Ciudad Juarez, Mexico – At first sight, he looks like an average 14-year-old boy.
Sturdily built, initially taciturn and with a fashionable top knot haircut, Jose* listens head bowed as his dad says that he brings him nothing but trouble.
Tongue lashing over, he eventually comes to life, wanting to show off his pigs and hens, all happily rooting around outside the ramshackle house that he shares with his family on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
But outside of this picture of relative domestic tranquility, Jose is involved in another dangerous world.
He works for a local cartel, guiding undocumented immigrants from Ciudad Juarez across the desert, and into Texas and New Mexico.
The cartel uses him as a people smuggler because, as a minor, he’ll most likely get a ride back to Mexico if caught by the US border patrol. From there he can make the trip again, and again.
Jose is not the only one. Organised crime leaders are using numbers of children and adolescents to cross migrants all along the Mexico-US border, researchers tell Al Jazeera.
Jose says the journey takes him only about 30 minutes.
“You feel adrenaline, and then you’re already there […] then we let them hide in a hotel and someone picks them up,” he tells Al Jazeera.
He started when he was 12 years old.
He says he doesn’t know exactly how many times he’s braved the snakes and biting cold of the desert, but the one thing that he does know is that the money is good.
Jose receives $200 for every Mexican he crosses and $500 for anyone else (typically that means Central Americans, escaping the rampant gang violence in their own countries).
He takes two to four people with him at a time, moving at night, trying to escape the attention of the US border patrol.
While his journey means he can make up to $2,000 on a good day, thousands of other Juarez residents, who work the late shift in the city’s maquila factories producing goods for exportation to the US, earn around $5 a day.
That means that even in an average night’s work, Jose can make what a factory worker would in four months.
“With the money I can do many things,” Jose says in a quiet, shy voice.
“Buy clothes, food. I can do many things for my family,” he adds.
‘Who knows if I’ll even make it to 18’
His father, however, isn’t impressed by the work or the money.
Juan* is a construction worker who takes pride in his hard earned salary.
“I taught him to work, not to be roaming the streets,” Juan says.
He has already had one son killed by gangsters – knifed in the back returning from work.
With tears in his eyes, he says that the night before men came to the house looking for Jose.
“I told them to go away, come back tomorrow,” he tells Al Jazeera.
“They could shoot him to avoid paying him, and just leave him there lying on the ground,” he says.
“I’ve seen so many things living here at the border. That’s why I’m fearful.”
Researchers say they have seen a trend in cartels using minors in the people smuggling trade [Al Jazeera]
Cartels often fight over drug and people smuggling routes with considerable collateral damage.
Ciudad Juarez, in particular, has seen years of such conflicts. At the end of the last decade, the city was dubbed the “murder capital of the world”.
When asked what he plans to do when he reaches 18 – the age when he is no longer a minor and is in danger of prosecution by US authorities – Jose takes a long pause before he says: “Who knows if I’ll even make it to 18.”
A booming industry
For as long as there has been obstacles and surveillance between Mexico and the US, there have been people smugglers for hire.
In Mexico they are known as “polleros”.
Children have been part of the business for at least 20 years, according to the few experts who study this trend.
But little is known about their involvement because of Mexican child privacy laws, and because both the US and Mexican government count them together with all unaccompanied minors.
What experts and officials in Mexico and the US do agree on is that the cartel involvement has meant a significant increase in the number of children involved.
They are operating, not just in Ciudad Juarez, but at several points along the border – crossing migrants from Tijuana to neighbouring San Diego, California, Nogales to Arizona and Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas, according to academics and officials on both sides of the border.
|Researchers documented 935 cases of children involved in human and drug smuggling activities between 2011 and 2016. [Al Jazeera]|
Jose Romero has lived in El Paso – just across from Ciudad Juarez – almost all his life.
As a US Border Patrol agent, he has witnessed the developing phenomenon first hand.
“We definitely saw the shift in which they [the cartels] started using more juveniles than adults, whereas in the past there were typically more adults,” Romero tells Al Jazeera as he stands in the blazing mid-day El Paso sun close to the wire mesh border fence.
Romero says the number of juvenile people smugglers they have identified has doubled in the last 10 years.
“It used to be a mom and pop operation, and people would pay between $350 and $500 to get smuggled into the US,” Romero says.
But when the US first erected a fence along the border in 2006, a shift began. With increasingly limited options to cross, Romero says the border patrol noticed small scale people smuggling operations were forced to use the same routes as the drug smuggling cartels.
“The cartels noticed that also, and realised their own routes were being compromised,” Romero says.
“So they took control of the human smuggling routes.”
Once they had taken over the business, the cartels came to the same realisation as the smaller operators before them: young people smugglers kept coming back, even when they were caught.
The US authorities it seemed, couldn’t touch them.
The ‘pollerito’ boom
As the number of juvenile people smugglers increased, they got their own name: “polleritos”.
It’s the diminutive of “polleros” (chicken handlers) – what Mexicans have long called adult people smugglers.
The migrants themselves are the “pollos” (chickens).
Polleritos are usually between 12 to 17 years old.
Gabriella Sanchez, an immigration expert, has studied them extensively, along with other border-hopping children.
While she was a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, she and her research team documented 935 cases of children involved in human and drug smuggling activities between 2011 and 2016.
Sanchez and her team found that children are employed in a spectrum of jobs in an illicit border economy.
Minors roles range from drug smugglers (“burreros” or “mules”), to look-outs watching the border patrol’s movements (“halcones” or “falcons”); there’s also “liebres” (hares), who act as bait to distract border patrol agents while smugglers slip across; and “reclutadores” (recruiters), who recruit and train other children to join the workforce.
But it is not just organised crime bosses who bring minors into this economy, Sanchez says.
“Most of them are recruited by their siblings, aunts and uncles, and even their own parents,” she says.
It reflects the fact that for some families on the border, running migrants to the other side is just another job in which they and their children earn what they need to survive.
Their job as people smugglers has becomes more important than school for many.
Sanchez says most polleritos drop out by the time they reach 6th grade (11 years old). That rises to virtually 100 percent by the time they’ve been detained by the border patrol for the first time, she adds.
Getting them back
Gilberto Solis has made it his mission to try and get those children back into classes.
The softly spoken 40-year-old psychologist is the head of the government shelter “Mexico mi Hogar” (Mexico my Home). The centre receives deported children in Ciudad Juarez, where they are fed and sleep until their parents come to pick them up.
Mexico mi Hogar looks a bit like a prison from the outside, with its barbed wire, high walls and security corridor.
Staff explain that some deportees, who get impatient as they wait for their parents to show up, make a run for the wide-open spaces. But the small team of psychologists and social workers see it less as a holding pen and more as a launching pad for getting young border hoppers away from the criminal world.
On the day Al Jazeera visited, a maths class was taking place.
Five or so teenagers with pained expressions attempted to get through sums while a young, bearded teacher in a t-shirt willed them onwards.
Down the corridor, a crafts session was about to kick off, with paper-mache ovals sitting ready on tables for their next coat.
The students are deportees that Mexico mi Hogar has kept track of. They invite them back to the centre for classes in a bid to get them up to the level in which they can return to school.
The team also organises summer camps to involve the children in sports, arts, cultural activities. The hope is that by showing them a wider world, they will realise they have alternatives to gang life.
The staff knows it is running against a stiff deadline: the moment when pollerito turns 18 years old and ceases to be a minor.
“We have to get to them at that point, when they can’t cross any more,” Solis tells Al Jazeera.
“Because that’s when they get deeper into organised crime, dealing drugs or violence.”
Anapra – The people smuggling hotspot
The Mexico mi Hogar team’s campaign is focused in particular on one neighbourhood: Anapra. It’s pollerito central in Ciudad Juarez. That is mainly because of where it lies.
Anapra is located on the outskirts of the city, where the metal wall which covers 30 percent of the border abruptly ends.
Social worker Fernando Roacho, a Beatles fanatic with a corresponding haircut and Ismael Lozano, a more senior psychologist who talks about the children they help with a parent’s pride head to Anapra to visit Tomas*, a minor who has passed through the Mexico mi Hogar programme.
|The border town of Anapra has become pollerito central [Al Jazeera]|
For many, it is not hard to see the attraction of the money that being a pollerito brings in Anapra.
Children walk to school along dirt roads. Water, drainage, even electricity are patchy.
Lozano stops the car where the border fence ends and gives way to the desert. Rows of rudimentary wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs back almost directly onto the US border.
Lozano says they bring their new social worker recruits to this spot.
“They need to know exactly what’s the everyday reality of the kids we work with, first hand,” he explains.
The pair hopes to persuade Tomas to come to the centre the catch-up classes.
Tomas is tall, with a pierced eyebrow, clad in a basketball t-shirt and trainers.
He is desperately shy, apart from when talking about his first love – video games. His mum says he doesn’t leave the house too much.
Despite his timidity, Tomas’ friend persuaded him to take migrants to the other side.
They were caught on their first run by border patrol agents, and for Tomas, that was enough.
“They surrounded us, arrested us and took me and my friend to jail,” Tomas recalls.
“We were nervous and afraid”.
Tomas says he doesn’t really know why he chose to help guide migrants across the border, but that to some extent he found it to be a test.
|People smuggling is seen as a lucrative business by many families living across the border [Al Jazeera]|
Social workers and experts say that people smuggling often isn’t just about the money.
It’s also about power, respect and belonging. Polleritos are almost universally male, and it plays into the Mexican macho aspiration, says Gilberto Solis.
“Adolescents get together and want to prove their manhood. They put themselves to the test to feel part of a group,” Solis explains.
It is not just about impressing friends. There are thousands of orphans in Juarez – another result of the killing that the city has lived through.
The Mexico mi Hogar team says that for many boys their cartel boss becomes a father figure, pulling them deeper into the alternate ‘family’ of organised crime.
Mind your neighbour
Jose, the 14-year-old boy from the outskirts of town, didn’t want to talk about the cartels. It is understood that spilling information about the city’s criminal organisations can have fatal consequences.
But he did think it was safe enough to show Al Jazeera the border where he plies his trade, just half a kilometre behind his house.
Clambering up the hill, which offers a vantage point, Jose was animated, chatting about what’s he has seen and done, the difficulties of getting across.
He sat at the top, looking through a pair of binoculars at the dividing line.
But he had attracted attention. A man crested the hill. After briefly speaking in Jose’s ear, he stalked around the Al Jazeera crew without saying a word. Then, abruptly, he left.
“He’s just a neighbour,” Jose said.
But the smile was gone, the playful chat, abruptly extinguished. Back down outside his house, his leg began pumping nervously.
“He was nobody,” he continued, “but anyone can talk round here and if they tell the wrong person, you’re in trouble.”
It was a reminder that there are risks as well as rewards to this job – for a boy who doesn’t know if he’ll reach 18.
*Names have been changed to protect the person’s identity and privacy.