Monte Cristo Rei, on the border between Mexico and the United States, is an imposing natural barrier.
Each year for almost a century, it has attracted thousands of people who walk a series of zigzag paths representing the Via Crucis to pray at the top, under a limestone crucifix about 9 meters high.
The Sacred Mountain offers breathtaking views of three states – Texas and New Mexico (US) and Chihuahua (Mexico) – and today it attracts not only loyal but desperate immigrants from all over the world, who are trying to enter the United States undetected. , because here there is no border wall.
In the late afternoon darkness, several groups of men sat on the rugged and rocky slopes of the mountain, as the lights of El Paso shone in the distance. But when the men got out, they were spotted by US Border Patrol agents, who arrested 16 of them by the side of the road.
“The truth is, most people can do it,” said Evandro, a 31-year-old Brazilian immigrant, red-eyed with fatigue, who had seen many of his fellow travelers run to freedom through an area nearby. trailers and ranches. .. mixed together. “We just weren’t lucky.”
Some 1,300 kilometers to the southeast, in the Rio Grande Valley, a similar scene takes place before dawn. Six men who had crossed the river on foot, hoping to reach Houston, Texas, were now wet in the custody of officers. After traveling thousands of miles from Honduras and savoring the “adrenaline rush of touching this country”, as 25-year-old Elias Galindo described it, they would go no further.
Soon the two groups boarded white and green Border Patrol vans that took them to marshalling yards. Within hours, they were deported to Mexico.
Seizures at the southwest border in July reached their highest level since 2000, with an average of more than 6,700 arrests daily. But the numbers are misleading.
An emergency coronavirus health measure, extended last week by the Biden government, allows many adults traveling alone to be quickly deported rather than going through the lengthy deportation process. This means that many of the same immigrants end up trying again, until some of them manage to get in.
“The officers are exhausted,” said Gerardo Galvan, manager of the border patrol station in Santa Teresa, New Mexico.
The number of immigrants apprehended in the El Paso region has tripled this fiscal year, with 135,326 arrests, of which almost 80% are adults only. Equipped with motion sensors, long-range infrared cameras and drones, border officials say they believe most people crossing are apprehended – although no one really knows how many manage to escape.
The heat at this time of year is inclement and the terrain is rugged. In mid-June, the body of a Mexican woman was found near the Monte Cristo Rei base. Jeremiah Blount, an agent in El Paso, said he found immigrants heading to almost every state.
A group of them, police said, were detained for five consecutive days. “I asked them:
“Haven’t you made it to New York yet?” “”
As the town of Sunland Park woke up, an officer on horseback and another in an all-terrain vehicle observed three men sitting on the ground, waiting for other officers to come and take them away. They ordered the immigrants to remove their shoelaces and stand up. high. , with the hands behind the back and the legs open.
“Are you carrying anything that could hurt someone?” Said one of the officers, Joel Freeland, as he searched a man. “The only thing I take is fatigue,” replied the immigrant, Obdulio, 41.
Toothpaste and a toothbrush, a cell phone charger and a foot dressing were removed from his pockets and thrown to the ground.
“Where are you from? Have you seen it?” Freeland asked, although he knew the answer.
He handed the masks to the men and asked them to put their cell phones and passports in zippered plastic bags. One of the immigrants, a frail 21-year-old boy in a camouflage t-shirt, struggled to remove a black cord choker, and the officer cut it off.
All three were from Honduras.
“I came to do any honest job,” said Obdulio, a carpenter who declined to give his last name. “There is not enough work in my country. I have three children.
He said he and his three companions had traveled 16 days by train and bus to reach Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican town opposite El Paso. But they had come to the end of their journey.
Not long after, at 8 a.m. in the Rio Grande Valley, Jesse Moreno spotted fellow officers standing on the shoulder and approached.
In the back of her truck, a woman named Lilian Lopez, 30, was wiping her tears as she began her trip to Honduras two months ago, she said, taking several trains, including the famous La Bestia, which claimed the lives of many immigrants who cling to the tops of moving wagons.
“It was dangerous,” she said, raising her injured left hand. She intended to work in Houston to support the three children she left with a brother. “I came here to give them an education,” Lopez said. “I would do any job.”
A few minutes later, Moreno’s radio purred again. Less than 600 meters away, a group of about fifteen men, women and a few children had been intercepted. Many were seated on the ground under the blazing sun, looking defeated. Officers handed them face masks and water bottles.
That afternoon, Agent Fernando Gomez escorted a group of around 20 immigrants to Ponte Paso del Norte, which connects El Paso to Ciudad Juárez, and sent them back to Mexico. Another group followed. Then another.
Later that night, the moon rose over Monte Cristo Rei, known in popular culture as the location where the man from Marty Robbins’ classic song “El Paso” fled the crime scene at Rosa’s Cantina in the desert of New Mexico.
At around 10 p.m. Blount was resting in his vehicle near the mountain. Soon immigrants would start to descend, he said. “The circus music is going to start,” he said. In the past 24 hours, they have captured around 400 people.
The officer drove about a third of the way up the hill, where another officer was following the area with his infrared camera after a sensor detected movement. He didn’t find anyone. Maybe it was a mountain lion or a coyote. So far, only large moths were flying around a lantern.
The next morning, José Luis, a 54-year-old Mexican auto mechanic, showed up at the Casa del Refugiado, a refuge in El Paso. He had come down from the mountain at night, he said, and managed to escape capture.
“It took me a day to get over this mountain,” he said. “God made me invisible to get here.”