The impact on migrants of Mexico's drug war was examined in the final episode of Borderland, as cast members set off on an emotionally and physically demanding last leg of their crossing to the U.S.
The episode opened with the group going to the Mexican state of Sinaloa, where the powerful Sinaloa drugs cartel has taken control of not only the state’s capital Culiacan, but also much of the U.S.-Mexico border.
For a migrant trying to make it to the U.S., there can often be no getting around the Sinaloa Cartel – not only does the cartel run its drug operations from Culican, but it has also taken over the business of people smuggling.
It represents the last stop for many before they reach the border, and the cartel often forces people seeking passage into the U.S. to ferry drugs on their way. More than 10,000 people are kidnapped and forced into the drug trade in Culiacan each yea, it is estimated.
From Culican, migrants make their way to Altar, the last stop before reaching the border fence and the last chance to stock up on supplies.
In Altar, the group gets their final assignment: from here, they will walk the same deadly path as Omar, Miara and Claudeth — migrants whose plights the group have been following — to get back home.
Some 2500 migrants died last year trying to cross the same desert the group are asked to traverse.
In preparation for their departure, a local priest shows the group around the town. He explains that Altar’s economy has shifted from being a cattle town to immigration, with 90 percent of the local economy based on the movement of people.
Local businesses and street vendors take advantage of the vulnerable migrants, inflating prices to absorbent levels on everything from water to blankets.
“We bleed them dry,” the groups’ guide tells them.
Here, women also buy contraceptive shots to prevent pregnancies on the journey, accepting they will most likely be raped along the way.
Cast members Gary and Randy come across a map in the local church that shows how many people die during the journey in relation to how many days they’ve been in the desert, trying to reach the nearest city.
“They’re exploiting them, and I just cannot stand it,” Randy said.
After gathering their supplies, the priest drives them to the border fence, wishes them safe passage then sends them on their way.
Once on the other side of the fence, a guide – a former border law enforcement officer, meets the group. He warns them to stay close together, maintain pace and try not to fall behind.
If they were migrants, they would be following a “coyote” – a smuggler that migrants pay to guide them through the desert. If someone in the group falls behind, the coyote would simply leave them to die in the extreme heat during the day and the cold at night.
Two hours in, Kishana is already struggling.
“It’s tough!” she said. “It’s hot, I think I over packed… I don’t see how people can do this for so long. I don’t think I’ve been prepared at all for the crossing. Nothing prepares you for this.”
A few hours later, the group comes across a water drop from “No More Deaths,” the same organization the group met with and helped four weeks ago before they set out on their journey.
At this point, Randy reflects on his journey. He still has strong feelings about immigration, but he can’t deny the journey has changed him.
“I think I’ve solidified some things, and I’ve probably gotten softer on some things,” he said. “These are human lives that are basically pawns that are being preyed upon.”
“I am more determined than ever to make an impact and make a difference in my world. I am definitely forever changed in this. Definitely.”
Migrants need all the help they can get along the way. A policy that has seen migrants forced into the hot and desolate desert has lead to a significant drop in illegal crossings — from 1 million in 2013 to 420,000 last year. But migrants are now eight times more likely to die on the way.
As the sun goes down, the group risks running into drug smugglers, so they decide to set up camp. Temperatures go below zero that night, and no amount of sweaters and blankets can keep them warm.
As the night sets in, Allison also reflects on the journey.
“I didn’t really realize I was racist against Mexicans,” she said. “I’m really ashamed of the way that I’ve handled myself and even this topic and the ignorance I had to immigration. It’s changed my life.”
The next day, the group gets up early to continue on their journey.
Before they set off, Alex thinks about the challenges that one migrant they have learned about, Miara Zelaya, faced trying to make it to her mother in Iowa, and breaks down.
“I don’t know if my views have changed [breaking down all borders], but my perspective has changed,” he said. “When I first came in to this, I was super strong opinionated. Take down the borders and just let the people in, but now I realize it’s not that simple. I had no idea the magnitude of what was going on.”
It isn’t long before the group has to stop again – Kishana is falling behind again, and is reaching her breaking point.
The Guide forces the group to decide if they will leave Kishana behind or wait for her to get back on pace with the group. As the tension mounts, Kishana opts to call for help and the group leaves without her.
If Kishana were a migrant, it is likely she would have been left to die by the coyote.
In two days, the group has managed to only travel 10 miles, and they are still 50 miles away from Tuscon.
Waiting for her rescue, Kishana thinks about the journey she’s just gone through.
Surprisingly, Kishana still has the same views; migrants should not make the trip.
“The trip has hardened me, I think, in some ways because no one is ashamed or embarrassed as to what they’re doing to enter into the United States,” she said. “It’s changed my heart, of course my heart cries out for them. I’m human, but at the same time I think about Brenda and Sherlie, and I begged her to not take the journey, and she told me she had no other choice. So it kind of makes me angry that a mom would put her child in that situation.”
Lis-Marie, Kishana’s partner on the journey, presses on with the group and has a different opinion.
“Over the last few weeks, I feel I have changed. I guess I feel more tolerant to listening to [the other participants’] points, as opposed to always being on the defensive,” she said.
“So I’ve definitely have learned just to listen and try to understand them, but not necessarily agree with them.”
After four weeks of trekking through Central America, riding on the roof of a train, and getting up close to the drug war, the group has been through a considerable ordeal. To their surprise, help arrives to pick them up, 50 miles short of Tucson.
The spot is significant, most migrants don’t make it past where they are now, and the morgue regularly picks up the bodies of dead migrants in the area.