now favor marijuana legalization, which is hitting the pockets of Mexican smugglers and will do so even more when California starts issuing licenses to sell recreational cannabis next year. President Trump has also called for more treatment for drug addicts. He would be wise to make that, and not the wall, a cornerstone of his drug policy.
Reducing the finances of drug cartels could reduce some of the violence, and the number of people fleeing north to escape it. But to really tackle the issue of human smuggling, the United States must provide a path to papers for the millions of undocumented workers already in the country, and then make sure businesses hire only workers with papers in the future. So long as illegal immigrants can make a living in the United States, smugglers will make a fortune leading them there.
Stopping the demand for the smugglers’ services actually hits them in their pockets. Otherwise, they will just keep getting richer as the bricks get higher.
Ioan Grillo is the author of Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America and a contributing opinion writer.