In 2008 serious flooding occurred in the Tijuana River Valley along the borderland between San Diego and Mexico. Journalist Kimball Taylor was assigned to investigate why “the winter flood brought several forty-foot Dumpsters’ worth of used tires with it.”
During Taylor’s investigation, a rancher on whose land many of these tires piled up mentioned another puzzle, the Mexicans on bicycles who “come banzai down the canyons. They drop their bikes on the trails. They run into the estuary. They run into Imperial Beach!” During the past six months, the rancher had collected a thousand of these abandoned bikes (pp. 23-25).
Fascinated by this report, Kimball set out upon a quest to learn all he could about these bikes, the people who used them, and how all of this fit into the larger story of a strange migratory pattern: the bicycles’ movement through the black market, Hollywood, the prison system, and the military-industrial complex” (from the Book Jacket). The result is a big book—406 pages, including notes.
Kimball had a network of friends and professional contacts and already was skilled in following leads, talking with people in bars and other unconventional locations, and converting hints into clearly established facts. He gradually uncovered the story in highly personal detail and in the book tells it in bits and pieces, much as he learned it in the first place.
He takes his readers to a small Oaxacan pueblo in southwestern Mexico, introducing Pablo, a twelve-year-old boy, and his best friend, Solo, who want to follow others of their families into el Norte. Pablo decides to make the trip, and Taylor unfolds the motivations and methods he uses to make his journey to Tijuana. There, Pablo took time to learn how to get across the border and to places in the United States where he could link up with his family.
He became acquainted with coyotes, the people who engineered the crossings and demanded payment for their services, and established a relationship with Roberto, a coyote whose story Taylor has already told his readers. Taylor summarizes the way that this business was organized. At the top of the pyramid was el coyote, and working under him were recruiters called polleros, chicken herders, whose recruits were referred to as pollos, chickens.
Roberto’s operation was unique in that he used bicycles as the means of getting pollos across the border and to safe places from which their travel to the north could continue. Each time Taylor learned something new about this system, further questions emerged. Where did el coyote get his bicycles? What happened to them after they were dumped in the United States? How did the bicyclists escape the notice of the Border Patrol? How could large numbers of pollos stay out of sight while waiting for their transportation further north?
Persistently, Taylor untangles these puzzles, and related story lines. The one that holds the book together and commands the readers’ attention revolves around Roberto, his sister Marta who became his highly skilled and increasingly essential partner in their business, and El Indio, a pollero whom Roberto reluctantly brought into the organization at Marta’s urging. This story gradually deepens into one of love, tenderness, tension, tragic illness, and death.
Taylor’s sub plots are interesting in their own right. One explains how many of the abandoned bikes were used on Hollywood sets that simulated Middle Eastern villages and were used to train U.S. military personnel. Another recounts the story of how bicycles are stolen, broken down, and sold, often with the collusion of law enforcement personnel.
Much of Taylor’s research was done while this business was still in operation. It lasted only a few years, and not until it had been discontinued did he feel free to tell the story to the wider world. In a note to readers, he states: “Names have been changed and identities have been obscured in order to protect migrants and the smugglers who cross them.”
For more than twenty years I have driven and bicycled through the desert Southwest, and during these travels have often passed through Border Patrol checkpoints. While driving, I have sometimes been asked a question or two, but often have been waved on. As a cyclist, I’ve never been stopped. I’m white, old, and mounted on an obviously fancy road bike: no reason to doubt my status.
What little I have known about the business of smuggling people into the country has been negative. The Coyote’s Bicycle, however, describes the deeper story of why people want to cross the border and how the process affects families on both sides of the border. It also shows how corruption affects the process and indicates that some of the smugglers are people of integrity. Taylor also adds to the mystique of bicycling and human life. This is a fine book that deserves a large readership!
The Coyote’s Bicycle is published by by Tin House Books, Portland, Oregon, 2016.