Urrea reviews video footage of the Wellton 26 survivors at the sheriff’s department. In the videos, the men have just been rescued, and they are still in the hospital, and still deeply disoriented. Officers ask them questions anyway, but they are unable to offer very much helpful information—other than to identify Mendez as their pollero.
Even in their disoriented states immediately post-rescue, the men are able to identify Jesús—known to them by his alias Mendez—as the one responsible for so much of their suffering.
Jesús—aka Mendez—had come illegally from Guadalajara to work in a San Antonio brickyard. He hated the backbreaking work, and, in 2000, met Rodrigo Maradona—a fellow brickyard worker who had an interesting side hustle. Jesús’s testimony would later “shift” away from this narrative, though, and towards one in which “Chespiro himself appeared like the devil in the brickyard and whispered temptations” in Jesús’s ear.
Mendez was once an “illegal” himself, and though he did return to the Mexican side of the border, once there he finds himself deeper than ever in the illegal business of smuggling. Myth and legend are invoked as Mendez struggles to remember—or lies outright about—how he came to be involved in the Cercas gang, and under allegiance to the shadowy Chespiro.
Maradona told Jesús that he was making a thousand dollars a week moonlighting as a Coyote, and offered to get Jesús involved in the hustle and living life as a “gangster.” Maradona omitted the fact that the trade in Nogales had been forced west by Migra crackdowns, and that Jesús would be working in a “mean” little town below the Yuma border. Jesús was still enthused, and told Maradona he wanted in.
Despite the change in location from Nogales, Jesús was still enthusiastic about the prospect of life as a “gangster.” He wanted to witness Maradona’s world, and, as just another “illegal” himself, wanted to make a name for himself in the often faceless and nameless world of the border.
Jesús liked “bold” music which lamented how land had been “stolen at gunpoint” from Natives. Urrea speculates that Jesús told himself that, as a smuggler, he was “a kind of civil rights activist” and a “liberator of the poor and the downtrodden.” Soon, Jesús had a “macho” hustle, an apartment, a girlfriend, and money to spare. He saw himself reflected in the songs he was listening to on the radio, and loved “living outside the law.” Urrea lists the many forces at work along the border looking to catch illegals, including human rights groups who wander around hoping to “save dying walkers,” as well as prospectors, drug smugglers, journalists, INS agents, park rangers, military police, and splinter groups of “patriot militias.” “With so many hunters trying to catch Jesús,” Urrea writes, “it’s a wonder he managed to get lost.”
Jesús created a narrative of his new life which centered around his involvement in the struggles of Mexicans and the dicey world of the border. Though Jesús would later attest to having gotten lost in the desert, Urrea points out the irony—and the suspicious nature—of that claim, given that the world of smugglers is subject to constant scrutiny.
In San Luis, on an early run, Maradona and Jesús loaded illegals onto a long-haul bus to Sonoita. From there they walked the thirty miles to Wellton. Maradona showed Jesús how to use the landscape to navigate, and the two-day walk went off without a hitch. Their pollos all made their buses to Phoenix.
Jesús’s early efforts as a smuggler were successful, and his confidence in his abilities grew as a result. If it can all be so easy, perhaps it was not entirely naïve of him not to have anticipated the horrific tragedy that would befall the Wellton 26.
The Border Patrol was on the Cercas gang’s tail, and Jesús was caught a couple of times. His name began cropping up in border reports, and he and Maradona were both transferred from San Luis to Sonoita. The boys decided to make the most of it, and though they were concerned about navigating a new desert, El Negro promised that a couple of locals would “show them the ropes,” and convinced them that there was “nothing to worry about.”
Although polleros like Jesús are at the bottom of the pecking order and thus stand to benefit the least from each group of walkers they smuggle across the border, they are more at risk of getting caught or killed than anyone else in the Cerca gang.