Last week I traveled to Sayulita, on the west coast of Mexico in the state of Nayarit, north of Puerto Vallarta. After several days in the sun with friends from Los Angeles, drinking way too much tequila but eating just the right amount of mahi mahi and shrimp ceviche, I came home from the Mexico City airport with a driver named Pedro Rios. Incredibly handsome, 30-ish, fit, dressed in Polo jeans, a light blue and green checked long-sleeved shirt and polished loafers, he took my bag, escorted me to the parking garage, and we left for the three-hour drive back to San Miguel. He spoke no English. I was a bit exhausted from the week but Pedro drives this route six days a week, back and forth, eight hours at a time. He was in the mood to talk. When I'm tired it's hard for me to speak Spanish well. But Pedro started asking questions and I figured I could find my way to answer. Off and on for three hours we talked about things, the most fascinating topic being his trip over the border to find work in the States.
He's been a driver for a shuttle company for about four years. Before that he was a professional soccer player in San Luis Potosi and still plays on Sundays for a team which pays him to play here in San Miguel. He drives every other day that he's not playing soccer. But for two and a half years he worked on the railroads in Texas and Iowa, laying rails and maintaining old track, after crossing at Laredo, Texas, not through the river but over a barbed wire fence. He looks nothing like the immigrants that people are so scared of.
He told me about the business of getting to the US. "I went with a coyote from San Miguel. There were 40 of us. This coyote is muy inteligente, he knew exactly what we should do when the helicopters flew over us. He told us to crouch down, keep your head down, don't look up or the radar will pick up the light from your eyes. He told us how to run if the trucks came, how to lose ourselves in the desert when the migra came. He knew the hours when the migra patrolled and told us exactly when we could walk without being seen."
Some facts I learned from Pedro:
- It costs about $3000US to get from San Miguel to Texas.
- The coyote receives about $2000 of that per person.
- The Zeta cartel controls the border. After you cross they arrive in pick up trucks with AK47s and take a fee from each person. When Pedro crossed it was 1800 pesos ($120). Today it is 7500 (about $600).
- Forty people left with him in his group but two people didn't make it. I asked him if they died. He told me he thought no, that they went back to Mexico. But I think he was just saying that. He told me the woman was old and with her male cousin, who could no longer drink or take water. They left them in the desert and kept walking.
- The coyote asked Pedro to be his driver, ferrying illegal immigrants from the desert to a second point where they would be met by another truck. The fee: $300 a person for the 90-minute ride. The eight-person Suburban, like the one I was driving in, would be filled with 20 people. That would be $6000 a day, three days a week. Pedro turned him down.
- Sometimes, when the American boss on the railroad wasn't around, the Mexican boss would write that the crew worked for 10 hours even though they only worked five. But they worked so hard they got the hours in to justify the fraud. Pedro said it was grueling work but that he was very strong back then.
I asked him why he came back. He said, my family of course. I missed them. He is now trying to get a legitimate visa so that he can go back to work. He won't stay forever but he can still make more than driving me to and from Mexico City.