LA MESILLA, Guatemala — A group of five adults and two kids were speeding toward the Mexican border when things started to go wrong. They were in the care of a coyote, whom they’d paid to ensure their passage to the U.S. But now a Guatemalan police officer was staring into their car, threatening to throw them in jail.
The officer demanded $65 for each of the children, or she’d arrest them. “We can bring you in for trafficking people,” she warned.
The coyote laughed at her. “If I make a call, you’re going to lose your job within a matter of minutes. So you better come up with a way to let us leave,” he told the officer. She didn’t believe him, so he made the call, he said — to the chief of the agency that investigates corrupt officers. Within a matter of minutes, the coyote and his passengers were on their way.
“Beautiful adventures,” Daniel, the coyote, recently recounted to VICE News.
Risk-taking is Daniel’s business, and business at the moment is good, driven by a wave of Central American migrants heading north and even by some of President Trump’s immigration policies, which Daniel says have led to a high demand for his services.
As Mexico militarizes its southern border under increased pressure from Trump, coyotes are already looking for new routes to the U.S. The 540-mile border separating Guatemala and Mexico is remote and largely unmonitored, with vast swaths of forests and mountains. Mexico’s crackdown means it is increasingly difficult for migrants traveling alone or in self-led caravans, which could lead more to seek out smugglers who can pay off immigration and police to get them there.
Mexican officials, meanwhile, are claiming small victories in their fight against smugglers just a few weeks into their immigration crackdown. Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said this week that officials had rescued nearly 800 migrants in trailer trucks. Mexico’s new head of its immigration agency — who formerly oversaw the country’s prison system — also declared an ambitious goal of deporting 75,500 migrants a month, more than four times the number deported in May. In January, Mexico deported a total of 5,584 migrants.
But Daniel doesn’t seem worried. He expects business as usual.
“Smugglers are always going to find a way to get people through”
“No matter how much security the governments add, the smugglers are always going to find a way to get people through,” he said confidently, wearing a Banana Republic T-shirt and a ballcap bearing a snowboard logo.
If anything, Daniel said, Trump has provided great marketing for coyotes: Every time he threatens to close the border or deport migrants, Daniel tells potential customers to go now, before Trump follows through on his threats.
Every month, he smuggles people from Guatemala into Mexico, playing a small but key role in the lucrative, multimillion-dollar industry of transporting migrants to the U.S. border.
He described a highly developed international network and chain of bribes that profits smugglers, corrupt Mexican and Guatemalan police, immigration officers, cartels and politicians.
“Here, the only person who loses is the migrant,” he said.
Despite the assurances provided by smugglers, migrants face enormous risks in the journey to the U.S. If there’s a disagreement with the smugglers, the cartels may target the migrants for kidnapping and subject them to rape or human trafficking. Those who can’t pay the cartel’s extortion fee — which can run into the thousands of dollars — are often killed. Smugglers also wield enormous power, determining when and where migrants move and sleep, and if their debt has been repaid.
Daniel said he tries to run a smooth operation: He pays cartels ahead of time and maintains a Rolodex of high-ranking police officers he can call in a pinch.
Fifteen days earlier, Daniel helped transport 45 migrants from Guatemala City into Mexico in three large pickup trucks, with a go-ahead driver to flag upcoming checkpoints. He was scheduled to take another group in a few days, but the trip was delayed since Mexico deployed its National Guard to its southern border to stop migrants reaching the U.S.
Still, because of the crackdown, he anticipated more trips through the mountains in four-wheel-drive trucks to cross into Mexico. “The military doesn’t go there because they get their clothes dirty,” he said.
These are boom times for Daniel. After paying off the police, immigration officials, cartels and providing food and a place to sleep, he said he’s left with around $650 per migrant.
The number of Central American migrants reaching the U.S. border has surged over the past year, largely driven by an exponential increase in Guatemalans arriving with their children. Since October 2018, more than 500,000 unaccompanied minors and parents traveling with children have turned themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol agents. Guatemalans comprise 48% of them, up from 37% the previous two years.
Guatemala’s deteriorating conditions are the main driver behind the surge, as more families struggle to put food on the table because of droughts and the plummeting price of coffee beans, while soaring violence has forced many Guatemalans in cities to flee. More than 50 percent of Guatemalans live in poverty, and some 23 percent live in extreme poverty.
“To be three or four days in the desert, with a jug of water. That deterred a lot of people”
But, Daniel said, there’s another reason so many Guatemalans are heading north: because reaching the U.S.’ southern border has never been easier or cheaper for parents traveling with their children. His youngest passenger was one month old.
“Before, people were scared of the desert. To be three or four days in the desert, with a jug of water. That deterred a lot of people. Something could happen, or the cobras are going to bite me, or there are animals in the desert that will eat me.”
But now, parents with children don’t have to traverse the desert. They get to the U.S. border and turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents. Because detention facilities are overcrowded due to the surge in families arriving at the border, most are released within a matter of days and allowed to pursue their asylum cases while living and working in the U.S.
“They said Donald Trump was not going to let the migrants pass, and was going to deport everyone there, but it was completely the opposite,” he marveled. “Donald Trump gave an opportunity for the entire world to get into the U.S. It’s a mystery. Nobody understands why Donald Trump is letting the migrants in.”
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C., said the process of getting into the U.S. has gotten easier for some migrant families under Trump.
“Many families are getting released with ‘notice to appear’ documents, rather than going through credible fear interviews, so they are barely being held in detention,” he said.
Meanwhile, competition among smugglers appears to have driven down the price for parents traveling to the U.S. border with a child, and the going rate is now around $4,500, down from around $6,000 a few years ago, he said.
The trip Daniel sells takes between eight and 10 days. In Guatemala, the migrants travel on school buses or trucks. Once safely in Mexico, they transfer to a commercial bus. Migrants who pay extra travel first class, he said. Some smugglers offer cheaper rates, but that means traveling in the back of trailers, which is more dangerous and takes longer.
While the price for parents traveling with young children has fallen, smugglers are charging more to sneak single adults into the U.S. without detection. The going rate is now around $10,000, up from around $7,000 a decade ago.
A large portion of the money ends up in the hands of police, immigration agents and cartels.
Daniel said he pays bribes of $6.50 per migrant at every checkpoint in Guatemala. In Mexico, the price is between $5 and $10, depending on the checkpoint. It’s not a lot, but the costs add up, he said, especially as Guatemala and Mexico have added checkpoints in response to Trump’s demands that they stop the flow of Central American migrants. So now, in order to avoid paying, Daniel has the migrants get out of the vehicles and walk around the checkpoints.
But unexpected issues have arisen. Like when he transported a 300-pound Honduran woman who was in no shape to walk. It was his first passenger with “that volume of weight,” he said euphemistically.
He had no choice but to take her in the car with him through the checkpoints. The police didn’t stop them. They were in a turbo-diesel Jeep Wrangler — “a car only narcotraffickers use” — so the police didn’t ask questions, he said, adding that “the same police officers sometimes provide security for the narcotraffickers.”
On top of the bribes to immigration officers, he said his network of smugglers pay Mexican cartels around $20 per migrant to pass through their territory in Southern Mexico. The fee only guarantees that the cartels don’t kidnap the migrants, although sometimes the cartels “clear the route” if there are problems. And there’s no negotiating with the cartels. “You pay or you pay,” he said.
That bribe may be low. Other smugglers have reported paying cartels up to $500 per migrant to pass through territory they control at the Northern Mexican border with the U.S. Cartels are making millions of dollars a month on the smuggling business.
Daniel has his own story of migration. In 2007, he crossed into the U.S. illegally and moved to Alabama, where a friend got him a job cleaning houses. “Easy work,” he said, and one that paid well at $15 an hour. He boasted that in his three years in the U.S., the police never stopped him.
When he returned to Guatemala, he used the money he saved to build a house for his family. He started transporting migrants to the Mexican border 15 years ago, accompanied by a coyote. Four years ago, he became a full-fledged smuggler, or “guide,” as he calls himself.
Like any businessman, Daniel aims to please. He wants the migrants to be happy so they recommend him to their family and friends. Daniel also reports to a boss in Honduras — known as a “mayorista,” or wholesaler. Occasionally, the boss accompanies Daniel on trips, which is always a plus because that means he and the migrants eat better.
Despite his best efforts, things have occasionally gone wrong. Three months ago, he was housing migrants in a security house in Mexico when the police arrived. They had been tipped off by someone in the community. “They have to put on a good act,” Daniel said, explaining why he couldn’t pay them off. All the migrants were deported.
Daniel knows that Mexican authorities have sent its newly formed National Guard to the border to prevent migrants from passing. But he said Central Americans will continue trying to reach the U.S. The only thing that would stop them, he said, is if the dollar loses value. “People might then say, ‘If I am going to suffer, better I suffer here than there.’”
Cover: People arriving from Guatemala disembark from a raft at "Coyote Pass" in Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Monday, June 17, 2019. Mexico is increasing immigration enforcement near the southern border amid heightened pressure from the U.S. to reduce the surge of mostly Central American migrants through its territory. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)