Hector, Father Turned Drug-Runner
Hidalgo - At age 18, Hector Salinas's girlfriend became pregnant unexpectedly. The pair promptly married, she bore their son, and the new father found himself unable to buy diapers and milk for his baby boy on the US$200 per month he earned working for the local water authority of the state of Hidalgo. So Hector headed north to the United States, alone.
Three years later, he was running drugs along the California coast, pocketing six thousand untaxed dollars per month, and sending his family at least US$800 per week. Hector says he fell deep into an underworld and ended up an unwitting witness to a murder.
That’s when he decided to escape the snares of his drug boss. He stole home to Hidalgo and met his baby boy for the first time in three years, vowing to keep him from a similar fate.
Over a long Friday afternoon, the affable Hector, now a spiky-haired office-worker in Mexico City, recounts his migration story systematically, in minute detail, as if chronicling its moments for his son’s generation. His speaks terse, matter-of-fact Spanish, his emotions always controlled. He refuses to pass judgment on any of the actors in his tale, including himself. He simply warns fellow Mexicans against rushing north, and urges them to temper their dreams of America.
In the next two posts, I'll look at Hector's views of the United States during his migration north, once he arrived in San Francisco, as he fell into a brutal gang, and finally today as he advises his growing boy.
Hiring the Pollero
Hector’s wife told him not to go. So did his parents. They all had heard the stories of deadly border crossings. His wife had also heard that Mexican men up north get lonely and betray their wives and don't return. The baby needed a dad, she said. But Hector was determined to earn for the family.
“My wife protested in the beginning, but in this relationship when I say something, there’s no turning back; she respects what I say.” Ultimately, it was Hector’s wife’s family that paved his road to the U.S.
Hector’s brother-in-law is an undocumented roofer in San Francisco. He put up the money so Hector could use the same Pollero (literally, “chicken herder”) that he had three years before. He says the pollero charges US$1500 to smuggle people north.
“I only thought of money, my family, and the house I would buy. I was going to the U.S. just for money, and coming right back,” Hector says.
The Pollero booked Hector’s airplane ticket, the first of his life, from Mexico City to Mexicali, from where migrants cross to Calexico, California. Hector hadn't met his pollero, and never found out his real name, but followed the man's careful instructions. Hector arrived at the McDonalds in the Mexico City airport at 9pm, two hours before his flight, ticket in hand, to meet the ten other Mexicans who’d be crossing with him.
He didn’t need to see their tickets to recognize his companions. “You realize when someone is not from the city, how they dress, the trousers are different, the shoes are different. We stood together but did not talk,” Hector says, “just committed, focused, not anxious.”
Once in Mexicali, Hector rested through the afternoon in a cheap hotel with six rickety bunk beds per room. At midnight, the group was awoken, guided to a wide river of sewage that stank and ate away at the fabric in his jeans, and told to wade through.
La Cruzada (The Crossing)
Hector crossed gamely that night, through the quick running water, over the jagged stones. But on the other side, instead of the vans he expected to carry him to Los Angeles, U.S. border control trucks waited with what Hector calls “human cages” affixed to the back. The patrolmen picked up the member’s of Hector’s group one by one and stuck them behind bars, he says, but didn’t process them “because we smelled too bad.”
"It was a small thing, just another experience,” Hector says of this failed attempt, “Actually, it was more like a triumph because they didn’t take my name or photo. I knew I’d try again tomorrow.”
Back in Mexicali, the guide told him to shower, drink electrolytes, and sleep because the next attempt would be much more dangerous.
In the morning, Hector and the others took an hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to La Rumorosa through barren hills. The guide bribed the bus driver, who had orders not to stop anywhere, so that he pulled over briefly allowing the group to jump out, rush into the mountains, and hide behind a huge rock until the road cleared. Then they walked in a single file line, led by the guide, from 2pm in the afternoon, when the sun was scorching hot, until 3am in the morning, when the temperature of the February night dropped below freezing.
Hector carried only a bottle of water in a backpack, and a big puffy coat for the night. Some of his companions fell down exhausted. Others twisted their limbs or were stung by cacti. After six hours, night fell, and a third of the group couldn't go on. They gave up and turned back, waiting for the border patrol to find them, process them, and escort them back to Mexico.
But Hector kept going, into the pure darkness. No flashlights, no cell phones, no glow-in-the-dark watches, just the guide ahead of him and the sound of footsteps. When they got to the U.S. side, the snaking Highway Five cut through the hills and intersected their route. The group had to dart across like deer, avoiding speeding cars, before waiting behind another rock for their escort Sebrings to arrive at 4:30am.
This time, the right cars arrived, and the group darted in, crouched down in front of the seats, and waited for the drivers to weave them toward their destination, avoiding police cars through a network of strategically placed friends who reported their movements to one another via cell phones. Hector said little during this time; his mind was fixated on the mission at hand.
Five hours later, mission accomplished. He was told to sit up and look outside at paradise. It was the mansion of the man in charge of many polleros, nicknamed The Cow. The Cow was a U.S. citizen, with “a huge lawn, a house with room after room after room, and carpets everywhere” says Hector. The newly arrived Mexicans stuffed together into one of the many rooms, as The Cow's workers sold “fake IDs (the blue one), a security number and the green ID so you can work," Hector says, for US$40 each.
That afternoon, vans started transporting migrants to their final destinations across the West Coast. Hector went straight to San Francisco, calmer now, able to sit up in the car. "It was relaxed," he says, though "I was still basically kidnapped until The Cow got his money."
At night Hector was driven further north to his brother-in-law, who came to meet The Cow's employee with the $1500, buying Hector's release into the United States.
"I was tired," says Hector, "happy to have arrived...but feeling very alone."
My next post will cover Hector's experience in the U.S., where his high expectations met a harsh reality as he was exploited by a fast food chain, bounced between jobs, and finally was lured into the world of drugs.