TECUN UMAN, Guatemala — The man-in-the-know nursed a late-morning beer at a bar near the Suchiate River that separates Guatemala from Mexico, and answered a question about his human smuggling business with a question: “Do you think a coyote is going to say he’s a coyote?”
Dressed as a migrant in shorts and sandals but speaking like an entrepreneur, he then described shipments of tens of thousands of dollars in human cargo from the slums of Honduras and highlands of Guatemala to cities across the United States.
“It’s business,” he said, agreeing to speak to a reporter only if guaranteed anonymity. “Sometimes, business is very good.”
Judging by the dramatic increase in the number of minors apprehended in the United States in recent months, it seems the human smuggling business from Central America is booming. The vast majority of migrants who enter the U.S. illegally do so with the help of a network of smugglers known as “coyotes,” so named for the scavengers that prowl the border.
It is a high-risk, often high-yield business estimated to generate $6.6 billion a year for smugglers along Latin America’s routes to the U.S., according to a 2010 United Nations report. The migrants pay anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000 each for the illegal journey across thousands of miles in the care of smuggling networks that in turn pay off government officials, gangs operating on trains and drug cartels controlling the routes north.
The exact profit is hard to calculate, though some experts estimate between $3,500 to $4,000 per migrant if the journey goes as planned. Smuggling organizations may move from dozens to hundreds of migrants at a time.
“We’re talking about a market where chaos reigns,” said Rodolfo Casillas, a migrant expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico who said he can’t studies migrant trafficking.
The surge in unaccompanied minors and women with children migrating from Central America has put new attention on decades-old smuggling organizations.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors, the vast majority from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, were apprehended at the U.S. border from October to June, according to the Border Patrol. That’s more than double the same period last year.
The smugglers are profiting from the rising violence in gang-ridden cities of Central America, and the yearning of families to be reunited; parents often head north to find work and save money to send for their children, sometimes years later.
Many of the children and teenagers who travelled to the United States recently said they did so after hearing they would be allowed to stay. The U.S. generally releases unaccompanied children to parents, relatives or family friends while their cases take years to wend through overwhelmed immigration courts. That reality gave rise to rumors of a new law or amnesty for children.
Some say coyotes helped spread those rumors to drum up new business following a huge drop in Mexicans migrating to the United States. Arrests of migrants on the southwestern U.S. border dropped from about 1.1 million annually a decade ago to 415,000 last year.
Immigrants’ rights advocates in the U.S. say they are seeing more children from Central America who are not only fleeing gang recruitment and random violence, but who have been targeted themselves.
“We deal with torture victims in the Congo and some of these kids have similar stories,” said Judy London, a lawyer with the Public Counsel’s Immigrants’ Rights Project in Los Angeles. “Kidnappings on the way home from school, being held for ransom, sexual violence. We hadn’t seen the numbers of girls before.”
Because of that, some smugglers say they are in the service business.
“The most important thing is to help these people,” said another smuggler in Ixtepec, a town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca where many migrants board the northbound train known as “La Bestia,” or The Beast.
The smuggler goes by the name of Antonio Martinez, which is most likely a pseudonym, though one that appears on an arrest record, he said. He wears Nike sport shoes, jeans and a pressed blue Oxford shirt, the two top buttons open to reveal a tattoo of Jesus Christ on his left breast. After spending 12 years in U.S. prisons for drug possession, he said, he converted to Christianity and fell into the coyote business.
“The coyote is essential,” he said. “If you don’t have a compass, you can get lost.”
Martinez appears to be an independent contractor. He said he charges $2,500 for the trip from the Guatemalan border to the U.S. border, where he gives Central American migrants fake Mexican identity cards and makes them learn the first stanza of the Mexican national anthem before handing them off to another smuggler. Hopefully, if they are apprehended in the U.S., they’ll only be sent back to Mexico, where they can try again, Martinez said.
Most smugglers charge far more, having raised their prices in recent years to compensate for the drop in Mexican business and to offset the “taxes” charged by cartels for moving people through their territories.
From Honduras, Karen Ferrera and her 8-month-old daughter traveled with a coyote she had known since childhood, a friend of her brother’s whom she paid $4,000 for three tries to get in. They traveled mostly by bus, walking in some parts to avoid detection. The Honduran coyote took her as far as the northern city of Monterrey, where he handed her off to another coyote to get her across the Rio Grande and to the U.S. border. She turned herself in but was deported with her child.
Glendis Ramirez, who was deported by plane back to Honduras last week, also left with a coyote from her town whom her family paid $4,700 to take Ramirez and her 3-year-old daughter. He promised to return half of the money if she didn’t make it. When she tried to get her money back, he told her to stop demanding or he would kill her.
The trafficker on the Guatemalan border, who spoke with The Associated Press after an intermediary negotiated the time and place, said the people he smuggles pay $10,000 a head for the trip from Central America, which covers everything from hotel and train payments to official bribes and cartel taxes. But occasionally, he said, a cartel will demand as much as an extra $5,000 on threat of death.
“You have to be careful with the Zetas. They cut you in pieces and videotape it,” he said.
Speaking always in the third person, he said a smuggler dresses to blend in with the 10 to 15 migrants he moves at a given time. Like most smugglers, he first went to the U.S. as a migrant, where he worked as a cook and learned some English.
Casillas, the migration expert, said the migrant smuggling business is a complex corporate structure. Guides at the border usually work for honchos who run the operation from afar and only pocket a fraction of the price charged to the migrants. One of the most important coyotes moving immigrants from El Salvador lives in Texas, he said.
“It’s a criminal chain that has two segments. The invisible segment ... is dedicated to administration, organization and finances,” he said. “They don’t necessarily even see the migrants.”
The guides often don’t know who they are working for, he added. The big guys rarely get caught. While federal officials along the U.S. border seem to roll out cases against human smugglers almost on a weekly basis, the targets are largely drivers and stash house operators.
Coyotes get their business through social networks, from friends and family, or referrals from prior customers. Those headed for Texas generally charge half of the money up front, collect another installment by bank deposit or wire transfer along the way, and the final payment upon delivery. California-bound immigrants may pay the full fee when they arrive.
Many smugglers take their charges from Mexico’s southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca to Mexico City on La Bestia, the decrepit freight train. From there, they choose one of three main routes: to Reynosa in Tamaulipas, Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, or cross the Sonoran desert to the outskirts of Mexicali.
Most now opt to go to Tamaulipas, the shortest, but most dangerous route because of its warring drug cartels. The number of family units and unaccompanied children arrested by the Border Patrol in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley increased 362 percent in the first nine months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year.
The border in South Texas is difficult to police. The Rio Grande twists and doubles back on itself as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Its banks are overgrown with carrizo cane and other brush. It takes little time for a raft or someone paddling an inner tube to reach the other side, but few attempt it these days without a guide.
The Gulf cartel and Zetas control swaths of the Mexican side of the border and collect a tax for everything that passes through — people, drugs, weapons or merchandize.
Rafael Cardenas Vela, nephew of former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, testified in great detail at the 2012 trial of another cartel member about how this arrangement worked.
When Cardenas Vela ran the Rio Bravo “plaza” for the cartel from 2009 to 2011, he collected $250 to $300 for a Mexican immigrant, $500 to $700 for a Central American and about $1,500 for someone from Europe or Asia, he testified. He also collected a flat 10 percent fee from the smugglers to allow them to work.
“People have to view the cartels like organized crime,” said Janice Ayala, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s special agent in charge in San Antonio. “Where there’s a dollar to be made they want a cut of that particular dollar.”
Unlike the drug trafficking organizations that tightly control their loads, human smuggling organizations are much more flexible and willing to work with various groups to keep people moving, Ayala said. They are more like independent contractors who may specialize in one segment of the journey, whether it is getting them through interior Mexico, across the Texas-Mexico border, into a stash houses or to the interior U.S.
All who help along the way must be paid, and their fees are a fixed part of the cost determined by the smuggling network.
Mexican youths often serve as lookouts, or guides ferrying migrants across the river to the United States because if they get caught, they’re just sent back across the border instead of being prosecuted.
A Mexican official familiar with human smuggling at the border but who is not authorized to speak about it publicly said child guides can make as much as $100 per immigrant.
A young U.S. citizen living in South Texas told authorities after her arrest that she was to be paid $150 per immigrant she picked up near the Rio Grande and drove to a stash house. She got $200 a person for driving them to Houston, according to court records.
Sometimes the person feeding and watching immigrants at the stash house is in the country illegally, too, and is working off his smuggling fee. In other cases, a local has been paid $20 per person per day for the job.
“It’s like a little chain, everyone is earning,” the Mexican official said.
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and Christopher Sherman reported from Reynosa, Mexico. AP writers Alicia Caldwell in Washington, Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Sonia Perez D. in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, contributed to this report.