How Mexican Immigrants Are Using Burner Phones to Evade Border Patrol

The business of burner phones is booming on the US-Mexico border, but it's hard to tell who's actually benefiting.

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Apr 14 2016, 1:30pm

Photo: Mark Ralston/Getty Images

This is part of BORDER LINES, a Motherboard series about burner phones and human trafficking in the US-Mexico borderlands. Follow along here.

"It's so dead simple," reporter Brian Anderson writes in "Remote Control," an investigative story for Motherboard that took three months to produce.

The "it" he's talking about is the concept of burner phones, and how migrants looking to cross the border illegally can use them to connect with guides (called polleros) who promise—for a price—to digitally guide them from home; supposedly safer than to be led on foot through miles of desert.

At least, it's safer for the polleros, who remain anonymous to their migrants and hardly go near the border at all. As a Border Patrol agent named John Lawson, who's been patrolling the border for 18 years, explains, "It's kind of hard to catch the bad guy when he's in Mexico sitting on a hill."

It's called "remote control" crossing, and, like anything else, it's a business.

The idea behind remote control crossing is simple, and of course technology, forever lauded for making things better, faster, smarter, looks like a savior on the surface. This is especially true for burner phones, which come with no contract and no need to be registered in someone's name.

Plus, it's a safer option.

According to Anderson,

In the epic saga of human movement, migrants who have found themselves stranded in the desert faced injury, dehydration, rape, being jumped by thieves, and even murder. Only now it's possible for many crossers to call 911 if they run into trouble. Cell coverage is strong enough across the borderlands that both Mexico and the United States run public messaging campaigns encouraging migrants to call for help before it's too late.

Burner phones can be tossed as easily as they can be purchased, and they're cheap, most of them are under 20 bucks. But while a burner phone comes without consequences; the politics surrounding them in the borderlands does not. And as Anderson and Salas explain, "if burners are a lifeline for migrants while they cross, then it would also seem the ubiquitous 'no­ contract' technology has necessarily made business more efficient for smugglers."

Within the story, Anderson writes that weed is even more valuable than migrants. A guide might not only waive the price a migrant would pay to cross via remote control if the migrant can smuggle drugs into the US, but also offer up a hefty cash reward. There's already a great risk taken by those who decide to attempt an illegal border cross, and the temptation to profit from it is high.

Anderson, with reporting from Camilo Salas, investigate with the help of sources who have both succeeded and failed at crossing the border with the help of a pollero, and what they find is a intense and harrowing narrative whose characters both denounce the growth of remote control crossing and desperately cling to it.