Alien World

How treacherous border crossing became a theme park


It's a little before 10 p.m. when I climb into the back of a pick-up truck full of crouching young Mexicans. We're in the lush Mezquital Valley just outside Ixmiquilpan, a dusty strip town cramped with car part shacks and taqueria stalls a couple hours' drive north of Mexico City. The late model GMC is scheduled to take its cargo—10 of us—north toward the Sonora-Arizona line. After the dropoff starts a treacherous pre-dawn border trek past armed U.S. patrols and the fanged, baying beasts of the desert wilds. Tonight we escape Mexico. El Norte or bust.

The truck is still idling when a young girl in an L.A. Dodgers jacket loses her nerve. "I'm worried about snakes and coyotes," she says in a quiet voice. "There are rattlers in the mountains. My brother said the little green ones are also poisonous." This is the first I've heard about poisonous snakes since signing up for this adventure.

"The clouds are no good," adds someone else. "We won't be able to see anything."

"Like the snakes," says the girl in the Dodgers jacket, her voice softer than before.

It's just possible to make out the faces of the group in the faint moonlight. These aren't the frightened, soiled migrants captured on green-lit night cams for network news investigations into "America's broken border." Not yet, anyway. These would-be migrants wear Diesel jeans and John Deere mesh caps, nose studs and gelled emo haircuts. Like me, each has paid $125 for two days of camping and a midnight "border crossing" experience in central Mexico. The staged run, 700 miles from the real U.S. border, covers a bruising adventure course that winds through the valley and is riddled with muddy riverbanks, bristly thwap-you-in-the-face brush, and jagged mountain passes.

The course is also flecked with gritty and realistic dramatic accents. Men in U.S. Border Patrol T-shirts bark insults in broken English through megaphones. Women and children are tossed into Border Patrol vehicles and driven off into the night. M-80s stand in for shotgun fire. Then there are the female screams in the distance, a soundtrack of rape.

It all adds up to the world's most elaborate simulation of the Mexican migrant experience. One much safer, and about $3,000 cheaper, than the real thing.

On my night as a hunted migrant, the Caminata Nocturna ("Night Hike") was celebrating its fourth sellout year under the direction of Mexico's leading purveyor of domestic meta-tourism, the Alberto Eco Park in the central Mexican highlands. The park was founded in 2004 by indigenous locals known as the Otomi in an attempt to staunch the flow of their working-age population, 90 percent of which has migrated to the United States over the last two decades. Faced with the extinction of the local community and culture, a few entrepreneurial Otomi decided to tap into the regional boom in culturally aware ecotourism. Their land is remote but nestled within a mountain range blessed with sheer cliffs and clean rivers. The Mexican government paved a road leading into the mountains, and with the help of a few small grants and sponsors, the Otomi built a campground replete with a rappelling cliff, zip lines, and a dock for canoes and kayaks. There is also a large riverside stage, upon which the Otomi perform their music in the local tribal dialect for Mexico's middle class and a smattering of European tourists. Today the camp is thriving. Among the growing list of sponsors is Corona.

The riverside picnics are pleasant enough on a summer's day, but it is the mock border run that is the park's primary draw and claim to fame. As America works on designs for its high-tech virtual border fence, middle-class Mexicans have been flocking to this low-tech virtual border, hungry for a taste of the danger experienced by their desperate compatriots who every year make the treacherous journey north. Tonight 130 of us pack into 12 pick-ups. Many are repeat visitors who have brought friends and relatives. "I heard about it from friends at school," says a teenage girl in my group. "They said it was fun."

Part of the fun, I learn, is staying in character. Sitting in the truck, I ask a kid in an Abercrombie sweatshirt why he came.

"Because there are no jobs in Mexico," he deadpans. "I want to find a better life, to live the American Dream."

The imitation of a pitiful migrant sparks a group laugh. But the chuckling is awkward and short-lived, as if everyone realizes a line has been crossed. The Otomi market the border crossing as an act of solidarity with Mexico's poor, but it can quickly start to feel a lot like what we gringos call slumming. When the truck finally starts moving, Abercrombie admits in perfect English to studying communications at Puebla University. When he visits the United States, which is about once a year, he gets a tourist visa and flies Mexicana. "I'm here for kicks," he says.

So is the girl in the Dodgers jacket with the fear of snakes. Her name is Daisy De Vasca, and she is from Lakewood, California, in Mexico visiting her aunt. Yet she swears tonight's snake threat is real. When she again begins describing the poisonous breeds that live in the mountains, I wave her off the subject. Better to talk about the American Dream, which can also bite you in the ass but usually lets you live to tell the tale.

The Otomi know about American dreams and nightmares. Most have made the trip north to work seasonally or settle in the large Otomi communities of Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Many have returned to Mexico, but the majority stay in the U.S., unable or unwilling to make the trip twice. An unknown number have disappeared or died along the way, their bloated, hyperthermic corpses returned to their families in state vehicles if they were carrying ID cards, dispatched to anonymous graves if they weren't.

One of those who left and returned is Laura Basuado, a fresh-faced 27-year-old park employee who crossed the border when she was 17. She says the border simulation is designed to offer well-off Mexicans a small but bitter dose of the ordeal endured by migrants. It is her hope that the experience will build solidarity between what she calls "the two Mexicos"—one middle class and thriving, one dirt poor and sinking.

"The Night Walk is not even 1 percent of what it's really like," says Basuado, whose own journey to the U.S. involved a four-day march through the Sonoran desert. "I have never been so terrified in my life as when I went north. I was so sure we would die that I prayed the border police would catch us." Basuado eventually found her way to Minnesota, where she stayed four months before deciding she'd rather be poor and jobless in Mexico than poor and marginally employed in the U.S., living in constant dread of arrest and deportation.

The most painful memory for Basuado is the abuse she suffered at the rough hands of her coyote, or hired guide, known more commonly in Mexico as a pollero. These guides are usually part of violent criminal networks and are often indifferent to the safety of their charges once money has changed hands. In recent years polleros have become famous villains in the Mexican migration drama. In the interest of realism, they are well represented in the Night Hike. From beginning to end, park employees impersonating polleros scream "Vamos rapido!" while pushing participants through some of the course's most dangerous terrain.

Then there are the screams that come from behind the bushes. During quiet lulls in the walk, female park employees periodically issue bloodcurdling cries that echo through the mountains. It is not an overly histrionic touch. Rape has become so endemic to the border crossing experience that women often start taking birth control before making the trip, expecting abuse from coyotes or the bandits that travel with them. "Even if a woman is traveling with a brother or cousin, they are at the mercy of the coyotes for survival," says Walt Staton, spokesperson for No More Deaths, a humanitarian group that provides assistance to migrants on both sides of the border.

Nobody actually gets raped, robbed, or murdered during the Night Hike, but the simulation is not for the weak of heart or the pregnant. There are full-speed runs down steep unlit paths as sirens wail in pursuit and stretches along raging river waters where the mire is almost knee high. In most countries participants would be required to sign multiple waivers before even getting in the back of the truck. During periodic breaks, everybody collapses in exhaustion, many tending to bloody knees and sprained ankles.

It was during one of these pauses that screeching tires and high pitched sirens called our attention to the foot of the hill we were resting on. Down below, a truck marked U.S. Border Patrol stopped before a group of migrants.

In one of the night's few dramatic set pieces, actors in camo and Border Patrol T-shirts throw several young girls into the back of the truck. Before driving away, an officer looks up at our group and yells, "Go back to Mexico! We don't want you here!"

Watching the drama unfold, a kid next to me pulls out a Snickers bar and offers me half. "Pendejos," he mutters. Assholes.

When Parque Eco Alberto opened in 2004, curious reporters immediately set upon the camp with cameras and notepads. The Mexican media came first, followed by a trickle of international outlets, including the BBC, which called the border crossing simulation "Migrant Mountain." Most of the coverage was and remains positive, if sometimes bemused. "The media sees we are trying to build understanding and create jobs, and they support us," says Eduardo del Plan, a park employee who scripts much of the simulation based on his own multiple trips across the border. "We have become an example of an indigenous community standing on its own feet, trying to stop the bleeding to the north."

The loudest exception to the chorus of approval is the Spanish language television network Telemundo. The Miami-based channel has accused the Otomi of using the Night Hike as a training course for migrants, akin to the mercenary firm Blackwater's North Carolina training compound, where it prepares its employees for Iraq. When asked about this charge, del Plan laughs, saying the network purposely misrepresented the entire point of the exercise. "Telemundo is always trying to be sensational," he says. "They should stick to covering soap operas."

But the charge of preparing migrants for their journey mirrors one frequently leveled against Mexico City in Washington: that the Mexican government tolerates and even encourages migration north because it is one of the Mexican economy's three pillars (the others being oil and the maquiladora factories along Mexico's northern border). Mexicans living in the U.S. send more than $25 billion in annual remittances to their relatives south of the border. After oil exports, this money constitutes the country's second largest stream of foreign revenue. "Migration used to be an economic safety valve for Mexico," says Laura Carlson, director of the Americas Policy Program, a Mexico City think tank. "Now it's an economic motor. The government has little incentive to crack down, and frankly views border security as a domestic issue for the U.S."

Community initiatives like the Eco Alberto Park aren't going to reverse these numbers. The income from the roughly 100 jobs created by the park is dwarfed by the regular bundles of cash sent back by Otomi working construction jobs in Las Vegas. Migrants will continue to go north as long as there is work there, no matter the mounting dangers illustrated by the border simulation. The same is true at border points around the globe where the poor live within walking or swimming distance of a better life. You can see it in Spain's African enclave of Ceuta, bordering Morocco, where would-be migrants routinely charge guarded double walls topped with razor wire or attempt to swim the 13-mile Strait of Gibraltar.

Ask any struggling Mexican if U.S. plans for a high-tech border fence will stop the flow, and he will tell you the idea is fanciful, that you cannot deter the desperate. "If you build a wall, they will build taller ladders or dig deeper tunnels," says del Plan. "If the entire border becomes clogged with armed guards, they will take boats, as the Cubans and Haitians do." Indeed, this shift is already happening. Coast Guard interdictions of Mexican boats off the coast of San Diego are on the rise, as are reports of fatal capsizings.

But none of this directly concerns the kids with whom I pretended to be a migrant. Mexico's growing middle class has more in common with its American counterpart than with people like the Otomi. Despite the Otomi talk of "one Mexico" and hopes of building solidarity with the migrants, the two Mexicos reappear as soon as we return, exhausted and bruised, to the Eco Alberto campsite. At a fire I sip Modelos with a group of university students ruminating on the night's adventure. There is a comparison of light wounds, some laughter over the simulation's low-fi effects. The talk quickly turns to football.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.