A technological arms race between migrants, cartels, and authorities is heating up at the Mexico-United States border, and at its center is a disposable and indispensable part of modern life: cheap, pay-as-you-go phones known as burners.
Burners have made border crossing safer for migrants and business more efficient for smugglers. Now, stranded migrants can call 911, and with cell coverage strong enough in the borderlands, some smugglers, or coyotes, have started guiding migrants out of Mexico remotely, relaying instructions with the burners.
It's easy to overlook the shift burners mark within the smuggling underground. They aren't a new technology, but they are widely available in Mexico, where cell towers continue to pop up. The US Department of Homeland Security employs a high-tech dragnet at the border, replete with infrared cameras and spy drones to catch smugglers, and as a result, coyotes have become more vigilant. Some smugglers and migrants carry smartphones and text with WhatsApp, an encrypted messenger service, and with burners, when migrants call for help, officials can trace their locations for search-and-rescue operations. But the same tools that trace 911 calls can trace virtually any other borderland cellphone activity too.
The tools likely used by authorities are small boxes that emulate cell towers, allowing authorities to intercept cell data and locations. Local police departments across the US, including the NYPD, have purchased the controversial intelligence technology.
"Since the start of civilization, everything has been moved by migration." —Ricardo Pineda Albarrán
The Department of Homeland Security also utilizes cell-site simulators, known as StingRays and Triggerfish, though it's unclear if that is true of US Customs and Border Protection, which operates within DHS. A Border Patrol agent in Tucson told us he doesn't believe the agency has a way of collecting metadata from phones actively pinging in the desert or otherwise, but could not elaborate. He did say that a dispatcher could get a phone's GPS spot if the device originated in the US, but if it's a Mexican phone, the dispatcher can only locate the cell tower it's hitting. More migrants with burners means more traceable pings—potentially making a case for expanded cell-site simulator use on the US side of the border.
A recent Pew poll suggested more Mexicans are leaving than entering the United States. Yet Central American migrants are coming north in greater numbers. "Since the start of civilization, everything has been moved by migration," said Ricardo Pineda Albarrán, the Mexican consul in Tucson. "It's a way for human beings to live, to adapt." The same could be said about technology.
This article appeared in the April issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.