They tear sofas apart for the metal, burn Christmas lights for the copper and salvage old plastic toys.
They work fast to dodge bulldozers that load trash into semitrucks for a one-way trip to the landfill.
Slogging through knee-deep muck, they grab whatever they can: bottles, boxes, clothes. Most precious is copper, which can sell for about $4 a kilo, roughly two pounds — nearly 10 times as much as paper.
They sort what they collect and wait for the next pickup or municipal garbage truck to grind its way up the dusty road to the dump.
If they’re lucky and they had a good day or a driver gives them some meat, they light a fire and cook it up.
When there’s nothing to do, they sit on discarded furniture or use old boxes to shield themselves from sun and rain.
Waste pickers can live their entire lives at el Tirabichi, as the locals call it.
Some live in houses local charities or church groups help them build on the hillside above the dump. Some live in tiny, mostly unfurnished homes made from cardboard, wood, tarp — discarded materials they find as they work. If they don’t find mattresses, they make beds out of old clothes.
El Tirabichi is supposed to close by the end of June, the move prompted by a fire that ripped through in March and killed a man. The city will contract a private waste management company and most dump trucks will go to a newer transfer station and to the landfill on the other side of town.
But some city dump trucks and private cars keep making their way here and dumping their loads. And waste pickers keep showing up and making their piles.
They don’t see a choice.
Many of them came here after being deported, dropped off at the border without a peso in their pocket. Some are drug addicts hoping to sell enough to finance their next fix. Some are parents, scavenging to feed their children.
El Tirabichi is a refuge for the desperate.