ALTAR, Sonora – Illegal drugs. Illegal migration. In Altar, there’s no separating the two.
The small cattle-ranching town about 170 miles southwest of Tucson became a hotbed for human smuggling in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Town families who knew the land well would lead migrants through the desert for a fee. If someone couldn’t keep up, a guide would stay behind to help.
That all changed by 2004, when the drug cartels saw the money-making potential and took over. Fewer people cross now, but those who do face greater risks.
They can’t make a move without the cartel’s blessing. They may be held captive if they can’t meet smugglers’ demands for more money. If they fall behind during the journey, they’re left to die in the desert.
Prisciliano Peraza, the town’s priest, is the bridge between the two worlds.