In 2015, Axel Kirschner, a Guatemala-born, 37-year-old undocumented immigrant living in New York, was pulled over for a minor traffic incident while driving his son to kindergarten. Kirschner, who was just one year old when he came to the States, had grown up in Long Island, New York. He says he became a hacker in order to make money due to his undocumented status.
But when Kirschner arrived in Guatemala, he was informed that the government did not recognize him as a citizen either — all record of his existence had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1998. He was effectively stateless. With nowhere else to turn, Kirschner set off across Mexico on foot to reunite with his family in New York.
Levi Vonk, a journalist and anthropologist at UC Berkeley, met Kirschner by chance in Chahuites, Oaxaca while Kirschner was marching in a migrant caravan in southern Mexico. At the time, Vonk didn’t know Kirschner was a hacker. But he decided to follow Kirschner and document his perilous journey past human traffickers, corrupt priests, and anti-government guerillas.
Border Hacker, co-authored by Vonk and Kirschner and published in April 2022, tells the story of their journey from the migrant caravan on the Mexico-Guatemala border, following through to Kirschner’s kidnap by migrant activists and ending with his preparations to cross back into the United States. The book is told from both perspectives. The following excerpts recount the moment in which the caravan that Kirschner was in was surrounded by Mexican immigration and police forces, and Vonk first learned that Kirschner was a hacker. The first excerpt is told from the perspective of Levi Vonk; the second, from Axel Kirschner’s perspective.
The following excerpts have been edited for style and length.
Immigration had us surrounded. And they’d brought backup — a cadre of federal police with enough vehicles to detain all 400 people in the migrant caravan. We’d managed to barricade ourselves in a local shelter, but we were told that if we tried to escape, we’d be deported.
Through the chain-link fence of the shelter, we could just make out the glint of orange and white immigration trucks in the distance, and, almost comically, men in dark sunglasses peering at the shelter through sets of binoculars.
Each day, the siege strangled a little more air out of the shelter. The food supply started to dwindle. Any time shelter volunteers went into town to buy supplies, the police would question them, and they often came back empty-handed. Then the shoddily installed plumbing system busted from overuse. Water had to be rationed, the toilets backed up, and the farthest corners of the shelter walls began to stink. We realized people were defecating in them at night.
“We’re marking our territory,” joked Axel. “Like the dogs they think we are.”
Then my phone stopped working. I couldn’t call or text anyone. Axel was offline too. I looked around, and a murmur rippled across the shelter. No one could get a call out.
“They’re jamming the signal,” said Axel. We walked the perimeter, looking for clues. On the far side of the soccer field [near the shelter], Axel stopped and pointed. “Look at that truck. Does it got a weird antenna on it?” The vehicle had some kind of contraption on its roof, like a small satellite dish. Axel got a funny look in his eye. “I’ll be back,” he said, then dashed away, zigzagging through a soccer game.
“Wait,” I called. “Where are you going?”
“To find the most badass computer they got in this bitch.”
Ten minutes passed, and my phone still didn’t work. Then half an hour. The reality of the signal jam began to set in. There would be no way to call for help if immigration raided us now. I wouldn’t even be able to warn my family. I desperately tried to punch my girlfriend’s number into my phone. Nothing. After an hour, I saw Axel jogging back across the soccer field.
“Try it now,” he shouted.
Lo and behold, I had one bar. Just one, but it was enough to shoot off a message. “Dude, you’re a miracle worker.”
“I’ll be honest, bro, I don’t know how long the signal is gonna last for. This is just a temporary defense.”
“Do the shelter leaders know?
“Yeah, I was just with them. They was making calls to Mexico City to let them know these bastards is jamming us up.”
The signal was spotty from then on, but every time it went down, Axel was eventually able to get it running again. I imagined the police on the other side of the fence losing their minds, trying to figure out how we kept thwarting their jammer. No one would have guessed that a down-and-out-deportee like Axel, so broke he couldn’t even afford toothpaste, was the one with his digital finger in the flood dyke.
But Axel couldn’t hide who he was forever. The activists in the shelter had seen what he had done, and soon word started to spread through those secretive and elite networks of a migrant—a stateless migrant, with no one who would come looking for him—whose powers were simply too extraordinary to let them go to waste.
Now, I ain’t saying I’m the best hacker in the world or nothing. But I ain’t saying I’m the worst in the world either, and a person with my skill set, a person who knows the things I know, in a country like Mexico? Well, now we talking business, baby. The security systems in Mexico is all, like, from the 1990s or some shit, and, for a guy like me, who actually grew up messing around with computers during that time period, it’s the easiest thing in the world to break into. That I can do in my sleep, you understand what I’m saying?
But I never thought it would get me into so much trouble after I was deported, and I especially never thought I’d have to use my skills on a migrant caravan. But once immigration had us surrounded, and I realized that the police was jamming us up, I knew we was in deep shit.
So I went straight to the caravan directors and told them that I needed the most badass computer they had. And just by pure luckiness, there was this volunteer in the shelter where we was staying named el Colocho who already had this hacking software called Kali Linux on a bootable USB drive. I guess that from time to time, he liked hacking too or something, I don’t know. But I got it up and running and started doing my thing. The police had shut down the Wi-Fi and cell phone signal in the shelter, but I realized that the jammer wasn’t strong enough to reach the neighbor’s Wi-Fi too. So I gained access into his router, and then I started trying to hack the police jammer. And I realized that the jammer, it was some cheap shit, not very sophisticated. They could only jam us on, like, two signals at a time, and they’d chosen 4G LTE, which blocks the phone signals and Wi-Fi. So what I did was I switched the frequency. I reprogramed the jammer to block 3G LTE, which is what phones used to work on. But that left our phones, which was operating on 4G now, totally free. The cops thought they was still blocking us, but really we could keep making calls on the low-low.
And after the priest who ran the shelter saw me work my magic, and el Colocho was there confirming to him that I was the real deal, he sat me down, and, in that soft, gentle voice he has — a voice that sounds like he knows someone else might be tryna listen — he asked me what else I could do. And I don’t know why I answered him honestly, cause whenever I speak honest, I always get freaking screwed, but I guess I thought he was a priest and I coulda trusted him. So I told him I was a hacker. And then he got serious, even more serious than he normally seems, and he whispered that he had lots of enemies, especially enemies in the government. People who was always tryna hurt him. And that he needed someone like me. Someone that coulda kept him safe from outside attacks, and someone who coulda been more aggressive and find out who wanted to do damage. Someone who could monitor the situation, you feel me? And then he asked if I might be that someone.