Bicycles: The Most Ingenious Way to Smuggle Migrants
An excerpt from “The Coyote’s Bicycle,” the new book from borderland journalist Kimball Taylor.
Illustrations by Shaye Anderson
It may be unfair to implicate a simple bicycle in the advent of an intrepid borderland smuggler, but this story wouldn't be complete without one. To be specific, it was a milkman's bike that was saddled with a large wire basket designed to hold fifteen-liter milk canisters. It had solid rubber tires, dented fenders, double top-tubes, and wide, level handlebars. A dipper hung from the bike's frame. This wasn't likely the first bicycle in the village, but it was the only one in living memory. And aside from Don Ricardo's ancient tractor that, even in good times, few of the farming families could afford to rent, the bicycle was the only mechanized vehicle for many miles around.
For over three decades, from the late 1970s into the 2000s, rural Mexico had stumbled from one economic crisis to next—currency devaluation, agricultural collapse, the Tequila Crisis, the Tortilla Crisis, and NAFTA. This Oaxacan village was not alone in its indigence. Throughout the region homes were made of mud, sticks and thatch. There were no telephone or electricity lines. Meat at dinner was a rare indulgence. Children ate local fruit, mangos and papayas, almost exclusively. And sometimes, they went to bed with nothing in their stomachs.
So young men and women, as they came of age, tended to walk out of the pueblo on the thin, rutted road. They'd catch a colectivo bus to a bigger village, another from there to a town or city and, eventually, they'd disappear off into el Norte. This had been the case with twelve-year-old Pablo's two older brothers and two older sisters. They'd sometimes send remittances to his parents—which was his only connection to them, now—but these came infrequently. So the milk delivery job was a mild boon to Pablo and his family. Because of it, he and his best friend Solo, with whom he shared the job, received more than the few pesos they earned. The bike also offered intangibles: the sensation of balance without a foot or the hoof of an animal, without a single living part having to touch the Earth in any way. The stability was in the movement, and the movement was like a trick. Riding the bike felt like flying, like freedom.
On a day like any other day when he woke early, gathered firewood and delivered milk, Pablo learned that his siblings in the United States had finally gathered and sent a significant amount of money. After he finished his school day—from 2 to 7 PM, hours for the children of campesinos—and returned home for the evening meal, his parents informed him on how the windfall would be spent. Pablo would be afforded the uncommon luxury of secondary education, which was paid for out of pocket. But his parents would use the remainder to reunite with their grown children in California, and to find work themselves. Pablo would stay behind with his elderly grandfather in the family's thatch shack. If the parents were as successful as Pablo's siblings had been, they would send for him. If not, they'd return to the village.
A few years passed. Pablo finished secondary. He worked the family plot with his grandfather and continued to deliver milk with his friend Solo. Pablo's parents had yet to send for him and he didn't know if they would. He didn't know much about his family anymore. In the old days, workers had returned to their villages for Christmas, but those days were gone. Even communication from el Norte was patchy.
One day, Pablo bumped the front wheel of the milkman's bike into and out of the sluice that lined the family plot. He coasted through the gate, came to a stop in the yard, and set the bike on its side. The chickens had not been let out of the hutch. The morning fire had died. Pablo seemed to have caught his grandfather oversleeping. Inside the shack, however, Pablo discovered that the old man had no breath.
Within days, Pablo settled his grandfather's estate, returned the milkman's bicycle, and walked out of the pueblo on the thin, rutted road.
This bike would have gone for about forty bucks on the streets of Tijuana, and most likely, it would have come from an American border state.
Not much is known about the second bicycle. We can be almost certain it was a mountain bike, or a hybrid of some sort based on that popular design. An overwhelming rack of similar bicycles with names like the Power X, Titan, and Ground Assault were later found abandoned in the Tijuana River Valley, just on the American side of the boundary. This bike would have gone for about forty bucks on the streets of Tijuana, and most likely, it would have come from an American border state—having crossed the line in a scavenger's pickup in the same manner as old mattresses, reclaimed construction materials, and used car tires.
Pablo purchased this set of wheels shortly after his new career began. He'd been industriously acquiring items critical to a life other than newbie status in the hierarchy of the borderland slums. There was a life for him there, and the thought of it kept him busy.
Others in Pablo's industry have said that he was lucky—in ways that could be named and ways that couldn't. For example, he came into the work while America was experiencing an incredible economic surge, which created natural demand for his skills. And despite the fact that he offered little of his interior life in return, his clear expression and earnest demeanor drew strangers to him.
But his recent gains haven't been easy. He'd left Oaxaca with $308.40, his grandfather's life savings. On the road he heard stories about the dangers of la frontera. So he'd made a little pocket inside his underwear where he kept his inheritance. He met other migrants like himself. One group had made arrangements with a coyote, and one of their number asked him if he had anyone on the other side who could pay for his crossing. It was not a lie to say that he did have people en el otro lado. So their coyote accepted him into the group. This figure planned to cross the pollos in the mountainous Tecate section called the Eagle's Nest, where they would make a hard trek to the pickup spot. Moments after they set foot in the United States, however, the travelers were beset by a gang of thieves.
These men robbed the migrants of everything visible—money, jewelry, provisions—and sent them, defeated, back into Mexico. Their coyote expressed only a "ni modo"—oh well—and hatched a plan to cross the next night. Pablo became suspicious of this man. He never even checked on who would pay for him. And the Oaxacan wasn't going to give the bandits another chance at his hidden money. So he slipped the operation and was soon back in Tijuana's central district. Within a day, he linked up with another group and another smuggler. But when the time came to leave, this man arrived so drunk the pollos refused to go with him. Later, Pablo was picked up by a smooth-talking female recruiter. She had a stunning confidence and wit about her. Her guides seemed compatible, and he agreed to make the night crossing near Otay. None expected the immediate wash of lights and revving engines of la migra, a rabbit hunt in the brush. But Pablo wasn't about to let the authorities get ahold of him. He ditched this group and ran and ran until he came out on the Mexican side again.
The young migrant started to roam around on his own then, sleeping wherever he was at nightfall: up against a market, under stairs, wherever. He wandered close along la línea all the way out to Playas and, little by little, went along checking out the scene. This is where he met the region's most famous coyote, a pollero viejo, but by that time, Pablo no longer wanted to cross. He'd begun to see that coyotes were buying migrants like himself at a very good price. And because of his experience, he knew where the valuable clients could be found. It was as if a sheep took a look around, noticed who carried the big stick, and became a shepherd himself. Pablo became a recruiter of migrants—an enganchador.
Word seemed to have gotten around the bus station and other smuggler haunts, that Pablo had made headway with a top coyote. And being that it was sometimes difficult for freelancing recruiters to find a consistent operation to sell their pollos to, privateers often curried favor with those who held a steady connection. Strategies in crossing changed daily, so a part of the game was networking.
An enganchador named Juan was Pablo's age and had also come from the south. He'd heard others call the new guy "untrusting," but Juan understood that people from their part of the country were simply inclined toward a solitary bearing. Juan approached Pablo in the same casual manner he might a possible client from that region.
"Hola," he said, leaning against the white wall, next to Pablo. Across from them were the ticket counters where employees, young urban women with tight, shiny ponytails, crimson lips, and starched collars, offered comfortable transport to anywhere in Latin America. Their broad, competitive smiles contrasted with the expressions of the men on the other side of the polished floor, those who promised illicit transport north.
"Buenas," Pablo said. "Nice day, eh?"
"I've noticed that nice days are good for the work. You?"
"You're a strong recruiter, amigo," Juan said. "I can tell. The people really seem to trust you."
"Maybe," said Pablo; compliments weren't often handed around in the village. "I got off the same bus with the same idea."
"You said it, amigo. I'm from Michoacán. And you?"
"Where in Oaxaca, if I might ask?"
"It doesn't matter."
"No, I guess not. What's your name?"
"Pablo," Juan repeated the common name, biblical name. "I've heard the others call you something else: El Indio. That your nickname?"
"Yeah, I guess."
The tag, meaning "the Indian," was often hung on people with indigenous looks or dark skin. There was a Mexican phrase: no seas Indio. Most took it to mean "don't be gullible," or "don't be stupid." As with a handful of epithets like it, a hint of mirth in the utterance of "Indio" could be taken as an insult. Mexico's class divisions were sometimes mixed interchangeably with race.
"You always get your pollos right away, I notice," he said. "But you don't work as much as some of us."
The nickname, of course, could also be taken in other ways: a reference to the noble native who employed cunning and skill in defense of his people, for example, or the lone wanderer of the plains. Or maybe Pablo didn't take offense simply because it wasn't a name from the village. Maybe he didn't mind because the nickname built up his borderlands identity.
"I'm Juan, like the song," Pablo's new friend said, making a little shimmy. Pablo offered no response, letting the gesture fall to the tile underfoot. Recruiters didn't take silence for an answer, and it wasn't Juan's nature anyway. "You always get your pollos right away, I notice," he said. "But you don't work as much as some of us. Or maybe just not here, eh? What are you doing with your time?"
"I don't know. We can't be enganchadores forever."
"A bus station recruiter who studies? Wow, I've seen it all now."
"Me and Indio got to be good friends," Juan said much later, "and we started talking about different ideas and ways of making more money. We both would ask, 'Why not cross pollos ourselves?'"
The initial question was how. The trade was highly specialized. Each position required experience, and each technique expertise. The world of those who passed migrants over with rope ladders was separate from that of the panga boat operators, or the tunnel diggers. Increased enforcement at border cities pushed the poorest crossers into the wilderness, where guides attempted to elude trackers while also keeping their clients alive. The unseen coyotes who passed their customers through the terminals in la línea seemed to exist on an untouchable plateau.
In early December, Juan and El Indio happened upon each other at the bus station again. It would be for the last time that year. The business was about to shutter for the holidays. "Neither of us had family in Tijuana," Juan remembered, "so we said we'd hang out for Christmas."
The young men spent the day of the Nativity at a famous strip club and hostess bar called Adelita. And during the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve, Juan and Indio lounged at local bars, treated themselves to meals, and talked shop. When conversation turned to business, Juan sensed that El Indio always kept something back. Still, it was great to indulge. There hadn't been a week in either of their childhoods that offered the possibility of meat every day, not to mention the variety. And that was not all. On New Year's Eve the boys found themselves in a bar called La Estrella (The Star), and a few of the girls they'd met at Adelita arrived in a glittering storm of laughter.
"Where have you been all week?" one asked. She insinuated herself between them and the others gathered. "We all had so much fun on Christmas, I thought for sure you'd come back."
"Well," said El Indio, "now it looks like we're going to ring in the New Year together." The guys invited the ladies out to dinner, but the women said no, they wanted to take out the boys. Tips had been good. The group spun out of La Estrella and flagged a taxi. In New York they might have been young artists and actors reveling in the big city far from family. They burned with the same passions, these smugglers and strippers—optimistic young people looking to make a mark and hungry for something better. After dinner, the party careened on to the ladies' late-night shift at Adelita. The group celebrated the arrival of 2006, which floated down upon them in a shower of confetti, colored lights, and dance music. El Indio raised a bottle of Bucanas—Buchanan's scotch, a calling card among polleros. In the village it would have cost a week's wages. "Happy New Year, Juanito!" he cheered his friend.
Juan, however, wasn't going to let the spirited moment slip by. As the bleating horns and embraces subsided, Juan put a steady hand on his shoulder. "Amigo, how are we going to start working in 2006? It's time we became coyotes, hombre."
"I found a way," Indio said—bleary, content, and unusually open.
"All right!" said Juan. "You ever take anybody to the inside?"
"Me? No, never," Indio said. Juan had only assumed. Had Juan misread his quiet character for experience, confidence even? Indio put the neck of his bottle against his camarada's chest. "But this is the year, amigo."
"And how?" Juan asked with a flick of his chin.
"You want to find out, mi Juanito? Meet me at the cathedral tomorrow at 8:00 PM."
Tens, hundreds, and thousands of bicycles followed.
Still a bit hungover at 7:30 the next evening, Juan prowled around the open square underneath the spires of the downtown cathedral. It stood kitty-corner to several popular markets and shops. People milled about, enjoying the early winter evening. Indio arrived exactly at eight. He looked fit and healthy. The boys bought a couple of tacos at a nearby cart and then caught a minivan colectivo and headed west. Stepping off near the Comercial Mexicana in Playas de Tijuana, they crossed to the other side of the International Road where empty lots of desert scrub rolled up to the iron border fence. Before them to the north, the deep dark of the Tijuana River Valley lay like a vast pool—wind-rippled and quiet, it spilled onto a distant shore where lamps illuminated the city streets of Imperial Beach. They made their way along the base of Bunker Hill. Indio led Juan toward a shallow depression. A portion of it had eroded under the fence, leaving a hole big enough for a man to slide through. This was where Indio had stashed his bicycle.
"Okay, so what's the plan?"
"This is where we're going to enter with the people," El Indio said.
"Through the hole? And then what? That's a long way to the road." Juan made an obvious show of looking west toward a tower that the Border Patrol had erected opposite the lighthouse. Then he turned east and nodded at a kilo truck parked on Bunker Hill. The silhouette of an agent was visible inside.
"We're going to ride in on bicycles," Indio said.
"Better to show you."
"Okay, and when will this happen?"
"You're joking. Come on. La migra right in front of you, cameras over there, sensors in the ground all over the inside."
"I know. If you don't want in, no problem. I'll do it myself."
"Don't be crazy."
El Indio pushed his mountain bike through the crevice and squeezed in after it. Juan saw the bike lifted out and then Indio's legs climbing out of the pit. Then Juan could not see his friend at all. The solid iron wall blocked any view. He ran up Bunker Hill a ways to get a vantage. And there he caught the silhouette of a man astride a bicycle—a phantom navigating a deep blue slope down to the Border Patrol's very own road. He watched the dark figure fleeting through shadow and light, the tires raising just a quiet puff of dust.
Juan turned to view the Border Patrol agent waiting in the truck. Local smugglers believed that a blue light mounted above the Border Patrol's Imperial Beach station, within view of the valley, flashed when ground sensors detected a disturbance. Juan waited for it. He wondered if the distance created a lag time before the sensors set off the light. But the light did not blink. And by then El Indio had already vanished into the night.
The third fourth and fifth bikes were piloted by El Indio's first clients, and these bicycles were also dumped in the American river valley when the riders met the pick-up driver and were whisked away into the north. Tens, hundreds, and thousands of bicycles followed. Their piles drew attention. But possibly due to the outbreak of a horrific drug war that rattled the entire region, or maybe due to the distraction of migrants attempting to cross in every conceivable fashion, the bicycle operation was obscured until El Indio himself vanished.
The Coyote's Bicycle is now available. Reprinted courtesy of Tin House Books.