Going North

BY MICHAEL GRASS

Published March 7, 2002

ALTAR, Mexico - In this forgotten corner of the continent, saguaro cacti, prickly pear and rocky desert soil fill the thousands of square miles of desolate frontier south of the Arizona border. Heading across the Sonoran desert on the only paved two-lane highway connecting central Mexico with Tijuana and southern California, it is hard to not notice the number of empty buses headed away from Altar, going south.

Paul Wong
While the border in San Diego, Calif. and Nogales, Ariz. are huge walls and fences, a simple barbed wire fence is the only thing separating the U.S. and Mexico.(NATHANIEL WRIGHT/Special to the Daily)

When you arrive in the town, hundreds of people - mostly men - lounge around on the central plaza, outside the small town's cathedral. Then another bus pulls up and 20 or so people disembark. But this sleepy desert town is not their final destination, and is merely a jumping off point on the journey north toward the United States.

While it is not located on any border, Altar is emerging as the most important migratory nexus in North America. From here, thousands of Latin American migrants per month begin a three-night trek across the desert frontier to jobs in the U.S.

But the number of people passing through this town continues to rise and the journey is becoming increasingly dangerous.

BEGINNING THE JOURNEY

Many people traveling to the U.S. via Altar have been through before. One of those last Thursday was a man named Ren