MATAMOROS, Mexico — Shortly before dawn one Sunday in August, a driver in an SUV picked up Christopher Cruz at a stash house in this border city near the Gulf of Mexico.
The 22-year-old from El Salvador was glad to leave the one-story building, where smugglers kept bundles of cocaine and marijuana alongside their human cargo, but he was anxious about what lay ahead.
The driver deposited Cruz at an illegal crossing point on the edge of the Rio Grande. A smuggler took a smartphone photograph to confirm his identity and sent it using WhatsApp to a driver waiting to pick him up on the other side of the frontier when — if — he made it across.
The nearly 2,000-mile trip had already cost Cruz’s family more than $6,000 and brought him within sight of Brownsville, Texas. The remaining 500 miles to Houston — terrain prowled by the US Border Patrol as well as state and local police — would set them back another $6,500.
It was an almost inconceivable amount of money for someone who earned just a few dollars a day picking coffee beans back home. But he wasn’t weighing the benefits of a higher-paying job. He said he was fleeing violence at the hands of local gangs.
The stretch of southwest border where he intended to cross has become the epicenter of the raging battle over the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown.
One clear consequence of the tightening US border and the growing perils getting there is that more and more desperate families are turning to increasingly sophisticated smuggling operations to get relatives into the United States.
Cruz’s story indicates the price of the journey: the money paid for a network of drivers who concealed him in tractor-trailers and minibuses; a series of houses where he hid out; handlers tied to criminal organizations who arranged his passage; and bribes for Mexican police officers to look the other way as he passed.
Even with his family’s payment, he slept amid filth and vermin. He watched guides abandon some migrants who could not keep up, and guards prod others to become drug mules. Sometimes the smugglers identified him by a numeric code, other times by an assumed name. But as often as not, they simply called him “the package,” to be moved for profit like an illicit good.
For Cruz, it was worth it. “They can build as many walls as they want,” he said, referring to US officials. “They can send as many soldiers to the border as they want, but a people’s need and desire for a better life is stronger.”
President Trump and his supporters have called for greater vigilance along the border to keep out people like Cruz, a low-skilled worker who followed in the path of other family members who also arrived illegally, and who hopes those left behind will join him.
That day at the Rio Grande last summer, a guide prepared to lead Cruz and some two dozen other migrants to the far side of the river while three lookouts perched in trees, scanning the horizon for any hint of the Border Patrol.
When he arrived at the crossing, Cruz found that the river wasn’t wide, and he made his own way to the other side.
After climbing up the bank, his first tenuous toehold in the United States, he crouched, wet and shivering, in the brush.
A life of skateboarding, tinkering with computers, and eating his grandmother’s cooking had not prepared him for the demands of the road.
The smugglers almost hadn’t let him cross, because they worried that his coughing fits from a respiratory infection might give the group away. But he had made it.
The foot guide passed along the all-clear signal from the sentries in the trees, and a small group of migrants began to sprint toward a 18-foot steel security fence blocking their passage into the United States.
That area of the border, which Trump wants to fortify with a new wall, was already among the stretches best defended by the Americans.
Cruz had climbed halfway up the fence when he heard a helicopter overhead and saw patrol cars converging. Agents grabbed those already over the fence and began to arrest them.
“When I saw that, I slid down and I ran back,” Cruz recalled. He dived again into the Rio Grande.
After several more failed attempts to cross into the United States, Cruz finally made it.
After a day and a half in McAllen, Texas, he huddled with other migrants in the sleeping compartment of a tractor-trailer headed to San Antonio. They were nearly discovered by agents during a routine search at a highway checkpoint. Cruz was then transferred to a minivan with a concealed compartment and brought to yet another stash house.
There he was essentially a hostage until the final payments were made. His family had to transfer the remaining $6,500 to the smugglers.
They then drove him to a gas station, where he saw the familiar face of his uncle. Cruz began to cry.
He was now in an unfamiliar country, where he did not speak the language and could not legally hold a job. He was $12,630 in debt to his family. But, he said, at least he didn’t fear for his life. “Here I know I’m safe,” he said.