To make up for the profits from fentanyl, the cartel carries out massive kidnappings for which it charges twice: 13 thousand dollars to take them to the border and the same amount to release them just outside the United States. “You don’t give clients anything to eat or drink,” he says.
When Aníbal was a child and lived on the shores of Valle, in Honduras, he believed that people—literally—melted in the heat. Distraught, he spent hours observing the fishermen of the Gulf of Fonseca and imagined that those neighbors who one day no longer appeared had melted like wax under a sun of more than 40 degrees.
Years later, kidnapped in the Sonoran Desert, he learned that people do not melt, but rather become smaller and harden like a grain of sand as they transform into wasteland.
During the days that he was held by the Sinaloa Cartel, Aníbal says that his body became so dry that the damage is irreversible.
Aníbal says that his body became so dry that the damage is irreversible.
Even though he slathers on a special cream that he buys at a mall in Arizona, his skin seems to wither forever. His hair looks dull, his nails are brittle, and he wakes up at night with the thirst of a shipwrecked man, horrified by nightmares in which his tongue once again transforms into a burning, cracked organ, as if he had licked all the cacti he saw along with 20 other migrants.
“My dreams come back and I see myself tied to the bed in that house: I imagine that I am there again half dead and they laugh at me. I can still hear clearly how the men throw water on the floor and they tell me ‘oh, we dropped your part, tough shit,’” says Aníbal, who talks with MILENIO from his home in Gila, Arizona, with one intention: that those who have decided to migrate without documents to the United States using the routes of the Sinaloa Cartel, know the dangers they face in a season of mass kidnappings
To prove his identity, he showed images of the injuries during his kidnapping and proof of the payment his family made to rescue him.
In exchange for telling his story, he asks that his real name not be mentioned nor the tickets displayed, since the traffickers know his mother and father.
His story has two beginnings: one in Valle and another in Chiapas. The first is marked on some day in the calendar of 2022, when he decided that life as a worker was too terrible to continue another year and he put all his savings at the disposal of a coyote, El Rocky, to reach the United States. .
And the second, last April 7, when he stepped foot in the Mexican municipality of Arriaga and realized that there was no way back.
Rocky, he told him, knew all the roads to Arizona. And Aníbal, who had never left Honduras, believed him. For years he heard that his neighbors feared the Gulf route occupied by Los Zetas, so when he paid for the Pacific route he sensed that it would be free of danger.
But the trip that crosses Oaxaca, Puebla, State of Mexico, Mexico City Michoacán, Jalisco, Nayarita, Sinaloa and Sonora, is more risky than ever under the command of the Sinaloa Cartel. Especially now that the fentanyl business has fallen due to pressure from the United States against the Mexican government.
In the absence of fentanyl…
Aníbal did not know it, but he chose one of the worst times to migrate without documents to the American Union. Three months before his journey, in January of last year, the Mexican Army captured Ovidio Guzmán, son of Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán, at the request of the DEA to stop the trafficking of synthetic opioids.
That arrest—which ended in extradition—changed the criminal landscape, as it forced Ovidio’s brothers, ‘Los Chapitos’, to abandon the fentanyl business so as not to suffer the same fate as Ratón. In doing so, they said goodbye to a business worth $1 billion annually, according to estimates made by the United States Congress in 2021.
To even out the losses, the Guzmán brothers have directed their efforts to trafficking undocumented migrants, as the think tank Insight Crime has documented. And they do it by robbing people like Aníbal twice: once by charging them between 5 and 13 thousand dollars to take them to the border and once more by setting them free a few steps from their destination. With this double theft, the smuggling business is today worth 13 times more than that of fentanyl, according to the US government.
“You can say I was naive at the time, but I didn’t know. They took me along a route that they say is safe (…) Everything is done with pieces of paper: you pay and someone gives you a lot of pieces of paper that you hand over to the coyotes and they hand them over for you at each stop.
“The paper is essentially your prepaid toll, as they say in Mexico. But one day it no longer matters that you have papers, because once you’re passing through Sinaloa and entering Sonora it becomes something else.”
After six days of travel he arrived in Escuinapa, Sinaloa, controlled by “El Mayo” Zambada. Then, to Mazatlán, stronghold of ‘Los Chapitos’. And immediately to Caborca, Sonora, territory of Rafael Caro Quintero. And when they put him in a vehicle without air conditioning heading to Altar, he returned to the lands of Chapo Guzmán’s children.
A journey that crosses Oaxaca, Puebla, State of Mexico, Mexico City, Michoacán, Jalisco.
Through the fogged window Hannibal saw the Christ of Blessings and they told him that he was in Saric. And there the certainties ended. Somewhere between the La Tortuga and Cúmaro ranches, in the brickyard area, the migrants were pushed out of the back of a truck and into a tiny house that looked like it was about to fall.
“They asked me for a phone number from a relative in the United States. Those who did not have one there, then that of a relative from their countries. And those who have no one in life are taken to another house and killed, I believe.
“They communicated with large telephones that I now know are called encrypted phones and tell the families that, if they don’t pay, they are going to bury us in the desert. However long it takes for them to pay are the days that we’re not going to have water to drink and they explain to you “This is how you will die in three days because of dehydration,” he says.
Dungeons in the desert
Dora Rodríguez, co-founder of Casa de la Esperanza, a migrant shelter in El Sásabe, has insisted for years that those shacks in the Sonoran Desert are dungeons.
Everyone knows it, at least since 2016, but no government destroys them. Its use is constant from what Aníbal saw: baby clothes, skirts, hats, mattresses with blood, buckets with vomit, torture boards and beer cans.
For the cartel, migrants are a mine. Every peso that can be extracted from them is coveted, as is every penny saved from their provisions during captivity.
The Guzmán brothers have directed their efforts to migrant trafficking.
The diet consists of stale bread, shared tuna, cookies and half a glass of water a day, just to contain the exhaustion of the trachea.
The “lucky ones” are released after 24 hours thanks to an international transfer that includes their initials as a password; Those who don’t become desert dust.
When water is scarce, the kidney is the first to fail and the little urine makes its way through the urethra like tar. The airways become dry and the nose bleeds. Everything itches: eyes, skin, lips and the folds of the knees.
Blood pressure plummets and the heart vacillates between tachycardia and painful spasms. Then come the hallucinations that announce death: the mind becomes obsessed and all someone can think about is water, whatever it is, even drinking other people’s urine.
“I knew I was dying because I clearly saw the Gulf of Fonseca tucked into that house. The clear water, the sound. They say water doesn’t smell, but I say it does. In my crazy thirst I even opened my mouth to drink and all that got in was hot air.”
Hannibal spent seven days like an ember about to go out. Half a day more, he estimates, and he would have died of cardiac arrest. But one morning, one of his captors notified that his aunt in Honduras paid the ransom: 4 thousand dollars accompanied by a serum that they recommended he drink slowly so as not to fall into circulatory shock. “These bastards know that much,” he thought after the relief and guilt of not being able to share it with other detainees.
The rescue included food, more drink and transportation to El Sásabe. He needed every drop and calorie because the drive to the nearest freeway in Tucson, Arizona, was three days away. And so, dry on the outside and burned on the inside, he returned to the desert to undertake the last leg of an inhuman journey.
Aníbal, he tells me, is not the same. Although he has fulfilled his American dream—a salary in dollars that he shares monthly in remittances—something of himself never left the safe house in Sonora. The most jubilant part of him is still tied to a bed waiting for mercy that never came from the men who have exchanged fentanyl trafficking for migrants like him.
“I imagine that they got used to trafficking drugs and that’s why they treat us like objects. You don’t give clients anything to eat or drink, you don’t treat it with respect. That’s why they treat us like this. As cargo, not as human beings,” he writes.
The Guzmán brothers have directed their efforts to migrant trafficking.
Aníbal is now 34 years old, but has the health of an older man. Sometimes, he only has the strength to sit on the porch of his house and long for the life of the fishermen on the shore of his town. Those who did not have to migrate and face the cartel. And when he does, he remembers the scorching sun and speaks to the inner child inside of him. “Anibalito, we were wrong: a fate worse than dying from melting is dying of thirst.”