For the traditional smugglers of drugs, people and other commodities the wall had been a disaster. For Estavez Estralla it has been an opportunity.
Estralla had been a struggling engineering student in Mexico City with an unfashionable interest in sewers when he had answered an online ad to get more money for the weekend. Over a period of months he had met nondescript and abstract men in remote desert locations who had asked him to oversee tunneling operations. He almost turned back when he saw the first rendezvous location, fearing he was going to be butchered by the cartels. But when he survived his first outing and was given a large wad of grimy notes for his trouble, he came back again and again.
Estralla was given trickles of information about what he was doing. It was never enough to give him a full picture. Then after a year of training laborers to build tunnels to nowhere in the desert, he was taken into a small cinder block building and informed he would be working on a tunnel under the wall. Estralla had felt a range of emotions from fear to excitement. But he was also honored to be asked to lead the dig.
The 2,000 mile concrete wall had been in place for five years now and the anger had yet to subside south of the boarder where it was viewed as a racist statement.
Those who had daubed graffiti on the wall had quickly realized it was almost impossible to police every mile of it. There were cameras but they could be disabled and shot out of action. Even with the cameras taken out, the convex shape of the wall and the fact it was topped with razor wire made climbing it an almost impossible undertaking.
The answer that had been developed in Mexico City was The Barbarian, a small but powerful tunneling machine that could dislodge hundreds of cubic feet of sand and earth every few minutes. Estralla was consulted about the best places to tunnel under the wall and on setting up diversionary tactics that would distract the American security guards.
The July night he first moved the Barbarian to the wall taught him a life lesson. He was just 26 but in charge of a large team of engineers and workmen. A minor wall incursion had been organized two miles north to divert attention away from what they were doing. The heat had been relentless, even at 11 p.m. the sweat mopped up his clothes as The Barbarian dug into the desert sand under the wall. The machine had been designed to operate at a low hum that was barely audible outside the sand. They made fast work, completing a tunnel under the wall in two hours but stopping before a hole opened up on the Arizona side. The debris was taken away by teams of men with wheelbarrows to trucks hidden beyond the dunes. Estralla had made sure to strengthen the wall so as the sides held, when he heard the ping of shots from up above. He peered out to see one of the workmen lying on the sand. He heard jabbering up above on the wall and more shots rang out. But the men had gone to ground. He lay in the tunnel for two hours before he ventured out under the stars.
The guards had gone on the top of the wall and he joined another engineer in moving the dead man away from the wall. Two weeks later he was back at the tunnel as a line of Mexicans who had paid large sums of money used his tunnel to escape to the United States.
For four months the tunnel was used by escapees. While many of the migrants were economic others were climatic. The temperatures in parts of Mexico were now so high that crops could no longer grow and men died in the midday sun. They spoke longingly of places they had read about where it still rained like Washington and Oregon.
Over the course of two years, Estralla built nine tunnels under the wall. Three were discovered but only long after they had ceased to be used. He ceased to think about the wall as a barrier, rather as a layer of Swiss cheese riddled with holes. For Estralla, the passage of the migrants under the wall was the end of his responsibility. But once the migrants reached the United States, their troubles were far from over. An exodus was already taking place from the southern states and they had to take their chances on the hazardous journey north.