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Victor Clark Alfaro is director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana and a lecturer in the Latin American Studies Department at San Diego State University. He has been studying human smuggling patterns across the U.S.-Mexico border for more than 20 years.
In this interview with Lowell Bergman, he describes how the smuggling business has changed over several generations of “coyotes.”
Clark tells FRONTLINE/World that the latest generation of human smugglers is copying the methods of organized crime. “They are beginning to kill among themselves, fighting for clientele, fighting over routes and territory.” He also talks about corruption on the Mexican side of the border and the lack of political will to address illegal migration, when remittances sent by Mexicans in the U.S. are a vital part of the Mexican economy.
This interview took place March 27, 2008, in Tijuana. It has been edited for clarity.
Q: How does the business side of human smuggling work?
Clark: I call coyotes [slang term for human smugglers] travel agents because they work in a similar [fashion]. For instance, if you are coming from Guatemala they offer you a package that includes transportation, a place to stay, food. Everything is included in the possibility to cross over to the American dream. The traditional rule is that you don’t pay coyotes here. You pay them when you arrive in the U.S. Depending on what kind of package you want, – if you want to cross through the port of entry or you want to cross through deserts and mountains – they have options.
Q: So it’s like a menu service?
Yes. They are very sophisticated. There are coyotes who specialize in crossing people only through the port of entry, but there are those who cross people through the port of entry and through mountains and deserts. They have a menu of options that the client can select, yes.
Q: And more recently students in the United States have been recruited to get people across?
There are always new ways to cross people to the U.S. The first time I began to hear American students being used by coyotes was about five years ago. They hired a student from Chula Vista in San Diego, and they pay them $700 for each smuggling they cross in their vehicle to the U.S. Customs probably will never notice that the man next to a young man who looks like a student in a regular car probably is an undocumented person.
Q: And the students are willing to do this because the penalties are so light if they get caught?
Yeah, because nothing happens in the end to the student. He will never go to prison. Or [if he goes to jail, it will be] just for a couple weeks or a month; then [he’ll be] released immediately. The coyotes know that.
Q: And the migrant, themselves, if they’re caught they just return.
Yes, no problem.
Q: And they try again.
Q: So most people eventually do get across?
No, not all of them. Every year, around one million Mexicans or migrants are arrested and around half a million or probably less will cross successfully to the U.S., and the only way to cross successfully to the U.S. is to hire a coyote. A coyote becomes an evil necessity at the border; it’s the only way to cross safely. If you come to the border and you cross by yourself to the desert, you’re probably in great danger. It’s suicide. That’s why the coyotes became an evil necessity.
Q: An evil necessity?
Yes. They are also the connection between the cheap labor force and capital in the U.S. I cannot imagine a day without coyotes along the border. If that day happened, we’d probably see a lot of migrants suffering in the desert or dead in the desert and probably the lack of a labor force in the U.S.
Q: So do you think this business will only continue as long as there is demand in the U.S. for cheap labor?
If Mexico and U.S. finally came to an agreement that we send in so many thousands of Mexicans to work legally in the U.S., it’s likely that the work of the coyotes would be endangered. But for now, there is a boom of coyotes along the border.
Q: Mexico has more billionaires than any country in Latin America and one of the richest men in the world is a Mexican, Carlos Slim. How come Mexico cannot produce enough jobs for its people?
There’s a dependency from migrants and from the money they invest or they send to our country. Mexico always blame the American policy of immigration and migrants crossing to the U.S., but we haven’t turned to face our own responsibility. As a society and as a government, we have a lot of responsibility for why these people are fleeing to another country. In the 1970s, there were roughly 30,000 Mexicans crossing to the U.S. By the 1990s, there were roughly 200,000. Now there’s probably half a million crossing to the U.S., not always Mexicans. Mexico has created a dependency from the money migrants send, and I don’t feel comfortable knowing that it has become the second largest source of income. Oil is the first income for our country, migrants the second, tourism the third.
Q: So the money coming back from Mexicans working in the United States is the second largest source of income for Mexico?
Yes. Under President [Vicente] Fox, these poor people crossing from their doorstep to the U.S., he called them heroes. It’s a paradox knowing that we now depend on these people to send money to their villages and help our government because they have an opportunity to cross to the U. S., and therefore create less social tensions in our own country. We have to change that situation. The politicians are always saying that they’re going to create more employment, that they’re going to keep these people in Mexico, that they need more investment from abroad to create jobs instead of letting them cross to the U.S., but we have a lot of responsibility.
Q: When you watch over time, the building of the wall and the increased security on the U.S. side, do you feel this is futile, that the coyotes will just get more inventive?
Yes, of course. They will find ways; probably they will use technology or new methods. That’s what they have been doing all these years. You always hear of new ways to cross people to the U.S. In recent months the border patrol have found more than 20 boats on the coast of San Diego. It is not a new method. They have been using boats in the past, but in recent months, a group of coyotes are using boats more frequently. It is because migrants are willing to pay, or their relatives in the U.S. are willing to pay.
Q: So it’s the migrants who are already established in the U.S. who are financing more illegal immigration?
They are really the ones who are financing the Mexican migration to the U.S., the ones who are already in the U.S. It is not true that it’s mostly poor people who are leaving Mexico, because most likely they are the ones who don’t have enough money. It’s only those with relatives in the U.S. who can pay from $2,000 to $4,000. They are the ones who are going to hire a coyote.
Q: Are these coyotes, these smugglers, seen as criminals here in Tijuana?
I have talked to dozens of migrants for more than 20 years, and the feeling is coyotes are not criminals. For many migrants, coyotes are heroes. They help them to cross their relatives to the U.S. They help them to cross their grandmothers, their sons, daughters, wives. It is true there is another sector of migrants who blame coyotes because they rape or they do something bad to migrants, but in general, coyotes have a special place.
Q: So they deliver the American dream?
Q: How is the Mexican government cracking down on coyotes? Do they arrest them? Do they harass them?
There are sectors of the government that benefit from the corrupt relationships between coyotes and the police and local authorities. It happens with any illegal activity, at least in this country. Somebody’s receiving money because somebody lets smugglers operate. It’s the same thing with coyotes as it is with drug smugglers. The coyotes who I know, bribe local authorities -- many [of whom] are state police -- on a daily basis. And the coyotes who work at the international level or on a larger scale, instead of paying, I don’t know, $30 every time they see a Mexican police, they pay a regular monthly fee to the authorities.
Q: Like a licensing fee?
This illegal activity benefits authorities because they receive part of the money that comes once Mexicans cross. Economically, for Mexicans who are crossing to the U.S., the authorities have a clear relationship with them. There are coyotes who are paying $30,000 per month to the [Mexican] federal police, for instance.
Q: Thirty thousand to the federal police?
There are cases, yes.
Q: So it shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the hotels we’ve been told about, near the airport, where migrants wait to be picked up, is also used by [Mexico’s] federal police as an operational base?
For me, it is not a surprise. They work openly. They are not hiding themselves, as drug traffickers are. You can find them at the international airport of Tijuana. You can find them at the bus station. If you go to the red-light district, they are there. They’re in small restaurants. It’s such a public activity – at least in the red-light district – that everybody knows where to hire a coyote.
Q: So if I go to the red-light district and I say I want to meet with a coyote, no problem?
True. And there are people who work for coyotes at the international airport, offering services to people who…
Q: …have just arrived?
Q: And there are other nationalities, other than Latinos, other than Mexicans or Guatemalans, coming through Tijuana, such as Chinese?
Yes, historically, there’s been Chinese immigration through Baja California. But it’s also an invisible migration because you never see them. You hear in the underworld that the Chinese are coming to the coast of Baja California by boat. I talked to the coyotes that I know, and they have never crossed with Chinese through the desert. The same of people from Brazil or from other countries. They are crossing in a different way to the U.S., in a more sophisticated way, and paying more money. A coyote’s not going to cross someone who pays $25,000 or $30,000 through the desert.
There is always the possibility that these international coyotes are not only bribing Mexican but American authorities as well. In international operations, a lot of money is involved.
Q: Will the recession or slowdown in the United States affect people coming north?
Yes. Migrants don’t know if there is any more American dream. They used to think that just crossing to the U.S. they would find a job and a stable salary. But the reality is totally different. When many of these migrants hear through friends or relatives in the U.S. that the situation is not the best, it will deter migrants. Not only that, the increase in surveillance along the border will provoke a couple of social phenomenons. First, the coyotes will likely increase their rates because it will be more difficult to cross to the U.S. And many migrants will decide not to cross to the U.S. because of the economic situation.
Q: You know one phenomenon that we learned from talking to the FBI is that there is a season of the year in December and January when there’s much less activity. People go south to see their families but are not doing so in the numbers they used to.
Yes, migrants used to return in December, but in recent years, it is not happening that way. Far fewer are returning to their village because it’s become very difficult and very expensive to cross the border. The increased security after Operation Gatekeeper and four other operations along the border is that it has slowed down circular migration. The number of migrants who return is minimal compared to the past.
Q: Now they use that money to bring more people north, instead of using it to return home themselves?
Yes. If I have to pay $4,000, I will think twice before returning to my village and then having to pay the same again to get back to the U.S.
Q: Can you describe the different types of smugglers your research has revealed over the years?
What I have observed knowing these people for more than 20 years is that there are three different generations of smugglers. Coyotes became popular on the border at the end of the Bracero program. The Bracero program was in place from 1942 to 1964, and 4 million Mexicans crossed legally to the U.S. After the program ended, coyotes became an important actor in the border scenario. Those who began working in the mid-1960s, many of them are still working on the border. They became very well-known, respectable coyotes among migrants and the rest of the coyote community. They are part of the legend of the coyote tradition.
The second generation are people who were working for them, and by the 1980s, [they] were working independently. I don’t doubt that there are bad coyotes, but there are also real experts in border crossings, who try to do their work, quote, “the best they can” They depend on all these migrants for survival. This is how the first and second generation worked.
The third generation arose at the end of the 1990s, and these people have a different profile from the first and the second generation. The third generation is copying the methods of organized crime. The new generation is beginning to use arms. They are beginning to kill among themselves, fighting for clientele or fighting over routes and territory. This didn’t happen in the past. Many of them use drugs, and we identified that this new generation are more violent. They don’t care about people. They change rules. Instead of charging migrants when they take them over to Los Angeles or San Diego, they collect the money here [in Mexico]. The first and the second generation always complain, saying that the way the third generation is behaving, giving them the image that they are criminals who don’t care about people and abandon migrants in the desert. They [the third generation] see people as merchandise.