CHAPARRAL, N.M. The 18-wheeler pulled off the desert highway and rumbled down a pockmarked clay road, its headlights raking a desolate hamlet of doublewides.
The big rig, making an unscheduled detour at the start of a midnight run from El Paso to Dallas, slowed as it approached a dingy mobile home. Then the headlights snapped off.
Moving as stealthily as a tractor-trailer can, it turned through a gap in a chain-link fence, backed up and stopped at the mobile home's back door.
Jason Sprague climbed down from the cab into the balmy night air and swung open the trailer's heavy cargo doors. Then he headed inside for his money.
That's when he saw them. Under a faint ceiling lamp, dozens of ragged people waited silently in two lines stretching between the kitchen and the living room, men on one side, women and little ones on the other. Some clasped small bags; others had only the clothes on their backs.
Avoiding their glances, Sprague hurried past and stepped into the bathroom where a woman was waiting. She handed him a bulging envelope. Inside was $3,000 in cash.
"You'll get the rest when it's completed," she told him.
Sprague walked back to the cab and settled into the driver's seat as the woman and her partner loaded the human cargo.
He had been told there would be 32 of them illegal immigrants who had made it across the Rio Grande to this drop house 20 miles outside El Paso. Now they had to be smuggled past an internal Border Patrol checkpoint and dropped off at a truck stop in Dallas.
As they clambered into the freight compartment, Sprague felt the rig rock. He wasn't counting, but the rocking went on and on. How many people were they stuffing back there?
"Uno por uno," the loaders hissed. One by one. Walk fast.
In the line, inching forward, Luciano Alcocer smiled to himself, grateful to be moving.
Eight days earlier, the carpenter from Mexico City had kissed his wife and daughters goodbye. Don't cry, he told his children as their eyes filled; this could be our salvation.
The companies that once bought the tables and desks Alcocer built had shut down. But there was work to be had in the United States. A relative already in the States made the arrangements, sending about $1,500 to the smugglers. He gave Alcocer a number to call once he reached the Mexican border town of Ciudad Juarez.
Alcocer followed the instructions. He met a guide who led him through chest-high water across the Rio Grande. In El Paso, a car picked him up.
For days, he'd hidden inside the crowded mobile home, where two members of the smuggling ring gouged migrants $5 for three packages of ramen noodles, $10 for a six-pack of beer.
Now, half-past midnight on July 27, 2002, the slight, 5-foot-3, 41-year-old, carrying only his hopes and a couple of T-shirts, climbed a stepladder propped against the truck's open freight compartment.
Two of the others, Pioquinto Cabrera and Guillermo Gallo, grabbed his arms and hauled him inside. It was dark in there, and cramped.
The 53-foot-long aluminum-walled trailer, lined with plywood, was packed almost to the roof with cardboard boxes of medical supplies manufactured in Mexico and bound for Wisconsin.
Alcocer crawled three-quarters of the way in, settling atop a box on the driver's side. Stretching his legs out in front of him, he reached up and touched the ceiling.
Others silently climbed inside about 40 people in all. Another seven or so, all women and children, piled into the sleeping compartment behind the cab.
Inside the trailer, Alcocer watched the shadowy outlines of the passengers filing in.
There was Jose Gaston Ramirez, a 59-year-old shoemaker from Cuernavaca, looking very American in a red Calvin Klein T-shirt. He was bound for Chicago to reunite with his daughter.
Edson Rojas, a tall, skinny 16-year-old from Mexico City eager to join his father in Kansas, climbed up and claimed a spot. Like several others, he'd paid extra to ride in the sleeping compartment but was herded into the back anyway.
A few complained. The smugglers told them to go back to Mexico if they didn't like it.
Cabrera and Gallo were the last to scramble onto the boxes. The 28-year-old Cabrera was traveling from Veracruz to Kentucky to work the cattle farms. Gallo, 32, was on his way from Mexico City to New York for a restaurant job.
"Silencio!" the loaders ordered. Especially at the Border Patrol checkpoint, everyone must be silent.
With that, the heavy doors closed and everything went black.
Alcocer thought he heard a lock click. It was as if the doors were closing on an old life of despair. Later, he would invoke a different metaphor: Las puertas a la muerte.
The doors to death.
The engine roared to life and the truck began to roll.
It was the beginning of an American journey that thousands of illegal immigrants make. But this one would end almost a year and a half later in a federal courtroom.
It was nearly 4 a.m. when Sprague picked up his co-driver, Troy Dock, in El Paso. Dock had made smuggling runs before, but this was Sprague's first, and he was jittery. With Dallas still at least 10 hours away, he wondered if they should call the whole thing off.
But there was money to be made another $1,200 after the migrants were dropped at the truck stop.
Dock drove on; Sprague dozed.
Dock, 30, was short and stocky with the face of a choirboy. Sprague, 27, was built like the high school quarterback he once was, with a goatee and a tattoo of his name on his arm.
"Tweedledee and tweedledum," an acquaintance called them a couple of bumbling good ol' boys. They'd just been hired as a driving team for Boyd Logistics Inc. of El Paso when Dock's contact in Ciudad Juarez, Pat Valdes, called to say he had a load that was ready to move.
Now, as they rolled down Interstate 10, Dock's cell phone kept ringing. It was Pat Valdes, Dock's contact in Ciudad Juarez, checking their progress, asking if they'd made it through the checkpoint yet.
Dock promised to touch base when they were safely through.
Ninety minutes east of El Paso, they drew near the Border Patrol checkpoint at Sierra Blanca, one of a network intended to intercept illegal immigrants and drugs moving north from the border.
In the blackness of the freight compartment, the illegals passed the time talking in hushed voices. Alcocer listened politely as an Argentine barber boasted of plans to ply his trade in Los Angeles.
"Tengo sed," someone said. I'm thirsty. One of the men used the illuminated dial of his watch to locate a water jug.
Sometime before sunrise, Alcocer felt the truck slow. The checkpoint, he figured. Everyone fell silent.
But a thought was nagging him: The smugglers had promised the trailer would be air-conditioned, but it was stuffy. Was any air getting in?
Outside, bright lights bathed the highway. Dock pulled the rig behind a line of trucks moving slowly past the checkpoint.
The checkpoint routine was like Russian roulette. Some trucks were stopped and searched, others waved through. Dock was pushing his luck; twice before he'd made it through with loads of illegals.
His stomach knotted. But even before he came to a complete stop, the agent waved him on by.
Dock let out a breath; Sprague dozed on.
A half-hour down the road, Dock pulled into a truck stop to get a drink. Using hand signals because he spoke little Spanish, he asked those in the sleeping compartment if they wanted anything. They declined. He didn't open the trailer to ask the others because he was afraid someone might see them. Besides, Valdes' orders were to keep the doors shut.
The sun was coming up as Dock swung back on the interstate. It was still 7 1/2 hours to Dallas.
Inside the freight compartment, Alcocer licked a finger and held it up to see if he could feel any air moving. Nothing.
Slivers of morning light squeezed through the seals of the trailer doors. The tempera-
ture outside was rising, headed toward 95 degrees.
Rojas, the 16-year-old, stripped off his shirt. Alcocer did the same.
He grew very thirsty, but there was no water left in the jugs. They were urinals now.
"No hay aire," a woman said softly. There's no air.
The word spread quickly. No hay aire, other travelers murmured. No hay aire!
Suddenly a young man vomited.
Some of the migrants began moving toward the doors, praying that a little oxygen was leaking through.
Alcocer heard ripping. Others were pulling flaps from the packing boxes and using them to fan themselves. Alcocer snatched off a piece and waved it furiously.
The effort exhausted him.
Digging through the boxes, someone pulled out some plastic tubes and passed them forward. Those at the rear tugged away the gummy seals around the trailer doors in search of an airway, then forced one end of a tube through the crevice and tried to breathe through the other.
Gallo, the strapping man who had helped Alcocer aboard, began tearing at the plywood on the trailer walls, slicing his fingers. Alcocer tried to help, pounding the wood with his elbows. They managed to break off a few pieces, only to expose the trailer's aluminum walls.
How do we make a hole? someone said.
The barber, Alcocer thought. He must have scissors!
"No, my friend," the barber said. His kit was too expensive.
Suddenly, all eyes were on him in the dim light.
"Give them to me," Alcocer demanded, his voice harsh.
Gallo grabbed the scissors. He stabbed the aluminum walls again and again, gouging a couple of small holes before the scissors bent uselessly.
They tried everything. Nothing worked.
The temperature inside the freight compartment kept climbing. Later, police would estimate it reached 150 degrees.
"I'm thirsty," Alcocer cried out.
Someone passed him a jug. He knew what was in it, but what choice did he have? He drank.
Up in the cab, the roar of the engine drowned out the noise from the cargo hold. Sprague and Dock drove on, oblivious. Cruising through the blazing prairie outside Odessa, they popped a Garth Brooks recording into the tape player and switched on the cab's air conditioner.
Back in the trailer, their passengers were swinging their arms wildly pounding the walls, the doors, the ceiling. The sound was booming, but in Alcocer's oxygen-deprived state, it seemed oddly muffled.
They shouted: Open up! Open up!
Hyperventilating, a teenage girl crawled toward the doors and screamed, "Call 911! Call anybody!"
In the gloom, Alcocer watched Jose Gaston Ramirez lie down on the boxes. Back in the mobile home, he had snored when he slept, but he wasn't making a sound now.
Pioquinto Cabrera crawled by, clutching a jug of urine. Alcocer asked for another drink. No, Cabrera said. It's for one of the ladies.
Another traveler peeled off his shirt, put it in his mouth and tried to suck out the sweat.
Soon, the hallucinations started. A helicopter is flying overhead! someone shouted. The police are following! cried another. I have a gun; I'm going to shoot out the tires! another yelled. But none of it was so.
No quiero morir, someone whimpered. I don't want to die.
Alcocer whispered a prayer. "I'm in your hands, God. Take care of my family."Then his head lolled back, and he closed his eyes.
To be continued...
Editor's note The scenes inside the truck cab are based on jailhouse interviews with Troy Dock and Jason Sprague, on transcripts and videos of their police interrogations, and on court testimony of migrants who rode in the sleeping compartment. The description of the loading is from interviews with Sprague and migrant Luciano Alcocer, and on the testimony of other migrants. The movements of the truck come from the drivers and from the vehicle's Global Positioning System, obtained from court records. The scenes inside the trailer are from interviews with migrants including Alcocer and Guillermo Gallo, and from the testimony of 10 other migrants. The migrants' backgrounds come from interviews with them and investigators, and from medical records, death certificates and court testimony. The direct quotes appear as they are remembered by those who spoke or heard them.