Stephen Sluyter was lounging on his leather couch, taking bong hits and watching the Cartoon Network, when his phone rang. "Bro, you hungry?" his best friend and roommate Max Bocanegra asked on the other end of the line. "I got some beans for you. I need you to get them right now."
Sluyter was a 28-year-old graduate student at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and founder of its Kappa Sigma fraternity chapter, famous for the slip-and-slide parties and oil-wrestling events that Sluyter helped organize. "Did you see the movie Old School?" he asks. "I did that in real life. I was the real Godfather." Over the previous six months, he and Max had also built one of the most unlikely human smuggling rings in Texas history. Through Sluyter's connections at A&M, they had recruited a small army of mostly white, college-age kids looking for extra cash and adventure. During the summer of 2012, Max estimates, the team was smuggling as many as 40 to 50 immigrants a week — at $500 a head. "I was making so much money," Max says. "I didn't have to give a fuck."
Now, three months away from earning his master's degree in communications, Sluyter had decided to reform his ways: no more selling weed, no more all-night parties and no more human smuggling. The drive was 85 miles south to a smuggler's stash house, and involved picking up a carload of newly arrived undocumented immigrants, passing along the most heavily patrolled smuggling route in the nation — U.S. Highway-281 — and dropping the passengers off with a connection in Houston. Sluyter had paid his way through grad school in part by smuggling dozens of undocumented immigrants into the Texas interior. But recently, Border Patrol seemed to anticipate their every move. An increasing number of drivers were getting pulled over. Sluyter felt the trips had gotten too dangerous.
Max, who was calling from the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas, wearing a silver suit and throwing down hundreds of dollars on every spin of the roulette table, had made exactly the opposite determination. If anything, he had pushed the operation beyond its limits, coordinating multiple pickups a night, even as his ranks dwindled due to intensifying police pressure and the start of fall semester. It was because of the staffing crunch that he now pleaded with Sluyter. Networks of human smugglers work on a referral system; if you miss a load, your business collapses. He was desperate. "Come on you little bitch," Max said. "I need you."
Their friendship began 11 months earlier, on Halloween in 2011. Sluyter threw a block party, which he says was "fuckin' sick" — beer bongs, bags of weed and flocks of freshman and sophomore students — at Islander Village, a student housing complex where he served as a Resident Advisor. At the time Corpus Christi, a city of 300,000 on the Gulf Coast, was in transition. Once among the poorest mid-size cities in the country, the shale oil boom had boosted employment, and the downtown was gentrifying. The Texas A&M – Corpus Christi campus, detached from the city on Ward Island in Oso Bay, has its own distinct feel. "It's a beach vibe," Sluyter says. And drugs — weed, cocaine and ecstasy — are "everywhere."
At the party, Sluyter, wearing a Where's Waldo-costume and a Native American headdress, bumped into Max, whom he had met four years earlier when they briefly dated a pair of roommates. Max was 25 and didn't attend A&M, but he fit in easily with his hometown's college crowd. A third-generation Mexican-American (his great-great-grandfather wrote the lyrics of Mexico's national anthem), he was stocky, with impeccably sheered hair, and spoke in staccato bursts, often bastardizing lines from rap songs — "the real recognize real and the fake will fade away." Wherever he went, he carried his most prized possession, a Canon 7D with remote control flash, around his neck. "I thought he was a fuckin' baller," Sluyter says. "And he was a photographer and I'm a DJ. We needed each other. We both had all these aspirations to achieve more than we had."
One evening in December, Max invited Sluyter to the photo studio he kept in the back of a thrift shop called Threads, telling him "there's someone I want you to meet." The pair had hung out almost every weekend since Halloween — kitesurfing and smoking weed — but there were things Sluyter still didn't know about his new friend. Once at a house party, Max casually tossed a wad of hundreds on the coffee table. When Sluyter asked about it, Max just winked and said, "I sell the American dream."
Sluyter pulled up to Threads in his truck, a red Ford Ranger with Dixie horns that played the Dukes of Hazzard theme song. Inside, two scantily clad women stood near a bed, upon which a short guy with a shaved head, wearing jeans and skater shoes, was fanning out hundred dollar bills. This was Miguel "Boss" Bolado, a 23-year-old wedding DJ who also sold T-shirts under the moniker Ambition Entertainment. Boss had recently purchased billboard space to advertise the brand, and asked Max to set up a photo shoot of "a bunch of chicks on a bed with money just everywhere." As Max tinkered with his Canon 7D, Boss moved over to a drum set, and kept time with the record a DJ was spinning. Sluyter, feeling enthralled, headed for a makeshift stage. "I started freestyle rapping," he says. "I just went up and murdered it!"
Max remembers it a bit differently. "I was thinking, 'Is this guy really trying to rap?'" he says. "I was trying not to laugh. It was these white boy raps. He kept repeating the same punch lines like Dr Seuss."
Boss later said he was intrigued by Sluyter's fearlessness. Ambition, it turned out, was just a side project. Boss's main venture was overseeing a network of coyotes out of his family's ranch 20 miles outside Corpus Christi. The operation started as a one-off favor in 2010 for a family friend, Boss says, to "help a couple people out." Soon driving illegal immigrants, who pay up to $3,000 to be shuttled from the Rio Grande to their final destinations, became a steady source of income. His mother, who moved to America from Mexico when Boss was a toddler, helped with logistics — she picked up money wires and fed immigrants in transit. According to Boss, part of the appeal was altruistic. "I was Moses," he says, "leading my people."
Boss had brought Max into the trade a month before. After his first run, Max says, "That's all I wanted to do." As the money started to flow, however, their visions diverged. Max saw a booming business opportunity, ripe for expansion, and pressed Boss to hire more drivers — starting with Sluyter. Boss, however, was wary of adding unknown figures to the team, especially non-Latinos. "I just had a thing," Boss says. "I always thought, 'Be careful with white people. They'll tell on you.'"
Now they were telling Sluyter the details of the operation. They communicated with a select group of coyotes using walkie-talkies and code words: "tacos," "beans" and "burritos" were immigrants; "a lick" was a single run; "pushing beans," was smuggling. Fares were paid in cash or through money wires sent to multiple locations in small amounts, so as not to raise suspicion. "Oh man," Sluyter said. "That's fucking awesome. You guys are like Border Wars, bro!"
Sluyter was unsure about getting into the human smuggling game, but a series of housing troubles started to make the idea more attractive. Before Christmas, he was kicked out of Islander Village after he left the building while on duty — he had decided to get high and dress up as Frosty the Snowman for an event on Max's block instead. Sluyter couch surfed for a few weeks until Max told him about an empty room at Boss's place. It was cheap — just $300 a month — and a block from Hooters.
A few weeks later, Sluyter arrived at the Embassy House, a nondescript complex of two-story apartments just off the expressway, with his suitcase in hand. Boss was nowhere in sight; four Hondurans were lounging on a tattered couch, watching TV. "I thought, 'What the fuck is going on?'" Sluyter says. "And it smelled." Bottles of Febreze were littered everywhere. Filthy yoga mats and sleeping bags were spread out across the floor in the hallway and living room. Sluyter stuck out his hand: "Hello, my name is Stephen Sluyter. Nice to meet you." The four men looked at each other, then shrugged. "Hola," one of them said.
Sluyter soon realized he wasn't actually living with Boss, but inside his smuggling stash house, a holding pen for immigrants whose families hadn't yet wired their fare. The two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment was a dump. The lights rarely functioned, the air conditioning dripped in puddles on the carpet. The refrigerator was usually empty, save for an occasional six-pack of beer. At any given time, there could be over a dozen people — mostly Mexicans and Central Americans — huddled up wherever they found space.
"I get excited just to say I did it. How many people can say they smuggled Mexicans?"
Somehow the endless stream of new bodies didn't raise alarms within the complex. Even a police officer neighbor seemed unaware. Nervous new arrivals were given fresh white t-shirts and handed a meal from Whataburger or Taco Bell. Tales of starvation and sexual and physical abuse are legion among immigrants — in 2012, authorities discovered 131 people inside a small house in the Rio Grande Valley, some without food and water — but Boss aspired for a relatively more humane setting. "When they were with us we tried to treat them with respect," he says. "Women slept in separate rooms. We didn't want any issues on our watch."
The door was never locked, but Boss always had someone attending over the migrants. If payments for their transport — often family members' life savings cobbled together — were delayed, he was not above using threats. Migrants who couldn't summon funds were driven back south and dropped off with whichever coyote brought them over the border. "I don't know what happened to them," Boss says. "They would get beat up or thrown back into the desert."
Sluyter was mostly oblivious. After class, he'd come home to a living room full of new immigrants, light a joint and squeeze onto the sofa. "We'd chill," he says. "They liked this one movie called Sin Nombre about crossing the border. It was entertaining man. I guess it was like their life." He still invited college girls to spend the night and other students came by to smoke weed. If anyone asked about the exhausted-looking people strewn across the floor, Sluyter would say, "My roommate's family is visiting."
Boss occasionally gave Sluyter a hundred dollars for "babysitting." One evening, Sluyter cracked open a few beers and played Tejano music on his Macbook for an impromptu dance party with a pair of Mexican immigrants who had been at the apartment for almost three days. "I was naïve," he says. "I trusted them." The next morning, Sluyter left them alone to go to class. When he returned, his temporary roommates, along with his computer, were gone. Boss was furious about the lost income, not to mention the fact that Sluyter was consistently having trouble paying rent. "I told him 'Get your shit together,'" Boss says. "He didn't realize how serious this was." Until then, Sluyter had resisted smuggling. Now he saw it as a way to square up with Boss. "I was just like, fuck it," Sluyter says. "Let me try this and see what it's like."
Sluyter grew up in Harlingen, Texas not far from the Mexican border. His father died when he was a toddler and his mother left him alone as a teenager for long stretches to see a boyfriend in Austin. "I really needed a father figure and I never had one," he says. "I did whatever I wanted." After high school, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard. "I told them to take me as far from Harlingen as they could," he says. "When I found out I was going to Alaska, I cried, man." He spent a year boarding foreign vessels near the Bering Strait, then a stint in South Florida, occasionally doing immigrant interdiction during the day, and getting shit-faced every night. "That was the craziest fuckin' time of my life," he says. After four years he was honorably discharged and used the GI bill to enroll at Corpus Christi in 2007.
Sluyter taught an undergraduate class on Public Speaking. His favorite topic was the "perception of the audience." "The most important thing," he'd tell his students, "is you have to look the part." Normally, he wore a pressed shirt and tie to class, but on the day of his first smuggling run he wore jeans and a T-shirt. Every 15 minutes or so, he pulled out his phone to check the time. He had a Kia Soul reserved at the airport and detailed directions to the pickup printed out in his bag. As the sun was setting, he headed south.
Sluyter's destination was in Falfurrias, Texas, a stretch of asphalt eighty-five miles north of the border, which Homeland Security agents call a "geographic perfect storm." Just south of town, U.S. Border Patrol maintains the busiest internal checkpoint in the nation along U.S.-281. In 2012, more than a quarter of all illegal alien apprehensions in the U.S. occurred in and around the Rio Grande Valley. Any undocumented immigrant hoping to get up the "pipeline" has to find a way through or around the checkpoint. One Honduran immigrant, who made the journey in 2011, tells me he was led by a guide through the desert and survived on cactus fruit and water run-off for five days and nights. "I crossed the river with 15 people," he says. "I was the only one that wasn't caught."
Transporting newly arrived undocumented immigrants from Latin America is a $6 billion a year business. Each team of smugglers specializes in a segment of the journey, from the border to the immigrant's final destination, sometimes as far away as New York. In the Rio Grande Valley, groups of coyotes work like links in a chain, aware only of their connections immediately north and south. "It isn't necessarily the multi-layered, structurally rigid organization with a boss and worker bees," says Special Agent Brian Moskowitz. "It's fluid. It's smaller cells and networks."
Boss and Max worked the Falfurrias to Houston leg. Their supplier was Gilbert Arevalo — aka Güero — a large fair skinned man with "Falfurrias" tattooed in Old English script on his stomach. He bred world-class roosters for high stakes cockfights and had a weakness for good cocaine. "Dude was real jittery," Max remembers. "Sweating all the time."
Arevalo's stash house, a small ranch on the southern edge of town, was down a quiet gravel road with weeds sprouting along the edges. Sluyter drove past a stretch of crumbling houses, and pulled through a white steel gate. Arevalo was waiting for him on the front porch with his shirt off. "He was like really excited when I brought the Kia Soul," Sluyter recalls. "He was like, 'Fuck yeah! Let's see how many we can get in there!'" (Arevalo declined to comment for this article.)
Arevalo would pick up immigrants from the brush around his place, then stash them in the chicken coop behind his ranch, or in a space "under the house," Boss says. Soon three men caked in dirt hunched low inside the Kia. Arevalo checked his phone — he had lookouts posted throughout town tracking authorities. When there was an opening, Sluyter reversed out of the long driveway, and backtracked through Falfurrias. "My heart was pounding," Sluyter says. "It was crawling with Border Patrol. They were fucking everywhere. They would've come out of your ear if they could have. Everyone in that town was going slow as if a bomb was about to go off."
On the main highway, Sluyter lit a blunt and offered it to his passengers, who declined. The car remained silent for the rest of the hour and half drive. Once in Corpus Christi, Sluyter hustled them into the apartment and cracked open a few of beers for his new roommates.
Boss was taking as many as fifteen smuggling trips a week. He had married his high school sweetheart and they'd recently had their first child. "I wanted to save enough to be set," he says. After a routine trip to Arevalo's place in Falfurrias, Boss decided to double dip. He picked up another group of immigrants standing outside of a Walmart, unaware that a Border Patrol officer was staking out the parking lot in an unmarked vehicle. As Boss got set to leave a nearby smuggling hotel, where he stashed 18 migrants, Border Patrol fenced him in. In the glove compartment they found a loaded stainless steel .45 — an unlicensed gun — and arrested him. "I knew I was done," Boss says. He was facing serious time. Once out on bail, he switched off his phone and retreated to his parents' ranch.
Unaware of Boss' arrest, Sluyter and Max hitched a ride to one of the biggest parties in Texas — spring break on South Padre Island, where they embarked on a weeklong acid and mushroom bender from a pitched tent on the beach. At the peak of one acid trip, Max fell into a contemplative mood. He and Sluyter had been talking about smuggling throughout the trip. As the economy recovered, more migrants were seeking to make a living in the U.S. Through the first three months of 2012, Border Patrol officers in the Rio Grand Valley were on pace to record the highest number of apprehensions in years (eventually capturing almost 100,000 undocumented immigrants that year). Immigrants needed coyotes they could trust, and coyotes needed partners who wouldn't raise suspicions. "You're next to Mexico and thinking the smuggling world is so much larger," Max told Sluyter. "It's time to get it. Make it happen."
Remarkably, the charges against Boss were dropped. "When I came back," he says. "I felt like I was invincible." Max pushed harder than ever to hire more drivers. Boss agreed to discuss the prospect with his mom. College kids could be useful, he told her — they're money hungry and good at following directions. "She was almost more into the idea than me," he says. "She was still a mom though, she said, 'Be careful.'"
Back in Corpus Christi, Sluyter and Max moved into a two-bedroom apartment a few minutes from the beach, which became the de facto headquarters of the operation. Aside from a single leather couch and big screen TV, it was barely furnished. Max had taken up painting, and he hung his "abstract Picasso" meditations around the house. Kiteboarding equipment was propped up against a wall and mason jars full of weed decorated the kitchen counters.
The first person they brought in was one of their new neighbors, Ryan "Rhino" Donovan, a 26 year-old sophomore at A&M, with curly blond hair and a short man's complex. At the apartment, Max handed Rhino a three-foot high swirling vortex bong. "It's simple," Max told him after a hit. "All you're doing is picking up these people and driving. And if you get pulled over just say they were hitchhiking." Max gave him a quick tutorial: bring a bottle of Febreze and a jug of water; put the whitest looking immigrant in the front seat; don't let any of them whisper; and most importantly never carry more than five undocumented immigrants at a time. If a driver is caught with six or more passengers, it automatically triggers prosecution. Max then offered him half of the $500 cut he made per passenger and lent him his Mazda hatchback.
After Rhino completed his first trip, Max says, "we knew it was on." Around campus Sluyter began to hint that he "found a new way to make money and was going to make a lot more money." Max was less subtle. He would show up to parties with a "cheech and chong" blunt, a trunk full of expensive bottles of liquor and "recruit anyone," Sluyter says. "Max is charismatic. He can make you believe the sky is red."
One evening at Hooters, Max struck up a conversation with a waitress. "I wouldn't use smuggling as a pick-up line, like, 'Hey what's up, my name is Max, I'm a smuggler,'" he says. "But I'd use it to seal the deal." They met up after-hours at Threads, ostensibly for a photo shoot, but ended up smoking and having sex behind the backroom bar. Some months later she was driving carloads of immigrants.
At the height of summer, the team had as many as 20 drivers on their roster — including frat brothers, a stripper, a realtor, a door-to-door salesman, an ex-army ranger, a barback, a go-go dancer, a housewife and a masseuse. Since none of the new drivers, including Max, spoke fluent Spanish, Boss would call en route to organize payments with each immigrant in the car. Other team members visited multiple money wire locations to collect payments. It was a delicate balancing act. Once while DJ'ing a wedding, Boss got a call that a wire had been botched. "I turned up the music real loud and went under the table to pretend like I was fixing the cables," Boss says. "I was screaming on the phone like, 'Go back and get them!' Eventually we sorted it out, but the bride was pissed."
The larger problem was what to do with all the immigrants. Max suggested they "get a storage room somewhere with a restroom and leave them there." Boss shut that idea down. They eventually welcomed some of the immigrants in their own homes. "One time we had like three girls over," Max says. He went into the back room to take a phone call, and when he opened the door, "like 15 dudes come walking outside in a line. Everyone got quiet. A girl was holding a blunt and dropped it in shock."
Max was bringing in as much as $30,000 a month; Boss was earning even more. Incredible displays of wealth began to appear on campus. "One dude bought an Escalade to match his Jordan's," Max recalls. They partied non-stop. "We would get hammered till 7 a.m.," Max says. "Sluyter's sniffing coke off a girls butt, and I'm in the room hollerin' at another one—and that's a Tuesday."
One weekend they rented a 23-foot party boat at Canyon Lake in Central Texas. "I'm taking pictures of chicks and pouring drinks down everyone's throat," Max says. When the sun went down, they took a retro-fitted municipal bus with a disco ball and strobe lights to Austin and partied until the clubs closed. It wasn't just the money or parties, though. Being a part of an international smuggling organization gave many of them the sense of purpose and street cred they craved. "I get excited just to say I did it," Sluyter still admits. "How many people can say they smuggle Mexicans?"
Things began to spiral out of control in the summer of 2012, the hottest on record in Texas. On a routine trip, Sluyter was nearing Houston with four immigrants in his car when he called Boss to confirm the drop-off point. Boss and Max were at Reserve, a local sports bar throwing "loose change"— 50s, 20s and 10-dollar bills into the air, buying dozens of shots. In a taxi on the way to Palace, a medieval themed strip club, Boss vomited, then inexplicably tossed his phone out of the window. Sluyter was still circling downtown Houston waiting for an answer. "They didn't give a shit about us," Sluyter says of Max and Boss at that time. "It's not like moving weed or cocaine, where you can hide it. These are human beings next to you."
In the stretch of two months, at least four drivers, including Rhino and Max, were pulled over by authorities. As long as immigrants didn't admit to handing over cash to their drivers, there was no concrete evidence that anything other than a ride had transpired. "We felt like, 'OK, getting pulled over is just the norm,'" Max says. "They couldn't do anything to us."
But word had spread that this group of smugglers was "hot." Sprint was phasing out push-to-talk phones, which often forced members of the team to use their cellular service. "Now they started getting onto us," Max says of the authorities. Business slowed and many of the new recruits quit at the start of fall semester, Sluyter among them. He was attending job fairs and wanted to project a clean image. "I just felt like this is stupid," Sluyter says.
Running out of drivers and worried about authorities, Boss made a trip to Falfurrias to discuss the situation with Arevalo. When he arrived at the ranch, he found Arevalo "high on cocaine and really amped out," Boss says. One of the brush guides sat nearby listening to a police scanner. Boss suggested they lay low for a while, but Arevalo was incredulous. "You're tripping out!" he said, then dialed a number and handed the phone to Boss. "Tell 'the boss downstairs,' [in Mexico] what you're telling me," Arevalo said.
Boss says the man on the other end of the line told him, "You're not stopping. You're crazy. Make sure your drivers are good with the new routes."
Boss relayed the message to Max, who was increasingly spending his time in Las Vegas. It was during this period that Max called Sluyter from the Mirage, in his silver suit, and asked him for a favor: "Come on you little bitch. I need you."
Under a cloud of weed smoke, Sluyter looked over at his fraternity brother, Jake Woerner, who had stopped by to jam out on his guitar. If there was ever a vision of someone not cut out for the human smuggling trade, it was the blond haired, doe-eyed Microbiology major — he looked like a community pool lifeguard. But Woerner had made a handful of smuggling trips with Max before. Sluyter passed him the phone. A few minutes later Woerner left the apartment and headed south in his Jeep Liberty for his first solo run. "My life at the time felt pointless," Woerner says. "An adventure made me feel alive."
The pickup was successful enough, but heading north on I-77 toward Corpus Christi, Woerner was pulled over for speeding. Unaware of the potential consequences, he had let Arevalo load six immigrants into the Jeep, and was immediately arrested. At Customs and Border Patrol, the case was handed to Agent Christopher Hunter, a marine interdiction man recently promoted to task force officer. Woerner turned out to be an easy interrogation; he volunteered the names and phone numbers of his crew; he even took Hunter to Arevalo's stash house in Falfurrias. At the trial, agent Hunter said, "I was actually surprised at how much information he was able to provide based on his limited role."
Based on Woerner's intel, Agent Hunter and his team began surveillance on Max and Sluyter's apartment. On October 15th, 2012, they were smoking a bowl and watching Drugs Inc., when Max got a call for a pick-up. "I was watching TV like, 'Look at this idiot on TV! He doesn't even know Feds are watching him!'" Max says. "Little did I know the Feds are sitting right across the parking lot, watching me. I walk outside, get in my ride and they follow me all the way down to Falfurrias — an hour and a half." As soon as he pulled out of Arevalo's, a team of Sheriff deputies and HSI agents pulled him over. "Fifteen fucking cop cars, and a helicopter," Max says. He and another driver — the masseuse — were each charged with four counts of conspiracy to transport unlawful immigrants.
Agent Hunter then turned his attention to Sluyter. They arranged a meeting at a pizza place near the beach in late December. Two weeks earlier, Sluyter had moonwalked across the America Bank Center stage at his graduation ceremony with "Grandmaster" and "Kappa Sigma" written on his cap in white tape. "I felt good man," he says. The day after Christmas he sat down with agent Hunter and a colleague, and soon realized he was in trouble. "I've never been this scared in my life," Sluyter says. "I can feel my heartbeat through my neck." A few days later, when they met again at Hunter's office, Sluyter brought an attorney. Things began cordially enough — two ex-interdiction officers talking about life on the sea. Then Agent Hunter asked if Sluyter had ever been to Falfurrias. Sluyter searched for a response. "I was there Big Game hunting in July," he finally said.
Winter is big game season in Texas. Sluyter recalls Hunter telling him, "You're full of shit," and "You're fucked." It was clear that Hunter knew about the operation, but he needed Sluyter as a witness to convict Max and Boss. During a break in the interrogation, Sluyter told his lawyer, "Just say to them I was in Falfurrias because I was hooking up with a married chick and I was too embarrassed to say it." In response, his lawyer dropped him as a client.
"First thing I do is I go home and I slam this beer hard," he says. "Then I got a 20-sack of coke and did a huge rail. I'm fucked, bro."
A few days later, Sluyter and Max, who was out on bail and staying with his parents, met up to go kiteboarding. "I got this great idea," Max told Sluyter. "You're gonna be in your gown and you're gonna be kiteboarding with your gown on and I'm gonna take all these pictures."
Sluyter, setting up his gear, didn't respond. "He could tell I wasn't stoked, Sluyter says, "but it wasn't because of his idea, it's because, man, I'm gonna have to put you in federal prison." In a series of subsequent interviews with Agent Hunter, Sluyter detailed everything he knew about the smuggling ring. Max was rearrested — his original charges of smuggling four immigrants were changed to conspiracy to transport over 100. He now faced up to five years in prison. One month later the Feds captured Boss, who had gone on the run, at his hideaway in Houston.
All told, Boss, Max and Sluyter made hundreds of thousands of dollars transporting untold numbers of undocumented immigrants. But shutting down the operation had little effect on the overall coyote trade. By the start of their trials in 2013, illegal immigration into the U.S. had exploded. Unaccompanied children escaping crime-ridden conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador pushed the resources of Border Patrol and Homeland Security to the brink. "We didn't have the capacity," one Border Patrol officer tells me. Federal prosecutors threatened maximum penalties for both Max and Boss. "They said I could get 10 years," Boss says.
Max pleaded guilty and received 40 months in prison. He now has his own photography company in Corpus Christi and drives around town in an oversized Jeep with his name etched on the doors. He hasn't spoken to Sluyter in over three years and admits he raged over his former best friend's betrayal while locked up in Houston. "I would have taken a bullet for that dude," he says. "But I don't think about killing him. I just hope he's happy living as a bitch the rest of his life."
Boss pleaded guilty as well and received 44 months, the majority spent at a federal prison in South Carolina. By the time he was released, in June 2015, everything in his life had changed. His wife left him, and he says his mother was on the run from authorities in Mexico. He was penniless and living at his parents' ranch. He would soon find a job at a local landscaping company well suited to his professional skills: driving his co-workers, mostly newly arrived immigrants, between houses in and around Corpus Christi. "I'm proud of what we did," he says. "It wasn't charity work, but there's a whole world of people wanting to come here, and it's not going to stop. It's better it was us doing it than anyone else."
Sluyter was the government's star witness. At one point a defense attorney for Max's cousin accused Sluyter of lying to cover his "own skin." Sluyter maintains he cooperated with the authorities in order "to do the right thing." After securing guilty pleas from Max and Boss, prosecutors dropped the charges against Sluyter. He changed his number, relocated to Austin and found a job at an Internet company. "I was embarrased," he says of the experience. "For a while I thought someone was going to murder me in my sleep." Recently, he's started organizing rave-style events to raise money for migrant children in the U.S. The motto: "We're going to save the world one party at a time."