By Levi Vonk
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An unlikely friendship, a four-thousand-mile voyage, and an impenetrable frontier—this dramatic odyssey reveals the chaos and cruelty US immigration policies have unleashed beyond our borders.
Axel Kirschner was a lifelong New Yorker, all Queens hustle and bravado. But he was also undocumented. After a minor traffic violation while driving his son to kindergarten, Axel was deported to Guatemala, a country he swore he had not lived in since he was a baby. While fighting his way back through Mexico on a migrant caravan, Axel met Levi Vonk, a young anthropologist and journalist from the US. That chance encounter would change both of their lives forever.
Levi soon discovered that Axel was no ordinary migrant. He was harboring a secret: Axel was a hacker. This secret would launch the two friends on a dangerous adventure far beyond what either of them could have imagined. While Axel’s abilities gave him an edge in a system that denied his existence, they would also ensnare him in a tangled underground network of human traffickers, corrupt priests, and anti-government guerillas eager to exploit his talents for their own ends. And along the way, Axel’s secret only raised more questions for Levi about his past. How had Axel learned to hack? What did he want? And was Axel really who he said he was?
Border Hacker is at once an adventure saga—the story of a man who would do anything to return to his family, and the friend who would do anything to help him—and a profound parable about the violence of American immigration policy told through a single, extraordinary life.
I hate traveling and explorers.
THIS STORY IS not about me. It could be said that it’s about Axel; he is, after all, the titular character. But that’s not exactly right either. This story, really, is about the relationship between us and how it is possible for two people who seemingly could not be more different on paper—a young, southern, white academic and an undocumented, Afro-Latino, New York hustler—to still share something. It’s a relationship that, when this book is published, will have spanned more than seven years. To convey it with depth—and all the complexities, pitfalls, and power dynamics therein—it was also necessary to question the borders around what is considered acceptable nonfiction. For instance, portions of this book are written from Axel’s first-person perspective. These passages are based on hundreds of hours of recorded interviews. The best were selected and transcribed by me, and then Axel and I edited them together many times over for strength and clarity. Frequently, passages of several interviews have been combined or rearranged to create the most engaging narrative. In anticipation of any criticism or skepticism that this methodology may inspire, we ask: Why should the author be allowed to rewrite as much as they please, as well as have access to an editor, but not the subject?
In this book, conversations between Axel and me are also often based on recorded interviews or text messages, though they just as frequently come from my memory or his. At every step, we have worked together to ensure that these recollected conversations are as true to the originals as possible, while still conveying a clear and compelling story. Rest assured, Axel read every page of every draft of this book, and any time he flagged something that was inaccurate or that he remembered differently, he swiftly addressed my error. All irregular spellings were recommended by Axel himself to better portray his unique pattern of speech. The intention from the start was to give him space to speak for himself, to tell his story on his own terms, even when he contradicts or criticizes my account of events. It is, no doubt, an imperfect attempt at—what word to use? Equity? Parity? Solidarity? However, it is an attempt, and one that we hope will push narrative nonfiction in a direction that is not only more compassionate toward its subjects but also more wary of its own narrator-centered point of view.
To accomplish such a daunting task, I have developed what I believe is something of a unique interview style, one that differs somewhat from the journalistic or anthropological standard. I would ask Axel to talk about a subject at length—perhaps a particular event in his life or his perspective on a certain aspect of migration—and then, throughout the years, ask him to retell that same story to me over and over again. The repetition provided us with much more material, which in turn led to much richer passages in Axel’s voice. It also has its challenges: Axel and I must grapple with the inconsistencies bound up in all narratives—whether intentional or otherwise—and sometimes Axel’s way of thinking about a particular subject changed over time. We have tried to embrace and move deeper into these issues, rather than obscure them.
One of the reasons I believe that this new, experimental way of writing has not been attempted before in mainstream nonfiction (at least that I know of) is because it is much more laborious. For seven years now, Axel and I have stayed in near-daily contact. Our project has taken over both of our lives. Our interviews are incredibly long and nonlinear. What might take an average journalist or social scientist five hours of work (say, one hour of interview, plus three hours of transcription, plus one hour of analysis to pull the best quotes) can easily take us ten times as long. This additional labor is shouldered not only by me, of course, but by Axel as well. For this reason, I have tried to ensure that he is well compensated. Not only have I helped support him financially since we met, but he will be paid like a coauthor for this project and will receive a substantial portion of the profits for every book sold for life. We again see this as a crucial departure from mainstream nonfiction, in which subjects are not only routinely uncompensated, but their unpaid labor is justified through the invocation of some kind of abstract journalistic integrity or objectivity, the measure of which is never defined except through the adamant denial of payment.
Other notes on methodology: Axel and I have sometimes changed or obscured minor facts throughout the book. For instance, Parts I and II are told in chronological order, but Parts III and IV contain a few select passages that have been arranged outside of strict chronology. However, at no point does this slight disjuncture in temporality impact the actual claims made in the book. Additionally, several vulnerable characters’ names have been changed, as well as their identifying characteristics. In the service of protecting them, I have not marked which names or features have been altered.
However, this book does claim that Axel and other migrants were abused by certain self-identified “migrant activists” and “human rights defenders” in Mexico, whose names I have not changed. All of these claims have been thoroughly vetted and fact-checked. Axel’s identity has been partially obscured in this book for his own protection, but, in reality, the migrant activists who pose him the greatest threat already know everything about him, as many were in charge of his immigration cases in Mexico. They know his real name, date of birth, and, of course, what he looks like. It would not be particularly hard for one of them to have Axel killed. We are both incredibly worried about this, but it is a risk Axel insists on taking to bring the abuses he and other migrants have suffered to light. At the behest of our publisher’s attorney, we have struck several instances of even more shocking and egregious misconduct by migrant activists than those included in the final draft of this book. We hope that others, especially anthropologists, will risk something of themselves and pick up the detective work where we left off.
One might ask how Axel, a down-and-out deportee with little formal education and no resources, was able to uncover such systemic corruption when no one else could. It hasn’t been easy. One reason is that many of these “activists” act much more brazenly in Mexico than one would assume, relying on migrants’ and journalists’ transience to cover their tracks. Another is that I kept coming back when no one else would, and I stayed much longer than anyone else who looked like me would stay, especially the prestige journalists who routinely parachute into migrant shelters for a two-day story.
There will no doubt be objections to our versions of things, as well as the inevitable accusations that neither Axel nor I is Mexican, and so we have misunderstood or misconstrued the subtleties of Mexico in general and Mexican politics in particular. My answer is this: Our goal has never been to give an accurate portrait of Mexico as a whole or of how “the real Mexico” works. Such portraits are impossible, even and especially for Mexicans themselves, just as there is no “whole” or “real” United States. Instead, we have endeavored to provide the account of a friendship that must at every point struggle against Axel’s systematic abandonment by three states—Guatemala, Mexico, and the US—and if something distinct yet wholly partial is glimpsed of Mexico in that account, all the better. As Axel and I often tell people, the Mexico we are familiar with is not one many Mexicans would recognize on its face. But we hope that, if the reader stays with us, something much deeper will resonate, no matter their nationality.
THE VIACRUCIS MIGRANTE
THE FIRST THING you should know about migrant caravans is that nobody ends up in them who has somewhere better to be. Nobody. No matter what people tell you, no matter who they say they are or what they pretend to be, if they’re on a migrant caravan, they’re out of options. In this way, every caravan is the same. I have yet to find an exception.
The second thing you should know about migrant caravans is that actually no two of them are the same. It all depends on who’s in charge. Sometimes they’re led by a priest, and the kind of priest who starts a caravan is usually charismatic and well connected and has some sway in the area. He’s on amicable terms with the local police forces, for instance. Or if not amicable terms, then at least reasonable ones, and he can therefore negotiate safe passage through Mexico. This priest almost certainly runs a shelter, a place that hosts migrants passing through on their way north. And if the priest is powerful, you can bet his shelter will be top notch as well. It will have bunk beds to crash on, three decent meals a day, and even showers, all of which will actually work, though none will have hot water. Not that you’ll care, considering that you’ve been trekking through a sweltering jungle or desert all day. But many migrant shelters aren’t run by charismatic priests, nor are they luxurious, and the worst aren’t really shelters at all. They’re dumps with dirt floors and holes in the ground for toilets, and the only food you’ll find is beans, a scoop of lukewarm beans that have been sitting in a greasy pot for god knows how long. Obviously, you want to end up in one of the better shelters. But, when you’re from another country, sometimes it’s hard to know which shelter will be good and which will be bad. Sometimes you’ll travel to where someone said a shelter would be, and its doors are locked. Nobody home. Or sometimes there won’t be anything at all. No building, no nothing. Like it just vanished. Or maybe the person who told you about it was lying. Maybe they were just screwing with you, or maybe they wanted you to die.
This brings me to the third thing you should know about migrant caravans—and really this is directly related to the first thing and indirectly to the second: you can’t trust anybody you meet on a migrant caravan. The kinds of people you encounter on caravans are sad and desperate characters who probably gave you a fake name. They are not your confidants. Never offer up any personal information, especially in regard to where you’re traveling. And definitely do not show them where you’ve stashed your money, even though everyone already knows it’s in your underwear. It’s always in your underwear. But no one can be completely sure unless they catch you with your hand rummaging around in your crotch, so don’t do that. And don’t take anyone else’s general untrustworthiness personally because, if you’re being honest, you probably can’t be trusted either. You’re probably also using a nom de guerre. You’re probably also hiding where you’re from, and where you’re going, and have your birth certificate tucked down the front of your pants right next to your cash.
But here’s the tricky thing, which is also the fourth thing you should know about migrant caravans: you have to trust the people you meet on migrant caravans. Not everyone, obviously, because you actually can’t trust anyone. Caravans are full of thieves, or at least degenerates. Drug users, drug smugglers, drug dealers. Sex predators and sex pests and pedophiles. Murderers, or people who openly boast about murdering, which is not the same thing, as well as attempted murderers, who are less likely to exaggerate their botched attempts and are, therefore, somewhat more credible. But you have to choose someone, and you must choose carefully, because migrant caravans are full of vultures, predators, and prey, the worst and waste of humanity.
Or at least that’s what anyone on a migrant caravan will tell you. But, as I just said, you can’t trust what people tell you on a migrant caravan. And yet you have to. Because you are running for your life. Because you have never been to Mexico and have no idea how big this country is or how to get from one end of it to the other. Maybe you can’t read. Or you can read, somewhat at least, but you can’t read maps. Or you can read maps and books just fine, but none of that seems to matter anymore, because you need to travel from where you are, in southern Mexico, to the US border, and ahead of you lie two thousand miles of some of the most hostile terrain on the planet. Thick jungle, sweltering swamps, barren deserts, poisoned rivers. Immigration is everywhere, or if they are not everywhere then the threat of them is. Their shadows haunt the buses and trains and hidden pathways that circle backwater towns. Ideally, you’d have someone to guide you through it all—a coyote, a pollero, a human smuggler. But they’re expensive, and, let’s face it, you’re probably broke. Besides, you can’t trust a coyote. They’re in the caravans too, scoping out business opportunities, leaching off of suffering, sowing disunity. Though if you do have some money, coyotes can be a bit more trustworthy, for the right price of course, and, remember, you need to trust somebody.
But if you don’t have money, then a migrant caravan is a good place to find a travel companion, seeing as how everyone around you is trying to get to the same place. You can’t distrust everyone, after all, because that would be paranoid, and you need somebody to watch your back. It’s safer to travel in groups. Gang members, kidnappers, and thieves—and if you’re one of those things, you’re likely some version of all three—join the caravans as well, pretending to be migrants to gain your trust. And then, just when you let your guard down, just when you get comfortable and fall asleep or unzip your fly to take a leak—that’s when a gang member will strike. He’ll rob you or kidnap you or worse. So you find someone to trust, who is also someone you don’t trust, and who feels the same way about you. That’s why you confide in them in the end. Because they’re kind enough to trust you. Because they’re smart enough not to.
I’m telling you all this now because I wish someone had told me then, back before I joined a migrant caravan. And I especially wish I’d known it before I met Axel. It wouldn’t have changed how I feel about him or the fact that I’d risk my life a thousand times over if it meant bringing him back home. But maybe I would have also been more prepared. Maybe I’d have understood that my whole life was about to be upended, and that his would be as well. Maybe I could have warned him. But no one tells you any of this stuff. You don’t know until you’re in it, and then it’s too late.
I JOINED A migrant caravan because I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do. I’d come to Mexico to be an anthropologist, of that much I was certain, but the problem was that I wasn’t exactly sure what an anthropologist was. Fortunately, I met Armando Amante. He was the one who invited me to join the Viacrucis Migrante.
“What’s the Viacrucis Migrante?” I asked.
“It’s a migrant caravan,” he said.
“Oh,” I said, trying to feign like I knew what that was.
Armando Amante looked at me like I was crazy. “You don’t know what a migrant caravan is?”
I looked down apologetically and said no, maybe not. This was back in 2015, back before most people had ever heard of migrant caravans, if you can imagine such a thing.
“Well, in Mexico, a caravan is like a big group of protestors,” he said. “Everybody joins up together. And a migrant caravan is a big group of migrants, people from all over Central America fleeing their countries. Because there’s safety in numbers, right? If you run through a checkpoint by yourself, immigration will catch you for sure. But if you run through it with a hundred other guys, they can’t do anything to stop you. You see? And a Viacrucis Migrante, well, sometimes those are the biggest caravans of all. But they only happen once a year, during Easter. Last year’s Viacrucis was huge, over a thousand people. Father Solalinde helped lead it.”
My ears perked up at the mention of the name. Father Alejandro Solalinde was more than a priest—he was one of the most powerful people in all of Mexico. He was also technically our boss, though I’d never seen him in person.
Solalinde became famous after founding a migrant shelter in southern Mexico called Hermanos en el Camino, which meant “Brothers on the Road,” or “Brothers on the Path,” as in the Christian path, or the righteous path, or the path that led to heaven. But the priest didn’t have much interest in heaven, which made him all the more interesting to me. Instead, he seemed to be fixated on hell. Not the hell of the next world but the one in Mexico, the one that Central American migrants endured trying to reach the United States. He led marches to illuminate their suffering—how they were attacked by gangs and drug cartels on their perilous journeys north—and held press conferences about the brutality of immigration officials and police. Journalists from the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and all the other Times routinely quoted Solalinde’s scathing indictments of corruption and violence in the country, and he frequently drew comparisons to Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. There was even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.
Then, just months before I arrived in Mexico, state forces kidnapped and disappeared forty-three students in the southern state of Guerrero, in what later became known as the Iguala Massacre. In response, millions of people rallied across the country to demand a national investigation. One of the most outspoken was Father Solalinde. He openly condemned the presidential party, the PRI, and made it known that he believed the students were murdered on government orders. From the news coverage, Solalinde seemed like a hero. He was someone who pursued justice at all costs, even if it meant risking his life. I had to meet him. Not that I knew all that much about Central American migration, or that Solalinde knew anything about anthropology. But, as I already said, I didn’t know much about anthropology either. Back in the US, I’d taken some classes and read some books, but I’d never conducted any real fieldwork before. So I applied for a research grant to move to Mexico, and, to my surprise, I was selected. I was going to be forged in fire.
To start my research, I decided that I’d travel to Hermanos en el Camino and volunteer my services, however inept they might be. I had no idea how a would-be anthropologist could be of service to an internationally renowned priest. All I knew was that I was preoccupied with a deep yearning to be part of a cause, as young people so often are, and to find someone who might recognize my rough potential and mold me into something useful. So I packed a single bag, left my apartment in Mexico City, and boarded a fourteen-hour bus bound for Hermanos, hoping that Father Solalinde might be that person.
But after working at the shelter for the better part of a month, I hadn’t so much as glimpsed the priest. He was always away on some speaking tour or attending an important meeting in the capital. Word in the shelter was that Solalinde was fighting a new secret policy called Programa Frontera Sur—the Southern Border Program. Little was known about the Program, except that Mexico was catching and deporting as many Central American migrants as possible, as quietly as possible, at the behest of the United States. Nearly overnight, a quasi-army of immigration agents, federal police, and soldiers descended upon southern Mexico. They came in fleets of souped-up four-wheel-drive vehicles with machine guns mounted on the roof. Scores of new mobile immigration checkpoints appeared out of thin air, just long enough to detain hundreds of people, then disappeared again, only to materialize elsewhere. In Hermanos, it felt like an overwhelming and mysterious force lurked just outside our walls. It wasn’t uncommon to see someone who, in an effort to avoid the new checkpoints, had walked the bottoms of their feet clean off in the jungle, and migrants stumbled into the shelter in various states of shell shock after being beaten and left for dead. A war zone had opened up in southern Mexico, funded by the American government, and no one in the US seemed to know.
Stuck within the relative safety of the shelter walls, however, I mostly spent my days doing chores—chopping firewood for the cafeteria’s woodburning stoves or scrubbing toilets in the men’s dormitories—and I began to feel restless and disheartened. It was ridiculous, I realized, to have expected that I would waltz in and catch the priest’s attention. So when Armando Amante proposed marching with the Viacrucis, I jumped at the chance. At the time, Armando was also working as a volunteer at the shelter. He was originally a migrant from Honduras, but had settled down in Mexico after the staff at Hermanos helped him obtain a visa. Now that he was no longer under threat of deportation, he was itching to expose what was happening to his compatriots under the Southern Border Program.
“Is Solalinde leading the caravan again?” I asked.
Armando spat on the ground and said absolutely not. After Solalinde’s participation in last year’s Viacrucis, the Mexican government forbade him to ever partake in another caravan. Under the Program, all the activists and priests were being silenced by the PRI. The problem, said Armando, was that priests were too traditional and obedient. Everything was sacred and pious to them, which meant—at least according to Armando—that everything was tedious and dull. They didn’t fight back. “But this year is going to be different,” he said. “Me and my friend Irineo, we’re changing things. No more priests. And no more Solalinde.”
I shifted uneasily.
Armando insisted that Solalinde wasn’t living up to his reputation. Leading another caravan could have been a way for the priest to stick it to immigration, he said, to show that he wasn’t afraid of them, but instead he chickened out. So Armando was going to do it himself. The goal was to march from the Guatemala-Mexico border all the way to Ixtepec, Oaxaca, where Hermanos en el Camino was located. The three-hundred-mile stretch was one of the most patrolled areas in all of Mexico, with potentially dozens of mobile immigration checkpoints funded by the Southern Border Program. The new Viacrucis Migrante, said Armando, would intentionally target these checkpoints. It would overwhelm them with as many people as possible and then keep charging north. “That way we’ll draw attention to the Program,” he said, “and we’ll expose what’s really going on.”
I asked whether something like that was safe.
But Armando just shrugged his shoulders. “Viacrucis Migrantes have been happening for years now,” he said, “and the government has never stopped one before. Never. This is our chance to stand up to them. To call their bluff.”
“But if Solalinde can’t do it,” I said, “surely we can’t.”
“Man, what is it with you and Solalinde?” asked Armando. “Look around you. The guy’s never here. You can stay if you like. Scrub some more toilets or whatever. But if you want to know what being a migrant is really about, and not just the boring everyday bullshit that goes on inside this shelter, you should come.”
The next day, I bought a one-way ticket to the Guatemala-Mexico border for March 23, 2015, two weeks before Easter Sunday.
WHEN I ARRIVED in Ciudad Hidalgo, a little pueblo nestled into the leafy-green crook of the southern border, Armando stopped returning my calls. Not a good sign, I thought. But the town was small, so I wandered around until I found him at the local cybercafé, a business that’s still popular in southern Mexico, since most people can’t afford a computer themselves.
“Is everything okay?” I asked. “I couldn’t reach you.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “It’s just that you were asking too many questions, so I turned my phone off. You need to relax, man. We’re not so big on planning.”
Another bad sign.
“Fuck this fucking priest,” seethed a man hunched over a computer at the back of the café.
“Levi,” said Armando, “I want to introduce you to the cofounder of the 2015 Viacrucis Migrante: Irineo Mujica.”
The man didn’t turn around from the computer. Armando explained that he’d met Irineo in Chahuites, a small town just south of Hermanos en el Camino. He ran another migrant shelter there affiliated with Father Solalinde’s humanitarian network.
“Irineo’s trying to reach the priest,” said Armando.
“No, not Solalinde. The local priest here in Hidalgo.”
“I thought the Viacrucis wasn’t going to have a priest.”
“We’re not,” snapped Irineo, wheeling around. He was older than Armando, though it was hard to tell exactly how much older, since he was incredibly disheveled. Beneath this matted hair glared a pair of dark, hooded eyes, and he was wearing an unwashed t-shirt that was obviously turned inside out. “It just looks better in front of the cameras to have a priest send us off. But the fucking guy has disappeared on me.” He turned back to the computer.
“If this book were a novel, you’d say it was too implausible: an unlikely friendship, a dangerous journey, an apparent benefactor who turns out to be the opposite. But it’s all true, and Levi Vonk brings this extraordinary story to life with verve and zest.” —Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost
“Our twenty-first-century American hero is a deported hacker, cruelly cast out from the only country he’s ever known into the lawless labyrinth of statelessness, surviving on bravado and genius skill, while forming the most improbable partnership with a young string-bean ‘cracker’ academic whose generosity and courage never fails—and whose initial naivete is honed on this journey into the knowing, thoughtful voice of the chronicler of this book. Border Hacker is by turns heartbreaking, terrifying, hilarious, enraging, and inspiring. To say it humanizes contentious issues is a profound understatement.”—Francisco Goldman, author of Monkey Boy
“Jack Kerouac, move over. In Border Hacker, Levi Vonk and Axel Kirschner’s unlikely friendship makes for the ultimate on-the-road buddy story. Suspenseful, intimate, and superbly told, Border Hacker is an amazing book, and as a tell-all account of the modern migrant experience, it kicks ass and takes no prisoners.”—Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che: A Revolutionary Life
- “Combining Vonk’s in-depth reportage on U.S. border policy, predatory shelter operators, and the links between cartels, kidnappers, and the police with Kirschner’s first-person testimony, the two unspool a riveting and disturbing story. Readers will be aghast.”—Publishers Weekly
- “An inspiring, timely border story…a significant addition to the literature on an ongoing humanitarian crisis…An engaging work of on-the-ground journalism that exposes root causes of a chronic problem.”—Kirkus Reviews
- “Axel and Levi are likable characters, which makes rooting for them easy. This is a cultural anthropology story that’s well-told and eminently readable.”—The Bibliophage
- “[A] thrilling, troubling, and wholly unique hybrid of confessional memoir and intrepid reportage…Border Hacker documents the phenomenon of migrant caravanning in the Americas more ably than any other book to my knowledge…Border Hacker is a singularly courageous book.”—Jacobin
- “[T]he importance of Border Hacker is not in its allegations of activists’ wrongdoing but in its illustration of the material and bureaucratic challenges of moving through Mexico, which incentivize all sorts of grift.”—The Nation
- On Sale
- Apr 26, 2022
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Bold Type Books