In Sonoita, Jesús and Maradona took rooms in a stinking hovel of a border hotel. El Negro hooked the two of them up with their “teachers,” who went by the names of Santos and Lauro—though these were only aliases. The new route out of Sonoita was treacherous, but Jesús proudly saw it as “just more damn desert.” Their walk was now anywhere between thirty-five and sixty-five miles long, and the land was “crumpled and spiked with peaks and mounts.” In the unfamiliar terrain, Jesús and Maradona did not know where to find water. Otherwise, Jesús and Maradona enjoyed Sonoita. After a little while, Jesús found a new girlfriend and soon left the hotel to move in with her—he adopted her last name, Mendez, as his alias.
Jesús’s journey continues as he adjusts to his new town, his new life, and his new route through the desert—more desolate and inhumane than the last, but still one he feels he can navigate with no problem. His concerns are bigger than just the walks, though—he is making a life for himself, the “gangster” life he’d long dreamed of.
El Negro had the entire business of routing the smugglers down to “a science.” After the walkers arrived in Sonoita by bus, they would stay in one of the fleabag hotels until Mendez, Maradona, Santos, or Lauro met them the night before the run to bring them over to a “ramshackle” safehouse.
The trafficking and smuggling of human lives is a “science” to the gangs, who know how to maximize revenue while minimizing risk. The human lives of the people they are transporting are nowhere in the equation—even the safehouses aren’t safe.
The Saturday before the Wellton 26 ordeal, Mendez was arrested after an otherwise successful walk at a “nameless outpost” near the town of Ajo while waiting for their pickup. Because of his new alias, Mendez was not held, and was sent back to San Luis along with a group of three brothers who had twice failed to make it into the United States. El Negro offered the brothers—the Manzano boys—a spot on the next walk, which would be on May 19th.
In hindsight, everything leading up to the Wellton 26’s ordeal seems fated. If Mendez had been apprehended during the bust rather than being sent back to San Luis, things would have been different for these three brothers.
Meanwhile, in Veracruz, Don Moi was on his way up to Sonoita with all his recruits. The bus trip was two thousand miles, but the attitudes on board were optimistic, and though “in some of their ancient beliefs, north was the direction of death,” Don Moi’s group marveled at the Mexican countryside on their journey north. At last, the group arrived in Sonoita, where they were rushed into the hotel. The following morning, they were again rushed over to the safehouse and told to be ready at a moment’s notice. By the time they arrived at the safehouse, Don Moi was already back “on the bus, heading home.”
The journey northward was no doubt frightening and unsettling in many ways for the members of the Wellton 26, but their optimism about the opportunities awaiting them in America seemed to drown out any fear. Even in Sonoita, moving between fleabag motel and ramshackle safehouse, having been abandoned by the man who had promised to take the journey with them, there was no time for trepidation.