Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Desert Angels

So, who places the water in the Sonoran Desert on the Mexican side? Yesterday we found out.

Yesterday, we journeyed to Mexico. That is, we went across the border into Agua Prieta. The streets of Agua Preita butt right up to the border wall on the south side, and the streets of Douglas Arizona do the same on the north side. I am five blocks from the border now, at the Christian Peacemaker Teams house. I could walk to the border station into Mexico in fifteen minutes.

We went to the CRREDO in Agua Prieta. CRREDO stands for Centro de Rehabilitacion y Recuperacion para Enfermos de Drugadiccion y Alcoholismo. Here we met up with four Mexican men with a pickup truck. If you have lived in the west, you have probably developed some respect for what four Mexican men with a pickup truck can accomplish. They piled into their truck and we followed them in our rented van. They first went to fill up the 200 gallon plastic tank in the truck bed with potable water. Then we were off to the desert.

Our van just fits the twelve of us. Only the front windows open, but on these dusty dirt roads, we have all the windows up and the air conditioner on. It is close inside, and the van wallows sickeningly over the rough road. The men in the back of the pickup in front of us look much more comfortable, sitting on the gunwhales of the truck bed, swaying with the bumps, talking easily with one another, passing a cigarette.

Miles into the bush, we stop. Under a huge tree growing next to a desert wash is a blue plastic 55 gallon drum on a its side in a sturdy wooden stand. The Mexicans park their truck on a slight incline about 40 feet away, and start to uncoil a long, clear hose that will fill this desert reservoir. Gratefully, the delegation piles out of the van and we rubberneck around. It is apparent that many, many migrantes have rested here, just a quarter mile from the U.S. border, to catch their breath before the big push.

You see, there is no pressure on the migrantes on this side of the border. Mexico doesn't really enforce the border. After all, they aren't worried about hordes of U.S. citizens coming in illegally, and remittances--the money sent home by undocumented workers in the U.S.--exceeds the amount of new foreign investment that Mexico sees every year. In fact, when vigilante action on the border was really intimidating this last spring, the Mexican government gave bus rides to people preparing to cross the border illegally, so that they could try in less hostile places.

However, it was discovered that a startling number of migrantes were dying within eight miles of the U.S./Mexico border on the north side. This meant that people were crossing the border dehydrated, without adequate rest and water. Of course, this is also the zone of maximum enforcement, so there are vigilantes to dodge, Border Patrol is everywhere, and many of the border residents are also quite hostile. All of this may delay migrants, require them to hole up (which doesn't mean that they drink less water), and encourage dangerous night travel.

Attempts to put water on the U.S. side have proven difficult. Basically, if there is to be a water station in a given spot twenty-four hours after it is put up, it will have to be accompanied 24/7. Otherwise the water stations are vandalized--usually with bullets. It was therefore thought that water stations on the Mexican side would at least help, and they have.

Sergio, the natural leader of the crew of water dispensers, tells us that they have helped 5600 migrantes in the last year with food packages that they carry with them. Nobody knows how many people have benefitted from the water stations because they are not tended constantly. They have hauled thousands of gallons of water out here, however.

Sergio's story is just like that of any recovering hard core drug addict--"I lived for the next hit. I lost my dignity, money, family, health..." He worked as a coyote, helping people to cross the border illegally, for twenty years to support his habit. Then he got sober "by the grace of God." For two years now he has been the man on the ground for this water in the desert project, because his previous job experience as a coyote gives him unique qualifications.

Sergio is not someone you would want to mess with. Short and stocky, he is muscular with a small pot belly. His head sits on his shoulders like a cannonball, without the benefit of much discernable neck. He walks like a juggernaut, slightly bowlegged. His gait is even and unhurried, but in this sandy wash I struggle to keep up. It is easy to imagine him leading a band of migrants across this desert, mile after mile, relentless. He wears mirrored shades, but when he addresses the group, he takes them off, and his dark eyes smolder like coals, the whites slightly yellow and bloodshot, brows knit, he looks into you more than at you.

Sergio hasn't been out here for two weeks. He lost a nino two weeks ago, he says, shot in the head. I don't get whether this is a son, or a friend, or a sponsee at CRREDO, but it is clear that Sergio has taken it hard. He is a man in pain.

And pain is one way that God prepares us for compassion. Here is Sergio, with his backpack full of "Migrant Packs"--a Cliff bar, Gatorade, etc. He leads us down the wash to the border. A sorry barb wire fence stetches west and east, but is totally absent in the wash itself. In Spanish he says, "On the U.S. side you have cactus, chollo, mesquite. On the Mexican side, el mismo. How can you make a law against the existence of people?"

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