This is part of BORDER LINES, a Motherboard series about burner phones and human smuggling in the US-Mexico borderlands. Follow along here.
Two young men take cover under a tree off the main square of Altar, a small town two hours southwest of Nogales, in the state of Sonora, Mexico. As we approach the pair, one of them answers a disposable mobile phone.
"Hey, we're here waiting, what's up?" he asks in Spanish into the phone. Then he hangs up.
Moments later a pickup truck zooms up on the main street, next to the square, and the two young men jump in the back. They are migrants. The guys in the truck are smugglers. Both of the migrants carry backpacks and are unassumingly dressed in jeans and light jackets. They will try to cross illegally to the United States that same afternoon. And like many migrants passing through this area, en route to America, they've made a pitstop here.
Seven thousand people live in Altar, according to the town's last census in 2010. For such a small population there's a striking number of cell phone stores and shops selling camouflage clothing. Many of them are located on the main street or surrounding the town's square, and they exist with only one purpose: to help migrants from Mexico and South and Central America get supplies for the perilous journey through the desert that will bring them to the American side. So long as migrants keep coming there will be a need for ancillary marketplaces catering specifically to their needs in one-stop fashion.
Altar is like the Wal-Mart of human trafficking.
"It's like the final staging area before they come across," says John Lawson, a veteran US Border Patrol agent.
We count six camo shops and five small cell stores as we drive into downtown Altar, which is a plaza, in cartel parlance, that the Sinaloa cartel and Los Zetas are currently battling over.
Here's just some of the stuff you can buy here.
Camo neck and face warmers:
Camo shoes with carpeted soles (to both trick la migra's ground sensors and erase footprints):
Camo fanny packs and carry-alls:
There's also various medical supplies, including snakebite kits and Electrolit, the local version of Gatorade:
The owner of one camo shop, who asked not to be identified, said about four or five people a day come in to buy camo jackets and shirts. A couple years ago it was 10 to 15 people per day, according to the owner. He sells backpacks from 100 to 300 pesos (roughly $5 to $17). Rug shoes are 60 pesos. Jackets are 200. Everything is made in house. We actually walked in on the owner stitching strips of camo.
We were able to reach a young migrant who has twice stopped in Altar before attempting to crossing to the United States, only to be caught by Border Patrol and sent back. Her name is Mary. She is 25.
"First we arrived in Altar," Mary tells us over WhatsApp. "We were there for three days and then they took us close to the line. We stayed there for five days, in the desert. The guide said we couldn't cross because there was so much migra at the place."
Mary sent us a picture of the group she and her older brother were in while attempting to cross. There are 10 people in the photo, all wearing camo suits.
"They sell them in Altar," she said.
We found five Telcel shops in the same radius. Telcel is the leading provider of wireless communications services in Mexico and is owned by Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire. Phones are on sale everywhere, even in the local Oxxo convenience store. A Nokia 106 goes for 479 pesos ($27) and the Nyx Bit 205 for 279 pesos (roughly $15).
As a Motherboard investigation found first hand, these cheap phones are used by migrants to contact smugglers, as we saw with the two men in the town square. In some cases, the phones are even used to remotely guide migrants across the border line. Burners are also useful to call 911 if something goes wrong during the long trek through the desert, which can last days and cover dozens of miles.
At one of Altar's Telcel stores, nestled between a camo shop and an internet café frequented by migrants, a clerk tells us the best-selling burner phone is the Bit 205. That's according to the lone clerk at the shop, which is kept entirely afloat because of human trafficking. The flow of migrants, even if it's slowed over recent years, is good business.
"Right now," the clerk says, "this store is open because of them."
With additional reporting by Luis Chaparro.