ALTAR, Mexico (Reuters) - Between mouthfuls of beef tacos, Guatemalan people-smuggler Carlos sits at a road side restaurant in Mexico casually drawing routes on a napkin for illegal immigrants to walk the desert into the United States.
Next door, shop owner Lourdes Alonso fingers through a wad of cash as she helps migrants swap their worn out sandals and ragged bags for walking shoes, hats, socks and a backpack.
A block along, supermarket manager Sergio Zepeda stocks the shelves as Mexicans and Central Americans pile their baskets with tins of tuna, energy drinks, beans and tortillas, readying for a tough trek through the searing desert into Arizona.
Illegal immigration to the United States via the Sonoran Desert is big business in the town of Altar in northern Mexico, the last major settlement before the U.S. border, 60 miles away.
Around half a million people pass through Altar every year before the dangerous walk northward.
With few activities other than helping migrants, Altar offers services from money transfers and doctors to people smuggling and prostitution.
Pharmacies specialize in electrolyte solutions to avoid dehydration on the walk north, as well as caffeine and ephedrine stimulants to increase stamina and overcome fatigue.
Gallon water bottles are on sale at almost every corner and a Mexican bank has opened a branch in Altar to service migrants who receive money from U.S. relatives for their trip.
“If you want to have a good chance of making the walk, you’ve got to first come to Altar. They’ve got everything here, it’s like a Wal-Mart for migrants,” said Jose Manuel Magarino, 25, from the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, outside Altar’s church after praying for good fortune in his border crossing.
Once a depressed, dusty farming village, Altar has benefited from a move by the United States since the attacks of September 11, 2001, to tighten security in border cities, which forced illegal immigrants to cross the remote desert instead.
Plans by the Bush administration to crack down on U.S. businesses that employ illegal immigrants have done little to dent the buzz around Altar.
The town attracts opportunists from across Mexico looking to earn fast cash and makes no attempt to hide its unlikely industry.
“I make more money here than I used to in Los Angeles,” said Alejandro Vizarraga at his busy restaurant. He came from Mexico’s Pacific state of Sinaloa after a spell in the United States.
A Red Cross unit gives migrants pre-trek check ups and helps with the injuries of those who did not make it through the desert and were sent back by U.S. Border Patrol agents.
“This is the gateway to hell,” said Red Cross volunteer Amado Marcelo Coello. “They don’t know what awaits them out there,” he added, holding up a photo of a desert scorpion.
The U.S. Border Patrol, which has 13,500 agents along the border, says migrants are being deterred because it is catching fewer illegal immigrants, especially in the Yuma area of Arizona, where numbers fell by 68 percent between October 1 and June 30.
But immigrants are still determined, even risking summer desert temperatures reaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) on the walk of three to four days.
“These people have a dream and despite everything that is against them, the bandits, the desert, the snakes, the weather, thousands come through this town every day,” said Marco Antonio Burruel, who helps run Altar’s Catholic migrant shelter.
U.S. agents hope the latest initiative, a 38-mile (61-km) “virtual fence” of towers, radars, cameras and sensors about to come into operation along the border near Tucson, will be another major deterrent to immigrants.
“When we get it up and running, the virtual fence will make it very difficult to avoid detection,” said Brad Benson, a spokesman for the virtual fence program known as SBInet.
From Altar, the undocumented immigrants walk to the remote Mexican border village of El Sasabe and then into the United States toward the nearest hamlet, Three Points, Arizona.
There and at other loading points on desert highways, they are picked up by people smugglers and packed into cars and trucks and taken to safe houses in Tucson and Phoenix.
New arrivals to Altar seem unfazed by the risks as they gather in the warm evening outside the church to hear folk singers play.
Many talk of the lack of jobs at home or the sick mother who needs medicine that only U.S. wages can pay for.
“If I need to buy a ladder, help build a tunnel or swim to the United States, I am going to do it,” said Jokeli Antonio Cunza, a 20-year-old farm laborer from El Salvador.
For more on Altar and a cross-border trip by Reuters reporters, see: here