Death in the

Pedro Sanchez died yesterday. No big deal. Except to his family --- wife Sarah, and the three kids: Emiliano aged 8, Juana, 4-1/2, and the esquincle, the one they called Junior --- barely six months old.

I liked Pedro. You probably would have liked him too. Good worker. Honest. He did some carpentry work for me at my place in Puerto Perdido. Built a hutch for me to store things in when I go north. Nice job --- artistic even --- with good strong supports. And it wasn't too expensive. Pedro didn't cheat me. He didn't do that to people, even to gringos.

Pedro died in the mountains, the Sierras, just east of El Cajon, there on the Mexican - U. S. border. It's rough country up there.

Heart attack, says the migra --- the U. S. Border guards. They are the ones who brought his body in. The other Mexicans who were travelling with him didn't stop, couldn't stop to help him. When you don't have papers and one of your compañeros dies crossing the border, you don't stop.

If Pedro knew he had a heart problem, he never told the rest of us. He was only thirty-five, seemed very healthy. It might have been the strain of his last days on the road. He had been travelling for over a week just to get to the frontera.

Pedro has been crossing over into California for over ten years. He would go up to Los Angeles every year to work in the CarPlace fabric shop. It wasn't a job that many Americans wanted but Pedro was capable, and worked hard, and the owner was always glad to see him, never asked for an ID. Even with the minimum wage, Pedro could make enough money to take back to his family so they could eat, buy clothes, get medicine for the kids.

He was done in by what they call Operation Gatekeeper. Nice name. Gives us a picture of a gate, a pleasant old man waiting at the gate. If you have papers, you get through; if not, the old man shakes his head, says you have to go back.

Pedro didn't have any papers. He tried, but the U. S. State Department doesn't give visas to poor folk from Southern Mexico. If you own land, or have a big business in Mexico city, or run a maquiladora --- you can get a visa. But Pedro didn't own any land, except the 20 by 30 foot lot where he lives, and his only business was carpentry and the work he had al norte..

"It used to be easy getting in," he told me once. "It was like a game." La migra would try to stop them, but it was no big deal. "They knew we were just looking for work. If we hid long enough, they'd go off for coffee, and we'd cross over, near Chula Vista, and get on a bus, and be in Los Angeles the next day."

But then came Operation Gatekeeper. Sponsored by Gov. Pete Wilson of California, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, and Rep. Duncan Hunter of California --- among others. The number of agents patrolling this part of the border went up by a factor of eight. The U. S. Government installed lights to illuminate the canyons near the border. They built a ten foot tall cement fence starting at the Pacific, going east. Those who know it intimately call it "La Pared Berlin" --- The Berlin Wall.

They brought hundreds of Ford Broncos to give chase to Mexicans. People like Pedro, who had crossed so easily before, suddenly became the enemy. They had to start going up into the mountains of East San Diego County to get over.

It's rough country up there --- especially for the women and the children. It may take three or four days to get across. In the summer the temperatures can be scorching, and --- sometimes, in the winter --- it snows. No one tells you what to expect. People wear street shoes, tee-shirts, and jeans because they don't know any better. They aren't prepared, and the "coyotes" --- those who get $300 or $400 to take them across --- don't tell them. Sometimes, when the going gets rough, the coyotes just disappear, head back towards Mexico.

There are snakes, scorpions, tricky paths and deep arroyos. Sometimes you run out of food and water. And sometimes, in the dark, you find yourself plunging down the side of a canyon. If you break something --- an arm or a leg --- the others have to leave you behind.

The services for Pedro will be held in San Sebastian next week. It'll be a simple ceremony. It cost Sarah almost every peso she had to get the body shipped back. It's a poor town, and there's not much in the way of spare change, even for funerals.

Pedro's friends will hoist the coffin and carry it to the panteón where he will be buried next to his grandfather, Enrique. I expect there will be quite a crowd. Pedro was a good man --- straight, honest. Liked a drink from time to time, but never got into brawls at the local cantina. Lived a quiet life with Sarah and the kids. Never a harsh word --- even for his mother-in-law, the one they call Doņa Pedo, who's forever and a day complaining about how poor she is, even though she has over five hectares of land.

I'm going to be there at the funeral, and I was thinking that we might want to invite some of the people involved in Operation Gatekeeper to come along --- Pete Wilson, Ted Stevens, Lamar Smith, Duncan Hunter. They might like to see the result of their handiwork, have a chance to meet Sarah, shake hands with the oldest son (who now has no father), look at the daughter (who now has no father), see the baby (who now has no father).

They say that it was Pedro's heart that gave out, there in the Sierras. The migra was chasing him up a hill, and all of a sudden he fell, twisted around, cried out --- and he was gone.

The INS agents found his wallet, found the pictures of Sarah and the kids, and his ID card. That's how they were able to identify him.

The U. S. Government did help a little. They paid to bring the body over the border to Mexicali. That was where Sarah came to pick him up, to bring him home. She can't read so they had to show her where to sign the receipt.

--- Carlos Amantea

[This article first appeared in]

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