Miguel Fernández de Castro’s white Toyota pickup truck rolled into the empty gravel lot exterior the Santa Ana bus station a couple of minutes after 5 pm. We had been two hours south of the Arizona border, within the desert state of Sonora, probably the most sparsely populated areas in Mexico. I had met Fernández de Castro six months earlier in Brooklyn, at a Japanese-inspired cocktail bar run by the artwork journal e-flux, the place he was screening his experimental movie Grammar of Gates. Launched in 2019, the video examines the plight of the Tohono O’odham, the Indigenous group from which he’s descended and whose territory straddles the US-Mexico border. Pairing drone footage of the tribe’s ancestral lands with clips from the kitschy 1970 western Geronimo Jones, it’s an impressionistic portrait of a nation encroached on from all sides. From the south, cartels have established trafficking routes that snake by means of the territory. From the north, US Customs and Border Safety (CBP) has occupied the reservation as a base of operations. On the time of the screening, Fernández de Castro was nearing the tip of a fellowship, and he and his accomplice, the anthropologist Natalia Mendoza, had been getting ready to return to Altar, the city in Sonora the place he was born and raised. When he mentioned I used to be welcome to go to, he in all probability didn’t suppose I’d take him up on the supply. However there I used to be, sitting on the curb exterior the bus station subsequent to a taco stand, watching 18-wheelers trundle by on Federal Freeway 2.

Fernández de Castro pulled as much as the curb. He’s 35 years outdated, with soiled blond hair and putting gray-green eyes. He wears blue denims, brown cowboy boots, and a darkish baseball cap with a curved brim. When he’s driving, he all the time has a playlist on the prepared—typically corridos tumbados, the rising style that mixes Mexican nation music with hip-hop manufacturing and pop songwriting. Altar was an hour away, so after a couple of minutes on the freeway, he determined to tug over to seize two Tecate Lights from the cooler in his truck mattress. “Don’t look forward to finding craft beer out right here,” he teased as he cracked a can and positioned it in his cupholder.

Only a few days in the past, he mentioned, he took his common drive from his house in Altar out to his household’s cattle ranch, about 30 miles north, to search out his farmhand lacking. He requested round city to see if anyone knew his whereabouts, and heard he’d absconded to el otro lado—the opposite facet. Fernández de Castro went by means of the farmhand’s issues and located a pocket book stuffed with codes utilized by puntos, or lookouts: “Okay-8,” for example, means “pleasant car approaching”; “Okay-6” signifies an unidentified armed group. The Sonoran Desert is crisscrossed by unpaved roads, referred to as brechas, that join cities to extra remoted settlements like Fernández de Castro’s ranch. Fernández de Castro advised me that smugglers use a brecha close to his property to succeed in the US-Mexico border fence. The pocket book instructed that his farmhand was moonlighting as a lookout for the native mafia. The job had in all probability gone bitter, and the farmhand fled. So at that second, Fernández de Castro’s essential concern was discovering anyone to feed his cows.

Altar (inhabitants 8,000) is the second-to-last city earlier than the border with Arizona. Due to its proximity to the USA, it’s turn into a method station for migrants from Mexico and Central America to arrange for the ultimate leg of their journey. They pay exorbitant costs to mafia-owned smuggling operations for protected passage. Some migrants earn extra cash by carrying drug shipments on their 170-mile hike to Tucson. This booming black-market financial system has introduced extraordinary violence to Altar. Most residents have a pal or member of the family who’s been killed or disappeared.

The knock-on results of the money infusions are plainly seen. There’s a brand new on line casino throughout the road from Fernández de Castro’s home that’s packed day and night time with older women pulling slot-machine levers. Previously run-down homes are getting paint jobs and renovations. In the meantime, Altar’s essential avenue is lined with basic shops promoting camo and desert survival gear from racks on the sidewalk—every thing migrants must make it to Tucson unhurt and unnoticed by CBP. On the city’s essential intersection, Fernández de Castro pointed to a brand new restaurant serving stews which are hardly ever discovered this far north. Between meals, lodging, and passage, Central American migrants spend as much as $12,000 on their technique to the US, and Mexican impresarios don’t miss a chance to catch the falling pesos.