America in hot pursuit

Raul Dias | Updated on: Feb 06, 2020
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A simulated illegal border crossing is the chief attraction — and deterrent — at an amusement park in the Mexican town of Ixmiquilpan

The stillness of the night — which has for the last half-hour or so been interrupted only by the drowsy hum of cicadas and the occasional sharp intake of breath — is suddenly punctured by the shrill, polyphonic blaring of sirens. An enormous hummer, all lit up in flashing blue and red lights, races in and comes to a screeching halt. Four armed men wearing bullet-proof vests emblazoned with the words ‘U.S. Border Patrol’ spill out of the vehicle. Their 9mm handguns are trained on our motley bunch of eight.

A Mexican in our group attempts an escape as he runs towards the river. “ No van a cruzar el rio !” a stocky border patrol agent yells at him in Spanish while firing a blank into the ground. “None of you is going to cross the river tonight,” he repeats in accented English for the benefit of the non-Mexicans.

We had been warned that this would most likely happen. And just like that we soon come to the grim realisation that our game is up. Quite literally.

The night walk

First things first. Everything mentioned in the above reimagination of that freezing cold night in September did take place. And no, it isn’t a fragment of some dystopian dream. Nor was I, contrary to what it might seem, attempting to illegally enter the US.

Our ‘capture’ was, in fact, the culmination of a four-hour-long border crossing simulation activity offered every Saturday night by the Parque Eco Alberto, an amusement park in the central Mexican town of Ixmiquilpan. Earlier that day I had paid 350 Mexican pesos (₹1,320) to experience a ‘lite’ version of what hundreds of people go through every single night of the year.

All in the hope of making it to the ‘promised land’ on the other side.

Known as La Camina Nocturna or The Night Walk, the weekly simulation activity has been held at the park since July 31, 2004. The walks are stewarded by locals, many of whom have in the past tried to illegally cross into the US. And although the park is some 1,000 km from the border, the experience can get alarmingly real as it creates conditions increasingly difficult to deal with.

Perilous beginnings

Just like in an actual illegal crossing deal, we are first introduced to our ski mask-clad guide, Macario Simon Reyes. The 38-year-old plays the role of el coyote , as the human smugglers are known in this part of the world.

We assemble for prayers and a briefing in an abandoned white stucco Catholic church. We are warned about everything from the threat of kidnap at the hands of narco-traffickers to the possibility of dying from extreme desert conditions such as heatstroke and hypothermia and even being eaten by wild animals.

“And if this seems extreme, reality is a whole other deal,” says Reyes. “Many think that the simulation serves as a sort of training for illegal border crossings. But what we are doing is just the opposite. Our mission is to help stop the emigration by acting as a deterrent to those who might be thinking of doing so. It’s very difficult in reality. It’s very ugly.”

For close to five hours, one is expected to belly crawl through tunnels, march through mud, and ford the Tula River, which stands in for the infamous Rio Grande at the border. All this, while trying to avoid getting caught by la migra , as the border patrol agents are nicknamed.

Never again

The park itself, I’m told, is partly funded by the government and communally owned by the indigenous Hñahñu tribe, who are spread across a 3,000-acre region in the state of Hidalgo. Interestingly, Reyes tells me that at one point over 80 per cent of Hidalgo’s population was lost to emigration, leaving Ixmiquilpan almost a ghost town. But not today. The population has steadily increased over the years. This he attributes not just to the deterrent message that the simulation conveys to the town’s youth, but also the many jobs it has created for the community. A recent report by US Customs and Border Protection suggests that illegal crossings along the southern border are down by 72 per cent in December 2019, compared to May 2019.

As we cross a barren field that, we’ve been told, might have rattlesnakes slithering around, I get talking with 19-year-old Pilar and her twin brother, who happens to share my name, Raúl. “We left Mexico with our parents and illegally crossed the border into the US when we were 10. But after being deported five years ago, and to warn us against attempting it on our own, our dad sent us here as an important reminder of what we went through,” she says.

As we get debriefed by Reyes after being ‘released’ by the faux border patrol agents, I ask the twins if the simulation was what they had expected. “We thought that it would be a lot easier. But it isn’t,” says an exhausted Raúl. “Since we’ve been back from the US, our whole family has come to cherish the liberty we have here in Mexico. No more running and being chased anymore. Never again. Nunca más!”

Raul Dias is a food and travel writer based in Mumbai

Travel log

Published on February 07, 2020

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