How I became a migrant trafficker in Mexico

I aided and abetted the invasion of the United States.

A family walks down the road with a convoy of soldiers behind them
A convoy of National Guard soldiers passes migrants walking north on the side of the highway in Villa Comaltitlan, Chiapas state, southern Mexico, on December 27 [Edgar H Clemente/AP Photo]

In February 2024, far-right American activist and white nationalist Laura Loomer – whom former United States president and current presidential candidate Donald Trump once praised as “really very special” – descended upon Panama for a weeklong “investigative trip” to the Darién Gap to “report on the invasion of America” being staged thousands of kilometres south of the United States border.

The Darién Gap, of course, is the formidable stretch of roadless territory between Panama and Colombia that refuge seekers from around the world must navigate as they pursue a better life – pardon, as they seek to invade America. The Gap comprises a dense jungle where assault, rape and death are par for the course. And yet the US is somehow still the victim.

Loomer’s expedition brought her up close and personal with the enemy, including a number of “Venezuelan invaders”, some of whom told Loomer that Trump was a “bitch” and that they loved incumbent president Joe Biden. In other words, this was clearly war.

I recently encountered some Venezuelans of my own in Mexico, the final leg of the US invasion, where the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) continues to dutifully carry out the anti-migrant dirty work assigned to the country by its friendly gringo neighbours. Despite Biden’s reputation among the right wing as aiding and abetting the migrant conquest of the US, he has done a fine job of ensuring that the trans-Mexico trajectory remains as hellish as possible for refuge seekers – a situation that has only been exacerbated as presidential elections approach on both sides of the border. After all, repressing poor people usually scores you points.

When two young Venezuelan friends of mine – we’ll call them Juan Antonio and Claudia – crossed into the Mexican state of Chiapas from Guatemala in March, I was in the neighbouring state of Oaxaca and decided to do my part for the migrant conquest by renting a car and going to pick them up. This was easier said than done from the get-go, as my valid US driver’s licence was at my mother’s house in Washington, DC, and my mother was in Spain – a first-world travel problem if there ever was one.

While I despaired over how to proceed, Juan Antonio and Claudia were detained in the Mexican border town of Ciudad Hidalgo, which had seemingly been spontaneously converted into an open-air prison of sorts minus the complimentary food and water. Whereas asylum seekers were previously able to leave Ciudad Hidalgo with relative ease and proceed on their way, my friends were now informed that departing on their own would make them immediate prey for the cartels.

Instead, Mexican immigration personnel added them to an infinite list of passengers to be bussed to the city of Arriaga in western Chiapas, the stated price for which bus ranged between free and $100. Several scorching days and sleepless nights passed, an arrangement that was hardly ideal for two young people who had just emerged from a harrowing trek through the Darién jungle. Juan Antonio had been robbed and beaten, and women in the group had been raped.

It eventually occurred to me that my old Texas driver’s licence, which was indeed in my possession, bore the expiration date 03/07/2024 – meaning March 7 in the US but interpreted in Mexico as July 3. Sure enough, off I went to the rental car company and was soon on the road to Chiapas, arriving to Arriaga just as Juan Antonio and Claudia, having now clocked six days in Ciudad Hidalgo, were at last being loaded onto the mythical Arriaga bus. I stopped there to wait for them at 4pm; at midnight it was revealed that the Arriaga bus had not been bound for Arriaga at all but rather the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, more than two hours away.

Before sunrise on March 19, I set out for Tuxtla to retrieve them. The plan was to spend one night in Arriaga, where they would eat, shower, rest, and do other basic things taken for granted by travellers with privileged passports, who do not have to contend with being abused and extorted at every turn by Mexican officials, organised crime outfits, and transportation companies alike – often working in symbiosis. I would then drive them as far as Oaxaca City, southeast of the Mexican capital of Mexico City, thus sparing them the harassment and extortion payments they would have otherwise endured along the way.

Or so I thought.

Leaving Arriaga at 9am on March 20 in the highest of spirits, our only concern being how to get the desired reggaeton playlist to play on the car stereo, we had advanced no more than a few kilometres before we were stopped at a checkpoint manned by a bevy of police officers and representatives of the state attorney general’s office. My best American tourist accent failed miserably, and we were hauled out of the vehicle for inspection of all possessions including our cell phones – prompting the following sympathetic comment from the sole female police officer: “Well, we all have naked pictures on our phones, don’t we?”

This same officer suggested repeatedly that I gift her my sunglasses, while the male officers concerned themselves with more substantial matters: I would need to produce 50,000 Mexican pesos (approximately $3,000) or they would confiscate the car, put me in jail for migrant trafficking, and send the Venezuelans back to the border.

Having already experienced Mexican jail once, it was not something I wanted to repeat; nor, however, did I have 50,000 pesos. The bribe was ultimately negotiated down to about $500, and an agent from the attorney general’s office instructed me to drive Juan Antonio and Claudia as far as the next gas station, where they were to join all the other refuge seekers walking toward the US in the blistering sun.

Naturally, another checkpoint materialised before the gas station, where I was once again alerted to the fact that my friends were “illegal” and that I was committing a “crime” punishable with jail time. When I responded that I was simply following orders from the last checkpoint, I was accused of having contributed to the problem of corruption in Mexico by acceding to the demand for a bribe.

Some more threats were emitted before the “good cop” of the group asked for my phone – this time to indicate to Juan Antonio and Claudia the pedestrian route they were to use to circumvent the upcoming checkpoints, one belonging to the National Guard and the next to Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM), the latter of which was just beyond the Chiapas-Oaxaca state border. I could pick them up on the other side of the INM checkpoint, the officer said, and we could continue on our way.

This was not to be, as my friends were ambushed on their walk by National Guard agents lurking among the bushes, who made off with their meagre funds. They were then detained by the INM, as I, oblivious to all that was happening, drove in circles and waited for the one WhatsApp checkmark to turn into two on the messages I had sent Juan Antonio and Claudia. I stopped to drink beer under the bridge past the INM checkpoint, and in the infernal heat chatted with a man from the state of Sinaloa who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in the US in 2020 for trafficking migrants across the border. On account of the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, he had been deported after only 15 days.

When I inquired as to what he currently did for a living, he answered vaguely that he worked with “livestock”. Also under the bridge was an assortment of taxis dedicated to ferrying undocumented persons past the ensuing checkpoints for a hefty fee, a business that flourishes with complete state complicity.

At about 3pm, my friends reappeared online to notify me that the INM had deposited them on the side of the road in the city of Berriozábal outside Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Back I went to retrieve them, and back we arrived at Arriaga at 7pm, ending up at the morning’s first checkpoint with the same cast of characters. At a loss for what to do, I descended from the vehicle and declared pompously that, in light of the day’s progress, I had decided to write an article about migrant extortion. Would anyone like to be quoted in it?

The police dealt with this proposition by shouting that the “migra” was coming and for us to get out of there, which we obligingly did. Juan Antonio and Claudia once again took the pedestrian detour around the National Guard and INM checkpoints, this time in the dark. Assaulted once again, they explained to their assailants that all of their money had already been taken in the previous assault. They were allowed to proceed when Claudia broke down in tears.

I picked them up under the same bridge I had sat under earlier in the day, where the taxi drivers were none too thrilled at losing two customers to a meddling gringa and apparently phoned ahead to the next National Guard checkpoint to advise them that a migrant trafficking case was heading their way. I was told as much by the three National Guard members who cornered us with their pick-up truck in a parking lot preceding the checkpoint, and who informed me that from my Mexican jail cell I would constitute a stain on the national pride of the US. Displeased to hear that their fellow forces of law and order had already taken all of my pesos and that a 2,000-peso bribe was categorically impossible, they were unmoved by my rambling chatter about the fundamental role of my own country in Mexico’s migrant crackdown and general inhumane landscape. They eventually let us go after banning Juan Antonio and Claudia from getting back in the car.

In the parking lot, we acquired an 18-year-old Venezuelan companion who had been stuck for nearly a year in Mexico and who had been returned to the Mexican-Guatemalan border three times, once from the northern city of Ciudad Juárez, just across from the US city of El Paso. This young man offered to guide Juan Antonio and Claudia around the next checkpoint in exchange for something to eat.

In the end, the young man joined us for what remained of our vehicular journey together. Two checkpoints were successfully circumvented on foot, with me driving through and picking up the passengers on the other side. The third checkpoint, located in the town of Niltepec on Oaxaca’s isthmus of Tehuantepec, had seemingly also been cleared successfully – until we were chased down by a car with flashing lights that belonged to some branch of the Mexican security apparatus I had never even heard of.

It was nearly 1am, and the officers were blunt with me: I was to keep driving straight, and they were to take “these people” back to Niltepec. My passport was photographed along with the car, and I was reminded that I was committing a grave “crime”. If I was caught again, I was going behind bars for sure. I did as I was told, and will now have to limit my “trafficking” activities to sending my friends money to fund an excruciatingly slow and obstacle-ridden traversal of Mexico and to line the pockets of a whole lot of people between here and the US border – if they make it, that is. When on March 22 I bought them bus tickets online to travel from the isthmian town of Juchitán to Oaxaca City, they were removed from the bus by the INM and sent back to Arriaga to advance at a snail’s pace.

If we want to talk about real “crimes”, of course, we could start with the criminal nature of the US border itself, the self-declared sacrosanctity of which translates into physical and psychological torment for thousands upon thousands of refuge seekers – many of whom are fleeing political and economic violence created by the US in the first place. Indeed, the United States’ selective criminalisation of cross-border movement by the have-nots of the world strips them of their dignity and exposes them to all manner of harassment and peril as they transit Mexico, America’s last line of defence, where US pressure to deter migration helps enable astronomical corruption.

But since it’s hard to deter people who have nothing to lose, the whole deterrence strategy accomplishes little aside from making the journey all the more painfully complicated and dangerous. In the meantime, the effective criminalisation of solidarity and humanity makes folks all the more reluctant to assist people in transit.

At the end of the day, then, the “invasion of America” hyped by the likes of Laura Loomer is a rather haphazard one, the “invaders” thwarted and extorted at every turn. But the real war is in the opposite direction, and, as elections loom in the US and Mexico, the next phase of battle has only just begun.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.