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A SMUGGLER

A SMUGGLER
A SMUGGLER

For permission to stay in the relative safety of the encampment, the leader, El Tirindaro, who is addicted to heroin, usually wants drugs or beer. But he has not asked Enrique for anything. El Tirindaro is a subspecies of coyote known as a

patero

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, because he smuggles people into the United States by pushing them across the river on inner tubes while paddling like a

pato

, or duck. Enrique is a likely client.

In addition to smuggling, El Tirindaro finances his heroin habit by tattooing people and selling clothing that immigrants have left on the riverbank. Enrique stares as El Tirindaro lies on a mattress, mixes Mexican black tar heroin with water in a spoon, warms it over a cigarette lighter, draws it into a syringe and stabs the needle straight into a vein.

Besides migrants, the camp has 10 perpetual residents. Seven are addicts. They call heroin

la cura

, or the cure.

Also among the permanent campers are several immigrants who are stuck. One, a fellow Honduran, has lived on the river for seven months. He tried to enter the United States three times. Every time, he was caught. He has descended into depression and a life of glue sniffing.

Each time he tried to cross, he says, he went alone.

Enrique listens. They call him El Hongo, the mushroom, because he is quiet, soaking everything in.

Enrique is protected. Because he is so young, everyone at the camp looks after him. When he goes at night to wash cars, someone walks him through the brush to the road. They warn him against heroin. But leaving the camp scares him, and they give him marijuana to calm him down.

Car washing goes poorly. One night, he earns almost nothing.

The 15 days on his meal cards pass quickly. Now he needs part of his money to eat. Every peso he spends on food cannot go toward the phone cards. He begins to eat as little as possible--crackers and soda.

Sometimes Enrique does not eat at all. Friends at the camp share their meals. One teaches him to fish with a line coiled on a shampoo bottle. The line, fitted with a hook, has three spark plugs at the end to sink it. Enrique swings the spark plugs around his head, then casts toward the middle of the Rio Grande. The line whirs as it spools off the bottle. He hauls in three catfish.

Even El Tirindaro is generous; the sooner Enrique can buy a phone card and call his mother, the sooner Enrique will need his services. When one of Enrique's meal cards is stolen, El Tirindaro gives him the unexpired card of a migrant who has crossed the river successfully. He knows that Enrique cannot swim, so he paddles him back and forth on the water in an inner tube to quiet his fears.

Enrique learns that El Tirindaro is part of a smuggling network. A middle-aged man and a young woman, both Latinos, meet him and his clients after they cross the river. Then they all drive north together, and El Tirindaro walks his clients around Border Patrol checkpoints, giving wide berth to the agents. After the last checkpoint, El Tirindaro returns to Nuevo Laredo, and the couple and others in the network deliver the clients to their destinations. The price is $1,200.

El Hongo listens as his camp mates talk about dos and don'ts: Find an inner tube. Take along a gallon of water. Learn where to get into the river, where not. They talk about the poverty they came from; they would rather die than go back. Enrique tells them about Maria Isabel, his girlfriend, and that she might be expecting.

Enrique talks about his mother. He says he is extremely depressed.

"I want to be with her," he says, "to know her."

"If you talk, it's better," a friend says.

But it gets worse. Enrique defends a friend against a street gangster and is spared a beating only by the intervention of another gangster from his neighborhood back home. Then his luck runs out with the authorities. He is arrested in town--twice, both times for loitering. Police call him a street bum and lock him up. In jail, the toilet runs over, and drunks smear the wall with its contents. Both times, Enrique wins his release by sweeping and mopping.

One night, as he walks 20 blocks back to the river from washing cars, it rains. He ducks into an abandoned house, finds some cardboard and places it on a dry spot. He removes his sneakers and puts them and his bucket near his head. He has no socks, blanket or pillow. He pulls his shirt up around his ears and breathes into it to stay warm. Then he lies down, curls up and tucks his hands across his chest.

Lightning flashes. Thunder rumbles. Wind wails around the corners of the house. The rain falls steadily. On the highway, trucks hiss their brakes, stopping at the border before entering the United States. Across the river, the Border Patrol shines lights on the water, looking for immigrants trying to cross.

With his bare feet touching a cold wall, Enrique sleeps.

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