Published: 06.24.2006

Altar, Son., migrant traffic slows, may have moved to east and west
By Brady McCombs
"It's normal that it slows down, but it slowed down much earlier. It broke the pattern."
David Obeso Gil, Altar merchant
ALTAR, Sonora — The refrigerator inside the empty Mini Super el Arbol buzzes as it battles the sweltering midday heat to keep the bottled water, sodas and juices cold.
David Obeso Gil said his store used to sell the cold drinks faster than he could cool them, to thirsty migrants in town preparing for their trips north through Arizona. But this year, sales are down 40 percent, he said.
Fewer migrants are coming through this usually bustling staging town this year, Altar store owners and residents said this week.
A pace that normally slows down when temperatures reach triple digits in June began to slow in April this year, said Obeso Gil.
"It's normal that it slows down, but it slowed down much earlier," he said in Spanish. "It broke the pattern."
The immigration debate in the United States and street marches that received primetime coverage in the Mexican media, along with the recent deployment of National Guard troops to the border, have forced migrants to reconsider making the trip, said Obeso Gil and others in Altar.
"La raza (the people) gets discouraged," said Andres Romero, manager of the Casa de Huesped el Chino, about migrants who repeatedly get caught trying to get into the United States and run out of money.
Those who study Mexican migration offer a different theory.
Smugglers are likely leading the migrants to different routes to avoid Arizona, the latest move in the eternal chess match that smugglers and Border Patrol agents play along the 2,000-mile border, said Jorge Santibáñez, president of the Tijuana-based think tank Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
"Until now, there has been nothing that has stopped migrants," Santibáñez said in Spanish. "Unfortunately, organized crime begins finding new routes and organizing themselves better."
U.S. political activity carries little weight with Mexican migrants, who will continue to make the journey as long as jobs that pay them more than they can make in Mexico await them, said Jorge Bustamante, a special representative to the United Nations for the rights of migrants and professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame.
Apprehensions of illegal border crossers are up 5 percent in the Yuma Sector to the west and up 20 percent in the El Paso Sector to the east, U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Xavier Rios said.
"It's moving east and west, and that's typical of enhanced enforcement operations in any given area," he said
The Border Patrol has directed increased resources and manpower to the Tucson Sector since it surpassed the San Diego Sector as the busiest in 1998, Rios said.
Since 2000, the Tucson Sector has accounted for more than 35 percent of apprehensions nationwide. Rios said the sector has 2,400 agents today, 700 more than in 2001.
Tucson Sector apprehensions remain the nation's highest again this year, although those numbers are down 6 percent from last year.
The Border Patrol has reported 104 border deaths through Thursday, three fewer than at the same time last year.
Fewer migrants are passing through the El Tortugo checkpoint between Altar and Sasabe, said Mario Lopez Vazquez, commander of Sasabe's Grupo Beta, Mexico's special force for protecting migrants. Altar is about 115 miles southwest of Tucson.
Between 400 and 600 migrants a day pass through Sasabe in vans and taxis this year compared with 600 to 700 a day last year, Lopez Vazquez said.
Once they get as far north as Altar or Sasabe, very few turn back, he said.
"People plan for this trip before they leave their houses," he said. "Sometimes they take a month in getting here. At one step away, they are not going to return."
It took Martin Morales, 32, and four friends a week to get from Chiapas to Altar, where they were staying Tuesday in a casa de huesped, a hostel-style flophouse where migrants sleep before taking vans and taxis north to Sasabe to begin their trek into the United States.
They had been in town for three days waiting for a cool day to cross, he said. They had heard about the National Guard but said it wouldn't stop them from trying to cross.
"It's complicated, the heat and the patrol — that's just how it is," Morales said.
Neither the political activity nor the National Guard troops have influenced migrants, said the Rev. Robin Hoover, president of Humane Borders, a Tucson-based organization that places water tanks throughout the desert.
He's observed similar flows of migrants coming through Altar and Sasabe, and the group's water-tank usage is about the same, he said.
"It's the same stuff, different day," Hoover said. "I don't think anything has changed."
Illegal entrants do know and fear the presence of soldiers, whom they think of as rugged, tough and mean, said Nestor Rodriguez, a University of Houston sociologist.
The planned deployment of as many as 2,500 National Guard troops to Arizona — about 40 percent of the 6,000 total pledged by President Bush — reinforced the need to head east or west, said Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network.
"They are afraid they are going to get shot by a soldier," Allen said. "Bush can say whatever he wants to say about it not being militarized, that they are going to only play a support role, but the message is one that instills fear in people."
About 100 National Guard troops arrived in the Tucson Sector this week with 450 expected by next week, said Border Patrol spokesman Sean King. They will be doing administrative jobs such as manning control rooms and fixing vehicles, fences and roads, he said.
Border Patrol officials have credited their presence for a decrease in apprehensions in Yuma and said it's already serving as a symbolic deterrent.
But Santibáñez, the think tank chief, said it's just another example of manipulation by the Border Patrol to justify its tactics.
Not enough time has passed and nobody has studied enough terrain to make any substantial conclusions about the impact of National Guard deployment, said Bustamante, the Notre Dame sociology professor.
"Even though Mexican authorities have recognized a slowdown of people, there is nothing that as serious a researcher as I am can get ahold of," said Bustamante, who also collaborates with El Colegio de la Frontera Norte.
That doesn't stop Altar residents from coming up with their own theories for the slowdown in migrant visitors.
Increased pressure from the United States and Mexico to crack down on illegal traffic through the Altar Valley caused the decline, said taxi driver Paulino Medina Celaya, who hadn't made a trip to Sasabe in two weeks.
Mexican officials have set up checkpoints around Altar to target smugglers and Central Americans, he said.
This week, a Mexican army checkpoint was set up between Sasabe and Altar, and federal law enforcement officials were patrolling around Altar.
Whatever the reason, this town of about 7,000 people is hoping migrants return in October when temperatures drop.
"This is what this town lives by — there is nothing else," Medina Celaya said.
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"It's normal that it slows down, but it slowed down much earlier. It broke the pattern."
David Obeso Gil, Altar merchant