Delando Rojas walked to a garage at the edge of Reynosa’s industrial district. The Casa del Sol sat about a mile west. He approached the third garage bay door from the left and entered a seven-digit code to open the door.
The pleated metal curled upward, revealing a shiny black Jeep Wrangler. Delando took a key from his shirt pocket and hopped into the door-less driver-side seat. It started immediately. Delando checked the map on his phone, set it against the dashboard and exited the garage.
He drove along Route Two into town on the other side of Lake Escondida. He checked the clock on his phone and set his mental workback plan from the call that Stephanie would conduct with Chuck. She’d keep him on the line for at least ten minutes, giving him time to survey the hotel, position himself for the approach and reach Chuck in as private a setting as possible.
Stephanie would have already explained their plan and the extraction from Reynosa would follow routine protocol.
But, as the Jeep approached the junction with Route 40 and the commercial district of town arose, Delando registered the first impact to protocol; traffic. With the migrants blocking all the interior roads, the main inlets slowed to a crawl. For as far as he could see, the cars sat idle with many of the drivers sitting on their hoods or standing with their doors open craning to gauge when the line might move forward another notch.
Delando swore under his breath and veered the Jeep off the street. Blazing through a field along the main road, he scanned the map on his phone for an adequate spot to stash the car and seek his mark on foot. He found an alley between two abandoned buildings and locked the car. With the doors missing, he worried that it could be easily stolen. He opened the hood to remove the spark plug just in case.
An astute car thief could troubleshoot the vehicle’s inoperability and fix it with a purchase of a couple dozen pesos. But, Delando figured his action would ward off the majority of amateur thieves that might consider taking a run at his vehicle.
His plan left enough time to deal with contingencies such as the traffic congestion. He texted, Etan, his partner serving as the limo driver for the Domo family as they looped the I-410 around San Antonio.
“On foot,” he texted. “But still pacing to rendezvous at expected time.”
Traveling by foot proved more difficult than Delando expected, given the mobs of migrants that converged on the city.
“Arrival of refugees complicating ability to move swiftly,” he sent an update. “Keep target on the line. Not too far off pace.”
Stephanie held the phone to her ear. The girls all leaned in. The limo sped along the highway. Chuck took an inordinate amount of time to come to the line. And when he did, he sounded harried and out of breath.
“Chuck?” Stephanie said. “What’s wrong? You sound like you’re in trouble.”
“I am,” he answered in short, swift statements. “I can’t talk.”
“What do you mean you can’t talk?” she asked. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Yes,” Chuck replied. “But don’t worry. I’m taking care of it. I’m gonna come home.”
“What?” Stephanie shrieked. “No, wait? What’re you doing? I’ve got the girls here. We have a whole plan. Don’t screw this up.”
“I have to go,” Chuck said. “I’ll get in touch once I get to the other side of the border.”
“What? No. What’re you talking about?”
Stephanie paused, waiting for Chuck’s response. The line remained quiet.
The dial tone played in her ear. Chuck was gone.
Mr. Casteneda beckoned Miguel and Octavio to join him in the office. He asked them both to help Pedro, Mirabella and Chuck finish digging the tunnel using shovels and buckets from the basement of the hotel.
“It’s 10 hours of work for a half dozen men,” he said to Chuck. “You’ll have only a few hours before they find you. When they come here, I will tell them you went back to the house on Ruta Dos. That will buy you a couple hours. They will check the busses and cabs. You will have to get to the tunnel on foot. You have to dig fast and hope the work done already has cleared past the river. If not, you all drown.”
Chuck nodded and shook hands with Mr. Casteneda. Pedro gave him a hug. The sound of distant sirens entered the office, growing louder by the second.
“Por favor, vete,” said Mr. Casteneda, his decisive direction revealing him as a younger, more vital man that Chuck had originally observed. “I will take them on a long slow inspection of the hotel. You go down the stairs to the basement and out the back way into the alley. Cut through the yards and get to the wooded section to the north. Follow the river to the bend and good luck.”
Mirabella smiled warmly at Mr. Casteneda. He hugged her and spoke soft Spanish in her ear. She smiled even wider and nodded in appreciation. He touched her hair and moved it away from her brown eyes. Their embrace grew in intensity and lingered while Chuck, Pedro, Miguel and Octavio prepared to flee.
Finally, they broke their clasp and the five of them exited the back door of the office to the basement.
Mr. Casteneda grabbed Chuck by the elbow in the hallway as the others moved toward the basement stairs.
“Promise me you will keep her safe,” he said, softly enough for only Chuck to hear. “Promise me.”
“Sí señor,” Chuck replied.
Delando reached the square where the Casa del Sol sat on one side and the hardware store rose above the far end of the block. He worked his way through the sea of bodies toward the hotel, not too far off his schedule. If Stephanie were able to keep Chuck on the phone, he’d surely make the connection and have his mark back to the jeep within the hour.
He heard the sirens and watched a phalanx of police fill the lobby. Curious about the commotion, he quickened his pace. His phone buzzed and he read the text from Etan. The message presented the bad news that Stephanie had failed to keep Chuck on the phone.
“Could be trouble,” the text read. “Not sure if the mark is still at the check point. Advise.”
Delando ignored the message and arrived at the front doors to the hotel. He saw the manager speaking with one of the police while the others fanned across the lobby and into the elevator.
“Manhunt,” he told himself as he entered the hotel and stood in a corner next to a startled elderly couple.
“Do you know the nature of the disturbance?” he texted Etan.
“Negative,” he replied.
Delando stood close enough to hear the conversation. The manager explained that the targets of their search dined at the cantina before taking the bus home to their house along Route 2. He gathered the name Mirabella and Pedro and pieced together a scenario where Chuck and his two housemates, clearly under some duress, fled the hotel just prior to the raid. He didn’t believe the hotel manager’s story about their destination. But also he had no leads as to Chuck whereabouts. He decided to shadow the police.
Some of the men stayed at the hotel. Another group boarded the police pick-up truck and drove toward Route 2. Conflicted as to which way to go, Delando texted Etan.
“How long ago did the wife speak with the husband?”
“Ten minutes,” Etan replied.
His mind raced. He processed the minutes and played out the scenarios before deciding to follow the police toward the outskirts of town.
Upon exiting the hotel, he noticed a third crew of officers tending to a badly dazed and wounded man outside the hardware store with blood across his face and tangled into his wild beard.
“I’m taking control of the drone,” he texted, punching icons on his phone and bringing up the aerial view of the police vehicle. “Shut down the eyes in the limo and get them home. This might go bad. No need for them to see it.”
With the crowds packing the roads, the police vehicle drove slow enough that Delando could follow it at least as it wound through the city grid. At one point, standing right next to the back of the flatbed, he reached over the liftgate and affixed a tiny tracker beacon to underside of the metal handle. The signal from the tracker allowed the drone to follow, hovering directly over the truck in autopilot mode.
Before he left the commercial area of the city, he looked back, contemplating his last chance to try his luck at the hotel, rather than follow the police to some unknown secondary location.
A grimy migrant in his sixties, maybe a foot shorter than Delando stopped nearly face-to-chest and put up a finger.
“Onde fica o túnel?”
The dialect and pronunciation threw him off, but he recognized the sentence as Portuguese.
“The tunnel?” he muttered to himself, turning to the migrant. “Que túnel?”
“O túnel para a América,” he replied.
As Delando contemplated the idea of a tunnel to the United States, a second migrant pulled the first one aside and explained how to get to the tunnel.
Stephanie and the three girls all looked nervously at each other. They eyed the Senator as the scene unfolded. The screen went suddenly blank.
“Lost the signal,” the driver said. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Stephanie and the Senator exchanged knowing looks.
“Let’s take them home and keep them posted as we hear from Mr. Rojas,” said Senator Sanchez.
“We lose connection from time to time,” Etan added. “There’s no reason to worry. Mr. Rojas always finds his client and gets them where they need to go. He’s the best.”
“Yes, of course,” Stephanie played along for the benefit of her daughters, who didn’t buy a word of it. “In a few days, he’ll be in Tijuana and we’ll start the process of legally bringing him home.”
Stephanie expected panic, but to her surprise, only Emily looked horrified. Opposite her expectation, Britney and Ashley both stared at the blank screen with intense resolve.
“Mr. Rojas will find him,” said Ashley.
“And ALIAS Legal will defend him,” Britney added.
Her sisters’ confidence sparked Emily’s demeanor. As the car pulled into their driveway, Emily gave the Senator a hug and thanked her for standing up for her father.
“This is what a Senator’s supposed to do,” she said, with a hug and a wink.
The girls returned to the house. Stephanie conferred with the Senator in private.
“My office sent your itinerary to your phone,” Senator Sanchez said. “It’s a three-day drive to Tijuana from Reynosa for Delando and Chuck, so you leave Wednesday morning to meet them. Make sure you have your passport. Etan will pick you up. He’ll fly with you to San Diego and you’ll cross the border with him on your romantic getaway to Acapulco. Once in Mexico, he’ll take you to your hotel in Tijuana. We don’t know how long it’ll take, but hopefully within a day or two after arriving in Tijuana, ALIAS Legal will get him through the queue and handle all the logistics we discussed. Etan will drive you both back once he’s approved. That’s where you’ll need to put on a show for the border guards at San Ysidro. They only admit 20 asylum seekers per day with a waiting list of more than 80,000 people. ALIAS can help move him up the queue, but you have to sell it.”
Stephanie processed the information and tried to picture the streets of Tijuana. She couldn’t rectify the conflicting images of a balmy southern paradise and a crime-infested slum. Her stomach fluttered with butterflies and she felt a spell of dizziness in her head.
“Your daughters will be ok without you?” the Senator asked.
“My mother’s coming,” she said. “She’ll do whatever it takes to care for them while I’m gone.”
“It could be longer than a week,” the Senator warned. “If they don’t get him to the top of the queue within a few days, you’ll have to come home and then we’ll play it by ear. From there, you’d have to remain on standby to fly at a moment’s notice.”
“What about Chuck?” Stephanie asked. “If it’s longer than a week?”
“He’ll be on his own to survive Tijuana until ALIAS can maneuver his position on the list.”
“How does Tijuana compare to Reynosa?”
The Senator stopped to ponder her answer. She chose her words delicately.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” she said. “Let’s just hope ALIAS can work their magic in San Ysidro.”
“Thank you for your help,” Stephanie said. “You did this for us. There was little in it for you. But you’re helping us anyway. We’re so grateful.”
“My ancestors came from Mexico. I know many immigrants, legal and illegal,” the Senator replied. “You have a wonderful family, and such bright, beautiful daughters. I believe the government overstepped in your case. As a legislator and servant of my constituents, I have to balance my adherence and upholding of the rule of law with compassion, common sense and the well-being of our citizens. And, I know, technically, Chuck is not a citizen, and he made some terrible choices. But I also don’t believe Chuck deserved the treatment he received at the hands of our government. I did this because I have the means and I believe it’s the right action in this situation.”
“What do you make of the operation?” she asked. “The police cars at the hotel, all those homeless people in the streets. Is Chuck going to be alright?”
“He’s probably on his way to Tijuana as we speak,” she smiled. “I’m sure Mr. Rojas has the situation completely under control.”
The evening sunset shrouded the chaos in Reynosa shading the commotion at the hotel and the violence at the hardware store. Thousands of refugees from far away countries crowded every square meter of free space in the center of the city. The throng resembled a giant weed choking the life from a beautiful desert flower garden.
Chuck, Mirabella, Pedro, Octavio and Miguel took advantage of the fading light and blended into the crowd of migrants. They wound through the streets of Reynosa, north toward the tunnel. Expecting the crowd to thin, they were surprise when they reached the bend in the river and still saw random groups wandering along the same roads as them. As they made their way down the dirt road, several of the healthier migrants, capable of moving effectively, walked ahead of them, also porting buckets and small shovels.
“¿Vas al túnel?” asked one of the migrants with a wide toothless smile.
When they arrived, they stopped in their tracks and looked incredulously at each other. A group of 30 to 40 migrants worked at the tunnel, digging with plastic buckets, empty paint cans, butter knives and sticks from the woods. They caravanned in and out of the main entrance carrying rocks and bucketloads of sand and dirt.
“Ven con nosotros,” the migrant in the road ahead of them said as he joined the working crew and disappeared into the tunnel.
Chuck and his four companions entered behind a group of workers. A dim set of lights illuminated the first portion of the walk. But about 30 meters in, the ceiling lowered and the string of lights ran out. They followed the sound of voices ahead, reaching the end of the carved portion and entering the round tube cemented in place beneath the 50-meter stretch of river.
As they crawled through the tunnel in pitch darkness, they heard cheering ahead. A stream of light peeked through a hole up ahead. The gap widened by the second as dozens of dirty hands clawed at the opening. Through the newly punched exit Chuck caught view of the fading Texas sunset.
Pedro reached the U.S. side first and helped Octavio and Miguel up the narrow passage. Migrants behind Chuck pushed their way beside him and squeezed into America as Chuck delicately lifted Mirabella at the hips to assist her egress from the hole. Finally, Chuck peered his head out and absorbed the American landscape around him.
“Home,” he thought.
Miguel and Octavio shook hands with Pedro and returned into the tunnel, shoving past the migrants clamoring forward into the United States.
“Gracias, mis amigos,” Chuck called down into the tunnel.
After thinking “home,” Chuck’s next thought hit him like a bolt. “Now what?”
He reached the United States with a group of illegal immigrants, accompanied by Mirabella and Pedro, who had nowhere to go and nobody to help them make their way. What was he planning to do now, he asked himself? They couldn’t come to Pleasanton with him. He couldn’t subsidize their lives. Had he helped them? Or, had he just doomed them to a life of struggle and want?
His thoughts scattered at the jarring sound of gunfire.
From atop the sandy dunes above the river, dark figures lined the hill, surrounding the group of migrants and firing indiscriminately at them.
“Eso dije,” Mirabella shrieked.
Chuck watched as the figures on the hill cut down the migrants in shocking slaughter. They had no chance and fell like dominos. A mad dash ensued as the people around them pushed and shoved their way back into the tunnel. Like a logjam, the group couldn’t maneuver quickly enough and a desperate queue formed like a funnel with each person screaming and heaving their shoulders into each other to escape the oncoming bullets.
Chuck realized they wouldn’t make it into the tunnel in time and grabbed his company, pulling them behind a patch of shrubs about a hundred feet away. He could hear the Americans hooting at the success of their melee and shouting derogatory comments at the dead in their wake. They approached the mouth of the tunnel and shot every last migrant in the head, dropping them like blades of grass.
Chuck could make out the logo on the backs of their jackets, a mean-looking bulldog with the word “Border” above and “Dogs” below. Two of the Border Dogs entered the tunnel and Chuck could hear echoes of semi-automatic rifle fire followed by the screaming of the migrants.
In the dark of the night, he motioned for Pedro and Mirabella to sink lower behind the bush where they wouldn’t be seen. One of the Border Dogs shined a flashlight around the mouth of the tunnel. Chuck could hear them discuss running a sweep of the area and he knew they had no chance of escaping.
The two Border Dogs that massacred the migrants in the tunnel reemerged, giving high fives to the two that shined the flashlight in their direction. Chuck understood the desperation of their situation. But he whispered instructions to Pedro anyway.
“You need to return,” he said. “You’ll know the right time. When you do, help your mother back down the tunnel and run as fast as you can.”
Pedro looked frightened and confused, but nodded his head in acknowledgement.
And then, Chuck crawled away. He pulled himself through the sand, away from the tunnel. Then, once he had created enough distance from Pedro and Mirabella, he called out to the Border Dogs in English.
“Help me,” he said, meekly at first but adding strength to his voice. “Please save me from these friggin Mexicans.”