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Fewer unauthorized immigrants cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. today. But those who do, like Allan Martinez, are pushed into an unforgiving zone called the Corridor of Death, where they risk everything to cross.
TUCSON, Ariz. — On Oct. 3, 2012, Pima County’s deputy chief medical examiner and two assistants peeled open a white vinyl body bag. The corpse inside was recovered in Cochise County, part of the hot Arizona desert lands also known as the Corridor of Death. According to the autopsy report, the 24-year-old man with braided hair was of African descent, with his natural teeth in good condition.
Despite having been stored in a freezer since its recovery just a few days earlier, the body had already begun to degrade. The man’s hands were mummified from the sun; maggots infested his flesh.
Typically, such a body would be nearly impossible to identify, but the hardened, leathery skin across his torso, forearms and biceps provided an inked history. His upper right arm was tattooed spangled with stars, a backdrop for the name Kiara. His right arm read, “Live for everything, die for nothing,” and his upper left read, “New York” and “Allan 12-26-09.” Finally, the name Betty curled across both forearms.
The body arrived clothed, with belongings: a gray baseball cap, an American flag bandanna, white pants with a matching belt, a black compass, one orange lighter and two tubes of ChapStick. Two thumb drives, each crammed with music. A knife case with no knife. Medical examiners entered each item in an electronic database.
In one pocket, the man carried a handwritten letter, addressed to him in bright red ink. “Allan … From that first day, I loved you, I love you, and I will keep loving you …”
Tucked neatly into the front pocket was a Honduran identification card: Allan Modesto Martinez Alvarez, born June 27, 1988.
What happened to Martinez is telling. Over the past decade, while the number of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped steadily, the number of deaths has increased. By 2012, net migration to the U.S. had fallen to zero. According to the Pew Research Center, the decline resulted from various factors — the weak U.S. job market, heightened border enforcement and a decline in Mexican birth rates, among others. “The largest wave of immigration in history from a single country to the United States has come to a standstill,” the Center noted in an August 2012 report. “After four decades that brought 12 million current immigrants — most of whom came illegally — the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed.”
Yet some still make the journey, and for them, the journey is riskier than ever. Many heading north today, like Martinez, have deep family ties to the United States forged over years of living and working in American cities and towns. Passing through Mexico, migrants are now routinely beaten, raped or kidnapped, in what Amnesty International describes as a new humanitarian crisis. And those who make it to the U.S border aren’t safe after that. A flood of border agents and stricter enforcement policies intentionally funnel walkers east into the most inhospitable stretches of Arizona and Texas, where they’re most likely to perish in the desert. Yet the increased security and high risk haven’t stopped some repeat crossers. They’re willing to die to return.
Martinez’s body was one of 160 undocumented immigrants autopsied by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson, Ariz., in 2012. Three of the four Arizona counties abutting the border send their deceased to the Pima County office, and in recent years, it’s been flooded with human remains: Over the past four years, 760 bodies have been recovered. Since 2001, 2,100 people have occupied the freezers. The office handles more unidentified remains per resident than any other medical examiner’s office in the United States. Many crossers are never identified, their corpses too decomposed to trace.
A University of Arizona report found last June that the “funnel effect” resulted in the Tucson sector’s becoming “the single most traversed crossing corridor for migrants along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.”
“We keep waiting for it to slow down, and it doesn’t seem to stop,” Dr. Greg Hess, Pima County’s acting chief medical examiner, said in November 2013. “We’re already ahead (of the numbers from last year), and we have another month to go.”
With more than 21,000 Border Patrol agents, the U.S-Mexico border is now a fortified zone of reinforced walls, drones and watchtowers. The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, tallied the 2012 cost of immigration enforcement at $18 billion. The heightened security has forced migrants east along the border to eastern Arizona and Texas, into the most inhospitable and violent areas.
At the same time, federal immigration officials are prosecuting record levels of those arrested for illegal re-entry, charging nearly 100,000 in 2013. That’s a 1,420 percent rise from 20 years ago, largely due to the Obama administration’s immigration crackdown and a greater investment of resources in immigration enforcement. The heavy penalty of months or years in prison, coupled with the expanded border security, is meant to deter potential immigrants in the belief that when faced with such hurdles, many will simply turn back or not head for the U.S. at all.
But for many, that’s not the case. Federal records show that about 23 percent of people who are caught have children who are U.S. citizens. Half the migrants crossing the border have family in the U.S., and three-quarters have lived there before.
In early November 2012, a month after Martinez’s body was found, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office received an email from Astrid Kamper, consul general at the Honduran consulate in Phoenix. “I received a call today from the family members of Allan Modesto Martinez Alvarez,” she wrote. “They say he has been deported before.”
Martinez was deported four times over six years, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. His friends and family say he headed from his hometown of El Triunfo de la Cruz, Honduras, to the U.S. at least six times. He fled poverty and violence, seeking work and the quintessential better life in the United States. At least one of his potential crossings was aborted in Nogales, Mexico, because of inadequate funds, and he was kidnapped at least once, his family forced to pay ransom. On another trip, he nearly became the victim of a second extortion. His experience is not unique.
Allan Modesto Martinez Alvarez spent most of his life watching the people he loved leave home. His friends called him “Tiger.” Born in El Triunfo de la Cruz, he belonged to a vibrant Garifuna community descended from the minority populations of Carib, Arawak and West Africans living along Central America’s Caribbean edges. When Allan was 6, his mother, Betty, then in her early 30s and a single mother, departed for the trip that dozens in her family had already made. She went to New York in 1994. Allan and his sister, Belsy, were left in the care of their teenage brother, Ismael.
A decade later, after watching cousins, uncles and aunts move to the U.S, Ismael also left. His wife and Belsy followed a year later. Little by little, as the family saved money, other relatives migrated north.
With his siblings gone, Allan, then 16, stopped attending school and started working odd jobs. He cut hair at a barbershop, parked tourists’ cars on the beach and eventually started to deejay at parties, as Ismael had. He adopted the name DJ Tiger, a moniker that helped reinforce a cool, tough image.
One of his childhood friends, Gil Miranda, who now lives in Mexico City, describes Martinez as popular, a leader: “He was a big personality.” Martinez often told exaggerated stories about his life, boasting to women he met that he drove an expensive car and worked jobs in other cities. Neither was true. Tiger was “a person who always wanted the best things,” another friend remembers. “He wanted clothes with the best brands. But he was actually a very poor person.”
In that, Martinez wasn’t alone. Everyone else in El Triunfo was poor, and everyone was leaving. Across Honduras, where 58 percent of the rural population lives in what the World Bank calls extreme poverty, 283,000 people left for the U.S. in 2000, according to the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). By 2010, that number had nearly doubled, to 523,000.
“Nobody wanted to stay there,” says Miranda, who moved to New York in 2006. “Allan tried to stay. He tried to work as a DJ, but you can’t really make it in Honduras. There’s no work.” Tiger’s worries grew when his girlfriend, Lauren, gave birth to a daughter, Kiara. He wanted to support the girl, Lauren says, but he was broke.
In May 2007, at the age of 18, Tiger and his 21-year-old cousin Christian Sanchez Martinez departed for the United States. He made his way across Guatemala, north to the U.S.-Mexico border. Crossing into the Mexican state of Chiapas, the young men joined hundreds of other hopeful migrants riding atop a series of freight trains known collectively as La Bestia, the Beast. Tiger knew the trip would be hard; he’d heard stories about murders and assaults on the trains.
“Assailants hop on the train whenever it stops, to hide among the migrants,” writes Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez in his 2013 book, “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail.” “Sometimes the conductor, in previously made agreements with the assailants, slows the train down enough so that they can jump right on.”
Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights estimates that 20,000 migrants are kidnapped for ransom each year during the journey north. But some estimate the actual figure is five times that.
Regardless, since his relatives had made it on their first attempts, before organized crime and bandits made preying on migrants a high-profit business endeavor, Martinez expected he’d be in New York soon too.
After two weeks of hopping trains and avoiding attacks, Tiger and Christian reached Piedras Negras, Coahuila, the Mexican border town southwest of San Antonio.
A coyote guided them into Texas. But once on the other side, the group they were traveling with was taken hostage at gunpoint and locked inside a building. All the men were brutally beaten and told they’d be killed, says Ismael. Following orders to acquire ransom money, Tiger called his mother. Fearing for his life, Ismael and Betty scraped together as much money as they could find. With help from several other family members, they sent nearly $10,000.
Both Tiger and Christian were released on a road somewhere near the Texas town of McAllen. The teenagers convinced a local woman to drive them to Houston, hoping to meet up with another relative who could help them get to New York. But an hour into the drive, the car was pulled over by the Border Patrol. In June 2007, a month after embarking on his journey, Tiger was back in Honduras.
His second attempt was more successful. Seven months later, Tiger headed north again, riding the trains. He called his mother from Houston. She arranged for a relative to drive him north. In New York, he moved into her modest one-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor of a public housing tower in the Bronx, sleeping on her pink couch, near a shelf cluttered with family photos. Betty was thrilled to have her second son home.
In the city, Tiger was surrounded by his nieces, nephews, cousins and siblings. In addition to Ismael, who lived with his wife and kids in a nearby apartment, he also spent time with his youngest sisters, Belsy and Dayni, the latter of whom was born after Betty’s arrival in the U.S. Tiger confessed to Betty that the smell of her cooking felt like home. Enamored with New York, he dressed in bright colors, neon T-shirts and matching wide-brim baseball caps. He bragged to his friends back in El Triunfo about his expensive car. But the car didn't exist, and his mother still paid for his clothes. Finding work was proving hard.
“I would help him get jobs, but by 2008 everyone had stopped hiring,” Ismael says. As the recession began to rattle New York, even Ismael was having trouble finding the welding and ironwork gigs he’d relied on. Even his mother, who worked full time as a home care attendant for elderly people, couldn’t help her son find a job.
Tiger made friends quickly. In the Bronx, he started moving with a fast crowd, including young Hondurans who claimed to be associated with a clique of the Crips, a traditionally black street gang with roots in Los Angeles. Ismael says his brother was never involved with anything illicit, that it was little more than swagger for Tiger and his friends, who burnished their street credibility by flashing gang signs in Facebook photos and posting party pictures.
When his mother was at work, Tiger hosted daytime parties, freestyling lyrics over his brother’s tracks. By the time Betty came home, the house would be empty. “I’d come back and say, ‘What have you been doing here in this house?’" Betty recalls with a slight smile, wearing the bright head wrap common among Garifuna women. "And he’d say, ‘Nothing Mami, nothing.’ Oh my God, that muchacho.”
His mother wasn’t the only one who couldn’t resist Tiger’s charm. In early 2008, he began dating a young Honduran-American woman, Niksa Pitillo. Pitillo's family was also from El Triunfo, and she was the godsister of one of Tiger’s close friends, Anthony Guzman. At times, she said, she’d yell at him for not trying hard enough to find work, or for hanging out with his friends too much. Still, they started talking about a future together.
Ismael and Betty say Tiger dropped off resumes every other day, even meeting with friends’ employers in an effort to find a job, but steady work eluded him. He found a temporary gig at a meatpacking warehouse, and later sold clothes at a store in the Bronx. Sometimes, he helped Ismael with his fledgling DJ business, spinning dancehall and reggae, but that didn’t pay much.
So in September 2008, Tiger left New York. He didn’t tell Niksa or his mother where he’d gone. A few weeks later, he called from New Orleans where a cousin, Sendy Martinez, lived. The city had jobs for undocumented immigrants like them, tearing down and reconstructing the remains of homes ruined by Hurricane Katrina. Now Tiger was busy all the time, finally making real money and filled with a sense of what had so long evaded him: success.
It didn’t last long. Three weeks later, Sendy’s car was pulled over by a police officer as the cousins drove over a New Orleans bridge back to his apartment. A policewoman asked them for identification. When they failed to produce it, the officer told them to get out of the car and put their hands behind their backs. She called the Border Patrol.
Less than a year after he’d made it out of his country, Martinez was back in El Triunfo. Life was even more difficult. His association with the Crips followed him. Gang tensions were rising in Honduras, and members of rival gangs eyed him with suspicion.
"Many young people who are deported from the U.S. are recruited (into gangs)," says Gil Miranda, who was also deported from the U.S. and now works as a successful businessman in Mexico City. Miranda says he, too, was kidnapped while trying to re-enter the United States. "Many people in Honduras are a part of (the Crips).… The enemies are the people who are in red. The Bloods."
Another childhood friend of Martinez’s, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, put it simply: “They kill people who talk about anything.”
Indeed, by that time in October 2008, Honduras had begun its rise toward becoming the world’s most dangerous country. “Violence and crime are integral parts of life in Honduras,” the U.S. State Department noted in its 2008 Crime and Safety Report on Honduras. “The gang problem in Honduras is endemic.” The murder rate there was 60.9 per 100,000 residents. In comparison, Mexico, then suffering its own spike in drug-cartel-related violence, had a murder rate of 11.6 per 100,000 residents.
For the first time in his life, Ismael thought, his brother sounded depressed. In Honduras, Tiger’s friends say, he was never involved in crime or violence, but his outsize personality, tales of far-fetched job offers and imagined wealth made him a target.
Meanwhile, Betty and Ismael bankrolled his image. Like nearly everyone else in El Triunfo, Tiger survived on money wired south by his family. To him, it was unsatisfying. He missed his family, and the United States.
So in March 2009, Martinez once again rode atop a creaking freight train, speeding north through the dark Mexican night. It’s likely he had no idea that over the six prior months, from September 2008 until February 2009, Mexico’s Human Rights Commission had reported that 10,000 migrants had been kidnapped attempting to cross the border into the U.S.
Ismael sent nearly $2,000 for another coyote, then $500 more for a driver. Typical prices for smugglers can range from $1,000 to upwards of $10,000. Once Tiger arrived in the U.S, a cousin drove him from New Orleans to New York.
“They got here at 4 in the morning,” Ismael says. “We were all so happy that day. I said to him, ‘OK, you made it again. You’re here, now stay here, our mom’s here. Everybody is here. Now don’t leave again.'”
The day after Christmas 2009, Niksa Pitillo gave birth to a boy in New York's Lincoln Hospital. Tiger was by her side. They named their son after him: Allancito, little Allan.
Tiger wasted no time in getting the infant’s name and birthday tattooed across his arm. During the day, when Niksa went to work, she left Allancito with Tiger. His mother Betty doted on her son and new grandson. Tiger grew closer to his siblings, especially his youngest sister, Dayni. Before, he’d barely known Dayni, his junior by six years. But they forged a deep, natural bond.
Despite the tranquility of being immersed with immediate family, Tiger felt a mounting pressure to provide for his children, Allancito in the U.S and Kiara in Honduras.
Niksa’s godbrother, Anthony Guzman, a friend of Tiger’s from El Triunfo, came up with a new plan: Go to Houston to look for construction work. There, they had employed friends.
After his first payout from construction gigs, Martinez sent Niksa $100 and another $100 to Lauren, the mother of his daughter in Honduras. Niksa even considered joining Martinez in Houston. But before she could move, he was picked up again by police officers. His brother Ismael says he was picked up by mistake with a group of friends and accused of shoplifting clothes, and an ICE agent says he was charged with theft. Houston police say no arrest records exist under Martinez’s legal name. The arrest was in May.
By June 2010, Tiger Martinez was back in Honduras, deported again.
He continued to pretend that the failures didn’t bother him, but in private, his family says, he struggled. He confessed to Ismael that life was too hard. Unlike in the U.S., there was nobody left in Honduras who could help him survive without work. He had no money to buy food, living off the kindness of aunts and friends. His many tattoos made him a marked man, and potential employers were scarce. Tiger missed the life he’d had in the U.S: his mother, Ismael, Dayni, Niksa and his new baby son.
The situation in Honduras continued to worsen. The U.N’s 2010 World Drug Report noted that crime in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala was among the worst in the region, even calling the drug-related violence “a serious challenge to governance.” “Honduras Since the Coup: Drug Traffickers' Paradise” read the title from a Center for International Policy report.
Martinez didn’t want to stay. Without telling his family, he and another cousin left Honduras for the fourth time. With a group from their town, they rode the train up to Veracruz, Mexico. According to Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights, Veracruz was at the time the state with the highest incidence of kidnappings.
From there, Tiger called Betty, disclosing his plan to return, and asking for money to pay for the trip over the border. He also tried his brother.
But Ismael was out of work and Betty’s income was spread thin. Betty told her son not to come. With no money for a coyote, which heightened the risk of being kidnapped or killed, Tiger turned around. He returned to El Triunfo.
A week later, Tiger again called Betty, this time in tears. On Aug. 24, 2010, a group of 72 Central Americans had been found dead in Tamaulipas, Mexico. The news, accompanied by graphic pictures of corpses piled against a concrete wall at a ranch, spread rapidly through North American media. The slaughter, soon known as the First Massacre of San Fernando due to a second mass killing, was one of the few high-profile instances of such brutality that broke the silence that often blankets activities of narcos and cooperating local authorities. Responsibility was assigned to a local group of Los Zetas, the Mexican cartel controlling swaths of the northeastern part of the country.
Though known generically as drug cartels, Mexico’s organized criminal outfits have diverse revenue streams. Various local branches of organized crime groups charge pisos, or tolls, for anything that moves across certain regions of the border, including people. Coyotes, or polleros (smugglers), charge migrants to guide them safely through crime-controlled land and across the U.S. border. After being paid, they, in turn, pay their own tax to organized crime for the privilege of being able to work.
Southern Pulse, a risk analysis and information-gathering firm, has estimated that between 15 and 20 billion dollars is brought in annually from this kind of human smuggling.
Different crime groups control different areas within Mexico, including highways, train routes and border crossing areas. Those who do not pay, cannot afford the "tax" or are ignorant about the structured chain of command suffer brutal consequences, often serious injury or death.
A February 2011 special report by Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights showed that kidnappings largely occurred when, out of ignorance or intentionally, a coyote didn’t pay off or make arrangements with local criminal organizations in exchange for guiding migrants through certain areas. Migrants traveling without a guide were also at risk, the report noted, since criminal organizations don’t believe their account of trying to migrate without help.
Ransom payments during a kidnapping reportedly range from $1,000 to $10,000. Kidnappers have been known to email photos of severely beaten victims to family members, according to the report. Sometimes migrants would be brought across the border and held in safe houses on U.S soil, in cities including Houston. Sometimes, when families wouldn’t or couldn’t pay, fingers or ears were cut off.
For Martinez, the San Fernando massacre was personal; two friends from El Triunfo were among the dead. Sixteen, in total, had been Honduran.
Tiger promised Betty that he’d stay in Honduras, but things were just as bad there. Throughout the fall of 2010, various massacres occurred: 18 people killed inside a San Pedro Sula shoe factory just an hour and a half’s drive from Tiger’s town; 14 more gunned down playing soccer. Carnage continued to make headlines for those who left Honduras, too. In December 2010, 50 more Central American migrants were kidnapped from Mexican trains. When the government of El Salvador asked for an investigation, Mexican authorities claimed that there was no evidence of any kidnappings — and therefore, they couldn’t investigate.
Tiger stayed in Honduras for roughly a year, repeatedly telling Ismael that he wouldn’t leave. But after a year, he did. He didn’t tell friends he was leaving, and he didn’t tell his family. It appears that he set out alone, with no money and no real plan.
Hannah Hafter first met Tiger Martinez in the Mexican border town of Nogales in December 2011. It wasn't cold out, but the 23-year-old was wearing a furry winter bomber hat with elongated ear flaps. "It was style," Hafter recalls. “It wasn't necessary; it wasn't cold out.”
The young man introduced himself as Tiger, and Hafter could see that he was the leader within the group of five Garifunas.
As a volunteer with the Tucson-based nonprofit No More Deaths, Hafter was used to recording tales of rape, kidnapping and extortion perpetrated against people trying to migrate to the United States. Martinez’s story was like many she’d heard.
The group had been tricked by a fellow Honduran living in Nogales, Martinez began. Believing him to be a guide who’d facilitate their way across the desert, steer them safely past the Border Patrol and negotiate fees for organized crime controlling crossing routes, the Garifuna men handed over cash and contact information for relatives.
Hafter says they soon realized their mistake. The numbers would be used to extort money from the families.
“They (the men in the group) used our phones to call their family members to tell them please, don't send money, we're not kidnapped,” Hafter says.
The men were shaken. Hafter implored them to report the asaltapollo, or so-called migrant mugger, to the authorities. But like most Central Americans headed north, none of the Hondurans were in Mexico legally. No one dared risk deportation by Mexican authorities — not when the U.S border was within sight.
Tiger called Betty on Dec. 22, 2011, from the border. She pleaded with her son to return to Honduras, but he didn’t listen. Instead, he asked her to pass a message along to Dayni. He’d be there for her 17th birthday three days after Christmas, Tiger announced. In another call to Niksa, he declared that they’d celebrate Allancito’s birthday together, a few days late.
The last Hafter heard, Martinez’s group had headed east, towards the dusty expanse of Agua Prieta, Mexico, just south of Douglas, Ariz.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement records show that on January 11, 2012, Martinez was deported a fourth time. He was boarded onto a plane and handed a form titled “Warning to Alien Ordered Removed or Deported,” signed by a border patrol agent in Douglas. The paper formally barred him from entering the United States for 20 years. If caught trying to return, Martinez would be charged with illegal re-entry and would likely face not just another deportation, but also jail time.
This time, Tiger told Ismael, he’d find a way to make a living in El Triunfo. The last trip had been too hard. And Ismael, who’d been out of work for the better part of a year, told his brother that he and his wife were finally considering a move back to Honduras. Life in the United States was too tough, he said, with the economy still in tatters and the low pay doled out to undocumented workers. Ismael offered to send Tiger his sound system in advance of his own return. They planned to launch a new DJ business in Honduras together.
But winter passed and summer started and Tiger was struggling, still without real work. Friends noticed his magnetic sparkle and swagger wither.
The country remained in a violent downward spiral. By 2011, the United Nations ranked Honduras as the country with the highest per capita homicide rate in the world. Conditions remained the worst in the region Martinez was from.
And Honduras was becoming the launchpad of the North American drug trade. Nearly 80 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights headed to the United States touch down in Honduras before making the rest of the northbound flight, according to estimates from the U.S. State Department. Most traffic stops in the coastal region surrounding Martinez’s hometown, El Triunfo de la Cruz, not far from San Pedro Sula.
For Tiger, street-level drug dealing now became a meal ticket. For the first time, along with some friends, he began selling marijuana to tourists on the beaches. His old friend Gil says Tiger was more scared than he’d ever been, confessing worries to friends.
Then, on July 19th, unidentified gunmen dressed as Honduran police entered a popular pool hall in Triunfo de la Cruz. They ordered the men working in the bar to pay them a fee. But when Vidal Cacho Amaya, the pool hall owner, refused, the gunmen dragged Cacho along with another worker and a patron outside. Their bodies were left facedown, hands tied behind their backs, in the street near the edge of town. The murders, a Honduran paper reported, left “the entire Garifuna community in mourning. " Martinez Alvarez had frequented that pool hall and had known the three men.
He asked Ismael, again, for money, but Ismael couldn’t send any.
“When I tell you I don’t have it, it’s because I don’t have it,” Ismael wrote Tiger on Facebook in late July 2012. “I’d be happy send it if I had it, but let me tell you something — I owe two months rent.”
In August 2012, Hannah Hafter, the No More Deaths volunteer, encountered Martinez for the second time during a routine visit to the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Mexico. He had spent the night there, sleeping on a bunk bed in a large room filled with dozens of other migrants and recent deportees. Once again, Martinez survived the 3,000-mile trip through Mexico seemingly unscathed. He walked up to Hafter and struck up a conversation.
At first, Hafter couldn't place how she knew the young man. "When he mentioned the kidnapping experience, then I remembered," she says. "He came right up to me like we were old friends. He was like, ‘Hey.’ He had that big personality."
But this time his energy was markedly different. Martinez seemed exhausted and weary. Even as he and the group he was traveling with used services like free phone calls provided by the No More Deaths volunteers, an air of frenetic urgency enveloped them.
"They were really determined, and insistent," Hafter recalls. "And even a little pushy."
On Sept. 3, 2012, Ismael sent his brother a Facebook message, checking in.
“I’m here on the border, bro,” Tiger wrote. “Nogales, Arizona.”
Ismael started panicking. “It’s hard to enter through Arizona, brother,” he wrote. “What’s the idea?”
But for Tiger, the question wasn’t whether he’d cross, but where. “They’re kidnapping people in Texas,” he told Ismael. Indeed, northeastern Mexican states along the southern Texas border were controlled by the Zetas drug trafficking organization, that “operated with near total impunity in the face of compromised local security forces,” according to a 2010 U.S. State Department Cable unclassified in January 2013.
Martinez had already been kidnapped there years before. Arizona looked like the safest option.
Ismael kept sending his brother messages on Facebook, imploring Tiger to call their mother.
“What’s happening man, why don’t you call?” Ismael wrote.
“I’m going through some very ugly things here,” Tiger replied. Ismael asked what he meant, but Tiger sent no explanation.
On Sept. 19th, Tiger finally called Betty. “Stay in Honduras. I don’t want you to come,” she instructed her son.
Tiger refused. “Life in Honduras isn’t what it used to be,” he said.
On Sept. 27, Tiger sent Ismael a brief final note: “I love you.”
Then he fell silent.
Ismael began having nightmares. In one, Tiger apologized for everything he’d ever done wrong, down on his knees, as if confessing his sins. Betty tried not to think about her son; Tiger had gone silent before, and she imagined he would likely re-emerge, cracking jokes and spinning some elaborate story to excuse the latest disappearance.
And then, on a mid-October evening, at home in the Bronx, Betty turned on her television. She clicked to Univision, distracted, as the newscaster reported headlines in a flurry of rapid Spanish. When he mentioned the border, Betty looked up.
On the screen, she saw a body lying prostrate in what looked like the desert. It was a black man with his hair tightly woven into six braids. She felt a bolt of terror. It looked just like Tiger.
Before dawn on Nov. 2, a few weeks later, Ismael’s cell phone rang. When he answered, a man asked for Allan Martinez’s brother. The caller said he was Honduran, but didn’t give his name. The man, who Ismael says sounded young, began explaining that he knew Tiger. They’d crossed the border together. With a small group of about four others they’d walked into the Sonoran desert. Since Tiger had almost no money, he chose an alternative way to pay the coyote: carrying a heavy sack, tethered to his body with ropes. He and several others had carried what the young caller told Ismael he suspected were drugs.
That was what broke Tiger down, the young stranger explained to Ismael.
The man had offered to call U.S. Border Patrol, so agents could come and save Martinez. If the call had been made, he might have survived. The Border Patrol rescued a total of 1312 migrants from the desert borderlands in 2012, a rise of over 22 percent from 2011. As of January 2014, the agency says that the 2013 statistics haven't been tabulated yet.
But even in his weakened state, Tiger, then 24, vehemently resisted the offer. “He said ‘No, don’t do it’,” Ismael says. “‘If you call Border Patrol, I’ll go to prison for more than 10 years.’ It would be like he didn’t get back at all.”
The coyote and the other men left Tiger behind in the desert, alive but unable to move. They took the bag of drugs. At Tiger’s request, the caller also took Ismael’s phone number, promising he’d call.
During a routine flyover on Sept. 30, 2012, Border Patrol agents called in a sighting of a young black man, lying spread-eagle in the vast, dry scrubland of the Cochise County desert.
In the summer of 2013, the Senate passed an immigration bill that would offer a select group of long-term resident undocumented immigrants a 13-year path to citizenship. Tiger Martinez would have been part of that group had it come sooner — had a bill passed, say, in 2008, 2009, 2011. But no bill has become law. Now, the House has refused to move on the legislation. Some think the bill is dead already; others hold on to hopes for passage in 2014.
Immigrant advocacy groups are increasingly calling on the White House to slow deportations through a mix of demonstrations and civil disobedience measures such as chaining themselves to immigration detention center gates and laying down in front of ICE buses to physically prevent them from removing detainees. Thus far, the Obama administration has largely ignored their tactics.
ICE records show that Allan Modesto Martinez Alvarez was deported four separate times between 2007 and 2012. He made an unknown number of attempts, say family and friends, ranging from at least five to as many as eight. Like hundreds of thousands of other deportees with young children in the U.S., Martinez had nothing to stay put for and everything to gain in making the return. For Martinez and thousands like him, that trip brings horrific consequences.
But people like Allan Modesto “Tiger” Martinez Alvarez will keep making the journey. And federal immigration authorities, which say they target immigrants with past deportation records, will keep deporting them.
In the warm soil of El Triunfo de la Cruz, Honduras, the land he spent his life trying so desperately to leave, Martinez’s remains were buried in a simple wooden casket.
“I don’t know how it was for him, when he died,” his brother Ismael says quietly, sitting on a park bench in the Bronx. “I feel like his spirit can’t rest until we go there.” He’d like to visit Honduras to say goodbye, but wouldn’t be able to return to the U.S if he did, because of his unauthorized legal status.
Ismael says he knows his brother spent his last days trying to survive by willpower, alone under the sun, remembering his family: his mother, Betty; his daughter Kiara; his beloved sister Dayni; Ismael; and Allancito, who turned 4 in November 2013. One of the last things Tiger Martinez posted to his Facebook profile was a simple statement, dated July 20, 2012.
It read: "I love mi famili."