Just before dawn, erratic wind gusts whirl sand and dust into the crisp October air in Coachella Valley as a pair of tinted-window tour buses pull into a cul-de-sac at the United States Border Patrol station in Indio, Calif.
The buses park strategically obscuring the entrance to a compound whose pale-yellow walls are crowned with barbed-wire rails. Moments later a crowd of migrants gathers in the narrow space between the gate of the compound and the buses where an official holding a clipboard waits at a portable table.
As the sun begins to draw the mountains out of the distant darkness, the unsettling winds subside. Cristian, his wife, Estella, and their two-year-old daughter, Cristina, board one of the buses.
It’s the best day so far in their perilous 10-day journey from war-torn Colombia.
Their bus soon arrives at a hotel where Gloria Gomez, cofounder of the Galilee Center, welcomes about 50 new guests. They are “asylum seekers,” she says.
A wastepaper basket outside the door of a hotel office collects dozens of purple-edged wristbands. They don’t look the same as the water-resistant, multi-colored wristbands that cartels use to track migrants. These are the ones issued by the Border Patrol at detention centers, sources say.
Cristian didn’t pay the “coyotes” for safe passage, and the couple traveled alone. He had seen enough of the extortion in Buenaventura, long considered the most dangerous city Colombia.
Buenaventura is a key Pacific port city with a large Afro-Colombian population along the main cocaine-smuggling route. After more than 50 years of civil war and fighting between rebel forces, paramilitary groups, and narco-traffickers, the city still bears battle scars and is known for horrific violence and grisly murders.
“There was a lot of extortion. It happened to us, and we were trying to work double shifts and stuff and it was not enough to pay off that extortion,” Cristian told The Epoch Times in Spanish via a translator. “There are two cartels that are trying to take over the city. They were threatening us. They were texting us and we couldn’t have a safe and peaceful life.”
“They fight over the territory because there are lot of like sea shipments coming in. So, they’re fighting over that,” Estella said. “They attack everybody right now. The situation is very cruel.”
“In Colombia, when a cartel per se that’s in charge of that region, doesn’t want you or doesn’t like you or just simply has something against you, they kick you out of that city and you have to go somewhere else, and that happened to us,” said Cristian.
It’s dangerous to move from one city to another because, although there are no checkpoints, the cartels track the movement of people they’ve targeted for extortion, and they will “automatically kill you,” Cristian said. “We can’t go from city to city.”
“If you wear black, they’ll kill you. We can’t wear anything black.”
The cartels prey on business owners, especially those who are barely getting up on their feet, and the police look the other way, Estella said.
“The authorities do not do anything when we say something or when we report something,” she said.
The couple fled Colombia because of the violence and the country’s instability. They were forced to abandon their jobs and their home to the cartels.
Although they’d thought about leaving and had discussed ways to get out of Colombia, their flight still seemed sudden.
“We had to,” Cristian said. “It just happened very rapidly. They started threatening us and we couldn’t take it no more. We got our child and we left. They’ll take over the house. We’re not the only ones who are going through this.”
“In Colombia, I had a good quality life. It’s simply just because of the violence and sense of insecurity that’s going on in the country that we had to flee,” he said.
Estella said the family fled to America to secure a better future for themselves and their daughter.
“We needed to come over here due to the threats and extortion, and for my daughter,” she said. “I know that if we work hard, she will have a better life here. She will have a better education than she would in Colombia. We feel that it’s a safe country here.”
The couple travelled from Colombia to Cancun, then to Mexico City, Tijuana, and Mexicali.
Though Cristian used the GPS to guide them, they got confused near Mexicali and had to stop to ask locals for directions.
“We were lost,” Cristian said. “In Mexico we didn’t have nobody. It was very dangerous.”
They were robbed of all their belongings, including the professional camera Cristian had used to earn part-time income as a photographer and most of their cash.
“The only thing that was left was a $100 bill that I had in my bra,” Estella said.
Once they got their bearings, they set out on foot for the border. Holding Cristina in their arms, they walked for more than an hour.
“We were trying to figure out how we were going to cross the border,” Estella said. “We only brought what was necessary for our daughter.”
“The walk was very exhausting, because of the sun and the danger,” Cristian said.
Not long after they illegally crossed the border near Mexicali, the couple were apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol and taken to a station in Yuma, Ariz.
“Immigration caught us, and they treated us really good,” Estella said.
From Yuma, they were bused with other migrants to the Border Patrol station in Indio where they stayed in the facility until they were released the next day.
Though he is relieved and “more than happy” to have finally reached U.S. soil, Cristian worries about the danger his family still faces in Colombia and that his parents could be harmed or killed.
“My brothers and sisters and mom are in Colombia and are worried what our journey has been like,” Cristian said.
“They are still at war. Our parents remain in their house,” she said. “They don’t go out because there are a lot of shootings,” Estella said.
Estella has a degree in business administration, and Cristian was in his eighth semester in the same course of study. They both had jobs and businesses.
“We’re leaving a full life behind us,” Cristian said.
“We are happy, but we feel very sad to have left our whole life behind us—my job, our friends, our family,” Estella said, as her eyes welled. “I had my job and plus we had a business.”
Though Estella said it “would be fantastic” to find work in business management, she and Cristian both know that until they learn English, it will be a challenge to find work and rebuild their lives in America.
“Right now, we’ll have to work at whatever. We are a team,” Cristian said.
Estella is creative and could decorate for events, and once he buys a new camera, he could do photography, he said.
“If it’s not that business, then we will do another business such as selling food probably, plus in Colombia we had also another business where we would sell green juices. They’re very good,” Estella said.
Once at the hotel, the Galilee Center tested them for COVID-19, and they were released the next day to catch a flight to Miami where they are staying with a childhood friend until they find jobs and earn enough money to rent an apartment.
They were scheduled to appear at an immigration hearing last week.