Caborca, Mexico – Oscar never thought he would end up looking for work as a drug mule in Caborca, Mexico.
“I was making good money as a taxi driver in [Honduras' capital city] Tegucigalpa, I had a decent life,” he told Fox News Latino in the Sonoran desert town near the border with Arizona.
But then the Barrio 18 gang began extorting cabbies and killing those who couldn’t pay. Including one of Oscar’s best friends.
“They dumped his body in a ditch, wrapped in plastic,” Oscar said. “No bullet holes – he was tortured to death. My father … got a tip: I would be next. That's when we decided I had to leave to seek asylum in the U.S.”
After a month-long arduous trek through Mexico, Oscar ended up here, waiting with dozens of others for burrero – or “donkeying” – season to start.
Like most of the migrants who have gathered in Caborca, Oscar – which isn’t his real name – hopes to ferry drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel soon in exchange for money, of course, as well as easier passage on foot through the Sonora Desert.
At the time of FNL's visit last month, some 80 young Central American men were staying at a new migrant shelter in town. Many others were camping in the surrounding hills.
The gang violence in Central America, which has long driven the northern migration of people to the United States, is getting even worse, spiraling out of control and forcing thousands of people like Oscar to abandon their homes.
In exchange for a chance at a better life in the U.S., the cartel gets the migrants, some of them teens and most from Honduras, to transport a 55-pound backpack full of marijuana through the inhospitable desert across the border on a four- to five-day group trek.
If they make it, they are paid $500 in cash and given a lift to Phoenix.
“This way seems like the only option to make it across,” Oscar said, echoing the other migrants FNL spoke with in Caborca.
All of them had heard the horror stories about the ruthless Zetas cartel kidnapping migrants on the eastern route through Mexico and ransoming them to family members in Central America or in the U.S.
Many of whom disappear. In 2010, 72 migrants were executed by the Zetas in the state of Tamaulipas, the cartel’s home base.
Further west of Caborce, in Baja California, migrants said it was difficult to cross because large stretches of the border are fenced.
“In Caborca … we're left alone because everyone knows we'll be working for [the Sinaloa Cartel],” said Oscar.
The daily game of soccer and loitering in the park that the migrants enjoy would be unthinkable anywhere further south, where they are constantly on guard against bandits, kidnappers and corrupt police officers looking to extort money.
Even the much-feared INM, Mexico's immigration authority, is nowhere to be found in Caborca.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Sonora border with Arizona is the busiest for marijuana smuggling: some 689,363 pounds of it were seized between October 2015 and August 2016 at the Tucson sector.
“That entire stretch of border is firmly controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel,” CBP operations officer John Lawson told FNL. “Nothing comes across without them knowing.'
The cartel reportedly uses a mix of backpackers as well as off-road and all terrain-vehicles to smuggle the drug into the U.S.
Through various interviews with people who had acted as drug mules, FNL was able to piece together the logistics of the backpack smuggling method.
Cartel recruiters take a group of five to eight burreros to a safe-house in or near Caborca. There, they are fed and receive a solid pair of sports shoes and camouflage gear. Supplies include salt to prevent dehydration, cans of tuna, cookies, powdered sports drinks, four gallon jugs of water and sometimes even pharmaceutical stimulants.
The migrants are accompanied by one or two cartel guides, often Hondurans themselves who have climbed the ladder. The guides are in constant communication with up to ten scouts hiding in the hills on the lookout for CBP patrols.
If the CBP gets too close, the group is told to dump the contraband. After four or five days of hiking, a van meets the group along an isolated desert road. First the marijuana is taken away, then the migrants.
The trek is not without risks. Those who struggle to keep up with the group get left behind. Migrants who have come this way before testify to stumbling across the remains of others who have perished.
In the summer season, dozens of migrants may perish in the scorching heat of the Sonora Desert.
Most of the men FNL spoke with said they were poor and couldn't afford the $4,000-$6,000 fee for a human smuggler to get them across, so smuggling marijuana was their only viable option.
But for Oscar, it was not meant to happen. At least not yet.
A friend of his died trying to transport marijuana through the desert, so Oscar decided to leave Caborca.
He was staying with extended family in Tecate, 30 miles east of Tijuana.
But he didn’t feel like he had many options.
He had no idea how he could apply for asylum with U.S. immigration or what his next attempt to cross the border might be.
He even was considering going back to Caborca.
Arthur Debruyne is an independent journalist. Follow him on Twitter: @arthurdebruyne