Border Underground Slaves
“They never told me it would be to build a tunnel. They told me about building wooden houses. Once I accepted the job, we got on a pick up Ford. Arriving I was told to crouch because there were many policemen in the place. I got off the pick up and when I lifted my head, I was already inside the house. “I noticed that there were two people in the place with long arms. I asked them what was going on and they told me that I had already fucked up, that the job was to build a tunnel and that I had to go down. ” “I never asked what the tunnel was for; I only imagined because of the proximity of the border between Mexico and the United States, which was to cross drugs or something illegal. “When the military arrived, we were down in the tunnel. Then they came in and told us not to move, then they got us six on a pick up and they moved us to the barracks. ” *** The operation lasted less than a day. It began on Saturday evening, November 7, 2009, next to Tijuana International Airport, and ended Sunday morning with a press conference and seven-man show. Six of them, slaves and one, the foreman. Drug slaves are men who do not exist until they are detained in operations such as that afternoon when soldiers entered the tunnel. Men who lose identity and freedom, and during the captivity live in silence at the service of the trafficker. After sixty days of slavery, they will speak in their ministerial statements: “When the soldiers arrived at the house they began to ask us who we worked for, who the tunnel was for, what we were going to cross.” The voice has name and face: Aldo Gallegos, an unemployed cowboy, then twenty-three years old. Let’s go to the house: Photo: Dalia Chavez *** Yes it is sacked. “It is a two-storey house, white, which has a nursery in the front. When entering the main door are located two rooms on the right side. In the first we placed the sacks of land and in the second was the entrance of the tunnel, “Aldo describes. “This is the house where they discovered the tunnel, can it happen?” There are no policemen on watch “What are they going to watch over?” They do not watch the streets. Pass it on, man, it’s abandoned. There in a room below is the entrance of the tunnel, but it is clogged. The neighbor responds as he crosses the street. He walks away and his voice also: “I should charge as a guide for … chin …, the puer …, lep .., money …, fla …, crazy …, ero …”. I’m already in the ruins. In this room is where the tunnel is. Here they obeyed indications of an “engineer”, “architect”: “when we went back down, we realized that the points of how to continue excavating were already marked in the tunnel so as not to be mistaken. It must have been someone with knowledge because it put well-designed levels and signals to continue construction, “explains another of the six forced, the assistant of mason, Nicholas Iniguez. We must believe in Nicholas. The photographer points to a wall in the room. It is a detail of the work traced with down that explains the covering of the subway: “… And the walls had triplays of tablet to avoid collapses”. Yes, sacked and filthy. They have stolen bars, plucked doors and all metal pipes that can be sold per kilo. The house that was for rent became a nursery, then in jail, later on a façade of a tunnel designed to smuggle drugs to the United States and today in shelter. (An indigent man made the laundry room, bed, toys, personal hygiene items and a modest pipe to smoke that drug that makes some addicts, stealing neighbors bulbs). Here and there there is reddish earth. It is the one they took for two months in captivity. I floor the mound of those sacks that the deportee Carlos Luna remembers: “The only thing I know is that Humberto was in charge of emptying the ground to a white jute sacks and later took it to throw.” It is true, the entrance has been covered with a concrete faience, and it has been inaccessible the route that would take drug from republic to republic, below the border mesh. Photo: Dalia Chavez *** When did tunneling begin to smuggle the United States? No one knows. The first finding was in May 1990, on the Sonora-Arizona border. When did the use of slaves begin to build tunnels? No one knows. That month, on that frontier, the workers did not stop. It happened as in the constructions discovered here in Tijuana: operations that conclude most of the time with drug seizures and confiscation of properties. Rarely is there life, say the numbers: from January 2006 to date nine undergrounds have been discovered. Only in two tunnels have they found forced. -There are cases where workers refer fear for their life at the end of the tunnel, do you know if they kill them at the end of the work ?, I ask Fermin Gomez, state delegate of the PGR. “It is not known that this situation has occurred and the investigations lie beyond the arrests. Above all, those involved in the development of the tunnels are being investigated. “And they suspect it?” -No no. In addition you do not have this information, there are no cases. No no. But there are slaves, like Francisco Riesgo, who think differently and say in his statement: “Humberto told me to finish the tunnel and they were going to let us go, but I imagined that by the end they would kill us.” That at the end they were going to kill, but they did not finish. *** Humberto the foreman must be well placed. Humberto Villarreal Pineda is thirty years old when the army captures him in the house where the six workers build the tunnel under his supervision. His boss, Don Mario, (“Don Mario regularly went to score points to continue the excavation” he will confess later) recommends that he put a nursery in the house to justify the land freights he will make. The deal is sealed for three thousand pesos a week. Who was Humberto working for? His statement says that for Teodoro García Simental, that drug trafficker who in 2008, made in Tijuana a zarzuela of bullets where 882 executed executed. Photo: Angeles García To complete the tunnel, Don Mario has ordered half a dozen men. It is enough that Humberto offers two thousand dollars a week for “construction work” to the unemployed. Before, decide to make a small money. Together with his brother, he makes the decision to steal a car. Taste costs prison. The penalty, however, has a reward. In the penitentiary of La Mesa he meets Francisco Riesgo, a delinquent of half a hair he has known since his childhood. “I was in jail for a crime of car robbery, when Humberto Villarreal Pineda, along with his brother, who I have known since we were kids, we lived in Guadalajara.” And there in jail, Don Miguel’s order begins: “Humberto told me that he was working on roofs and he came out first. I dialed the phone he left before leaving the prison. He gave me lodging in his house, he offered me a good chamba of two thousand pesos digging a tunnel. Days later, Humberto concludes the search for the human resource: a preliberate for vehicle theft, a deportee, a cowboy, a mason’s assistant and father and son gardeners. One promises to care for a nursery, another to sell plants, to build wooden houses, to dig a tunnel and those two, gardening. The first step Humberto gives is to threaten the captives. (“We were all given the names of our relatives, so we feared for our lives and that of our relatives”). The second, remove their identity. (“They took my credential, and so did two others who were already there, with two more who arrived that day and one who arrived a few days later.” “Once inside, I met other people, a total of six , To which I only know by nicknames that we put ourselves there: the cousins, who are father and son, El Cachetes, El Cora and El Toro). The third, equip them with tools. (“When he got home, he gave me work equipment: rubber boots, a girdle and gloves.” “The tool he used was a pickaxe, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, and the others used electric hammers and another hole-making device on the floor”). The fourth, feed them. (“The food they took us was almost always chicken or sausage and we never saw the one who was carrying it, because they put it down in the basket in which we carried the material and the soil”). The fifth, pay them. (“He would pay us on Saturdays, he would call us all one by one and give us a white envelope with the amount of two thousand pesos.” “He gave me Coppel’s deposit stubs to confirm that my salary was deposited with me sister”.) The sixth, rest and recreation. (“Sundays were the days when we were resting, locked up in the upstairs rooms.” “We stayed where there were cushions and a television”). Humberto’s method dominates men, but does not reassure them. (“On several occasions I asked Humberto why he treated me like this: If we were friends, why I was deprived of my freedom”). Then yes, the work takes direction. (“We worked under that pressure and every day we moved between two and four meters in a horizontal line.” “Humberto told us that we had to finish the tunnel between five and six months”). *** It’s Saturday morning, and like every Saturday, Humberto prepares to cover his boys’ payroll-he’ll charge and pay for the evening, but he still does not know it will be the last time. He has left his room, independent to the cells and has ordered to go down to the tunnel. Woe to anyone who does not obey (“Humberto paid us the work we did and was always bad. He wanted to beat us and threatened us every now and again,” complainant Jacobo Muñoz and his son Carlos Muñoz complain). Photo: Angeles García As a foreman, Humberto sleeps in the largest bedroom (I speak of this beige, rugged, spacious room with a cream-colored plastic tile that has a private bathroom, window to the street, access to the balcony and view of the nursery. Two of the cells of the workers). The twelve-hour day starts at seven in the morning. The religious have placed at the bottom of the shot, an altar shared by the Sacred Heart, the Virgin Mary and St. Jude Thaddeus, that pattern of desperate causes, as is the case. They have also mounted a print of Jesus Malverde, that figure venerated by thousands and rejected by the Catholic Church. At the altar, the prayer: “St. Jude Thaddeus, intercessor of every difficult problem, obtain me a work in which I perform as a human and that my family does not lack what is necessary in any aspect of life.” Let them be made as humans. Photo: Angeles García The six captives work with the four indispensable tools: roto-hammers, shovels, picks and wheelbarrows, but at two in the afternoon, activity slows down. (“They told us to go up to eat. When we were in the rooms, the food was already served and we never noticed who was carrying it or preparing it”). Three p.m. The workers have finished eating and each one is formed to receive the two thousand pesos. Humberto delivers the money and immediately orders to return to the tunnel to advance (“he demanded us four meters a day”). 143 meters more, and the tunnel reaches the United States. Then the supervisor relaxes. Outside, the army has surrounded the house and Humberto makes the mistake of not watching the street from his room, before making a stop. When the soldiers enter the house through the nursery, Humberto is casting the monkey and his boys ten meters underground. *** If forced for just over two months, they are now part of the army trophy. The prosecutor accuses them of violating the federal law against organized crime and also for crimes against health. Photo: Angeles García The Attorney General’s Office asks a judge to keep the men detained for forty days to continue their investigations. The judge concedes the rooting but the PGR does not obtain solid evidence against those who claim to have been threatened with death to build the subway. Then Christmas 2009 becomes a bittersweet date. Its forty days of arraigo conclude December 25 and are released. For Humberto the story is different: the prosecutor gets him to continue his trial interned in the federal penitentiary of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. *** I have obtained the domicile of three of the six liberated workers, and I have found two of those addresses. I looked for the house of Francisco Riesgo, like someone looking for a needle in a haystack or a house in the wild neighborhoods without nomenclature. The house number corresponds to an abandoned and homeless house, and in this suburb there is no sign of knowing that name. “Well, there he lived a bath with his ruca, but they left years ago,” says a neighbor who cleans a pipe to smoke. There’s another neighbor here, but she’s busy. “Give me the Kola Loca! Give me the punch Kola Loca and go to the dick, culero! In the other two houses, I spoke with relatives. In no case did they allow me to contact the men. “You must understand that it was a difficult situation for the family.” In both cases, they merely said that once free, they fled the city. “They do not want to know anything about it, let alone talk about it.” It will have to be understood. *** But tunnels are always planned with in and out. It’s July 2011 and Humberto is about to turn twenty-two months in jail. It is no longer that leader who had six boys serving him in the construction of the subway. Today he is an inmate but awaits sentence in a prison in Tamaulipas. Something, however, has not changed in him: he uses his day from seven in the morning, as today, that before the pass list, has already escaped through a tunnel. The PGR will later report that Humberto and 58 others escaped through the subway that was in front of a tank of drinking water. As in the other tunnels, this one concludes with a death whiff: while Humberto escapes, the custodians of the prison are occupied in a revolt of inmates, that ends the life of seven.