A pair of eyes peers out from underneath the bushes where about 20 people crouch in silence, hiding from men in uniforms waving search lights on the other side of a barbed-wire fence. “We are federal agents and we know you are there,” an amplified voice cuts through the night speaking in heavily accented Spanish. “Don’t try to cross the river, don’t try to cross the desert, it is dangerous. Stay in Mexico.”
A figure makes a sudden dash for it but fails. Wrestled to the ground he is grilled for information before being led away for deportation. The rest of the group waits until the coast is deemed clear and then they emerge to crawl under the fence themselves and run into the darkness.
But these are not real migrants and this is not really a remote part of the 2,000-mile (3,218-kilometre) US-Mexican frontier. Instead it is a rugged backwater of central Mexico about 500 miles to the south where tourists from nearby cities pay about £8 to approach the experience of sneaking over the border, without actually going there.
The moonlit show is mounted by a tiny Hnahnu Indian community called El Alberto, nestled in the Mezquital valley, which is known for its poverty, water contamination, and extreme indices of migration to the United States.
Community leaders say 90% of working age men head north from here. Most do not have passports, let alone visas, which means they face the long treks across hostile terrain that kill hundreds of would-be migrants every year as they attempt to join the 6 million-odd Mexicans already working illegally in the US.
“It was spectacular. Something I will never forget,” special needs teacher Concepcion Salazar said, as she recovered from the experience. “And it is only a fraction of what migrants really go through.”
Each show begins with a speech by the community leader, who plays a nameless balaclava-clad chief people smuggler, or coyote. “We walk in honour and tribute too all the migrants who give their all to help their family to a better life,” the lecture begins. “It is time to change this accursed story.”
After a blasting rendition of the national anthem the fake migrants are herded down a steep muddy slope to a river bank, urged on by the siren of a fast approaching border patrol car.
From there the route depends on where each group’s limits are judged to be. Some may be taken on a six-hour odyssey back and forth across the fast flowing river, while others may wrap it all up in an hour. Even the mildest trek usually includes walking along a 30-foot high wall with no obvious way of breaking any fall.
As he waits for his cue to pretend to try and run past the border patrol, Juan compares the show with the real thing. “It is quite realistic,” the 25-year-old says, recalling the time he was chased and got away. “Except here it is a game.”
In recent years tighter security has forced migrants to cross into the US via ever riskier routes. And now the recession means even those who make it over safely can no longer be sure of a job on the other side.
Small wonder El Alberto seems determined to turn their nascent tourism project into something that can provide an alternative to construction work in Las Vegas. But this is still a long way off and for the moment all profits are ploughed back into the mission. The current focus is constructing rooms for tourists to sleep in.
In the meantime the smugglers, border patrol agents, deportees and the wild animals strategically placed to frighten passing migrants with a roar, are all performing for free. Most are migrants returned home to complete periods of community service ordered by the traditional Hnahnu authority.
The result is a show with organisational precision and production values that rival many a professional performance in the capital, and a radical subtext that evokes the values of the indigenous Zapatista rebel army from the southern state of Chiapas, down to the balaclavas.
Not that El Alberto is taking orders, insists one of the community’s nameless leaders who suggests at least one fundamental difference with the Zapatistas’ iconic subcomandante Marcos and his lyrical revolutionary communiqués. “He writes poetry,” the El Alberto leader says. “We are building cabins for tourists.”