“Rafael,” a smuggler from Mexico who requests that his real identity remain anonymous, gives FRONTLINE/World a rare inside account of the
"Rafael"a smuggler from Mexico who requests that his real identity remain anonymous, gives FRONTLINE/World a rare inside account of the pollero trade and explains how the business of human smuggling has changed – and thrives – after 9/11.
pollero trade and explains how the business of human smuggling has changed – and thrives – after 9/11.
He also responds to the U.S. government’s latest effort to stop illegal immigrants -- a 852-mile, multibillion-dollar barrier. “It doesn’t matter how tall the wall is,” he says. “They’ll just dig a hole. You will never stop people from getting across to the United States.”
The interview took place on April 3, 2008, in Tijuana. It has been edited for clarity.
Q: The pollero business? What does that mean?
A: Pollero is slang for the person you ask to get you across to the United States. It's slang for people smuggler. Also, they are called coyotes. But those ones run along the hills or the desert. You don’t call someone coming across in a car a coyote.
Q: Pollero is a little chicken?
A: Yeah, polleros are like people who work with chickens. I guess it comes from being like little chickens in box.
Q: When you were younger, did you think you would be a smuggler when you grew up?
A: No, I don’t think you ever think that. Everybody as a boy wants to be an astronaut or a cop. You don’t grow up wanting to be anything like this. It's sad to say that nowadays there’s actually kids who think this is cool, that it's the way to go, when it's not. Anybody who’s in this business will tell you not to go into it because it's not good. The money will be good, but the peace of mind will never be there. You will always be afraid that somebody might want to get you – afraid of the cops, afraid of everything. It's just not good. I envy normal people who can play Monopoly at home and have no worries.
Q: How did you get involved in smuggling?
A: I was involved in a lot of smuggling. When I was young, I didn’t really care about school and there was this opportunity. Here in Mexico, at least in Tijuana, there are a lot of people who work in those environments. So it’s easy to find somebody who’s the son of somebody. I had this friend who was 16 and had a lot of money. I was 18, and I was like, “Dude, how do you make all that money?” When he told me, I didn’t believe him, so he took me to the people, and they offered me a job. I was young and dumb, so I tried it. That’s how I got involved.
Q: How does the human smuggling business usually work? How do you find your clients?
A: It’s easy to find somebody. For example, when they deport people back from the United States, they put them in the same place. The shuttle puts them on the border, and as they’re coming in, you just stand there and ask, “Hey, want to try again? We got different ways.” Or, it could be somebody you know. They say, “I have this aunt who wants to go to the States, do you know somebody?” There are many different ways. It’s not hard to find somebody.
Q: Let’s say there’s someone in Oaxaca who wants to cross for work. How would they do it?
A: Well, usually people from Oaxaca are poor, so they have to get across through the hills or through coyotes. Those are the hard ways. If they [have money], they can go in trunks or secret compartments.
Q: What are the different choices? What would be the different ways that you could try to cross?
A: Trunks – that’s the typical way. That’s also the easiest way to get caught. It’s easy for the officer to say, “Can you open your trunk?” They usually charge $1,500 for that. There’s also secret compartments – in the dashboard or near the gas tank. Those are higher in price because, well, it’s not as easy to be caught.
A very popular one is to have forged papers. It’s not as easy to be caught. Either the papers are completely forged or there’s a photo of somebody who kind of looks like you. If it kind of looks like you and [a border official] puts it through the laser, then there’s no problem. It’s just the officer’s intuition to catch [you], you know? Other than that, it’s kind of easy.
Q: Do you take any safety precautions with the people you are smuggling? For instance, not putting people in trunks on a hot day?
A: Oh, that’s important. When you’re going to take people across in a secret compartment, you’ve got to first make sure that the person inside can unlock it. It is a crime to put somebody somewhere he can’t get out by himself. I have known people who have had that problem. That’s why you’ve got to make good compartments. If [a smuggler] ever gets caught or a driver gets scared and he gets out of the car to run, the people inside are not going to die – they can get out themselves. [Smugglers] do hinges or special buttons so the compartments can open. They always have to be careful with that.
Q: Do mechanics make the secret compartments for the cars?
A: There are special body shops for special compartments. That’s a whole other deal because they can charge you $100 or $12,000, depending on what type of secret compartment you want. If you want those magnetic electro compartments [sic] that not even X-rays can see, yeah, it’s going to cost you. I’ve seen them. I know about them. I may or may not have one.
Q: Let’s say you have a person who wants to cross, and you’re going to use fake documents. What would happen?
A: [Smugglers] train you not to panic and tell you what to say. You’ve always got to have a reason why you’re going to the United States. Say you’re going to the movies, say you’re going over for shopping. The usual is shopping, but nobody believes that. [If it’s American papers, smugglers] usually ask you not to be polite or anything because it’s your country. You’re not asking permission to go in there – it’s my country. Just be confident, because [border officials] can sense when a heart rate’s racing.
If you’re driving, [smugglers] tell you to give the visa or your papers with the right hand, because you’ve got your hand on the steering wheel…. It won’t shake because you’re already putting pressure on it. If you pass it with your left hand all shaking, well, that’s not good.
Q: Do you know anyone who has ever bribed an inspector at the border?
A: I have known inspectors who are crooked, but you would never talk about them. You would never say you have one because it’s your golden ticket, your meal ticket. It’s failsafe, and you can charge whatever you want. You can charge $3,000, $5,000, and people will pay because it’s secure. Everybody makes a lot of money. [Border guards] usually help because they don’t see getting across to the United States as bad. They know [immigrants] just want to work or provide for their families or just visit New York. Who doesn’t want to visit New York, you know?
Q: So you mean the agents themselves who might be corrupt don’t see it as that big of a deal?
A: Yes, agents who help don’t see it as corrupt because it’s not like they’re helping promote crime. I mean, they don’t really help people who smuggle drugs and stuff. They just want to help people and make some money along the way.
At the U.S. Embassy in Tijuana, when you file your application for your visa, one official I knew had this little code, this special number. [He] sold me three different pre-approved visas with fake numbers, and they worked. That was the way. But it wasn’t cheap. It was $5,000. But that was your visa, a real visa. You could go across and back whenever you wanted, for 10 years. It wasn’t cheap, but it was real. That’s the way I know officials have done it. I’m sure they keep doing it, and I’m sure they have other ways. At the end, everybody loves money.
Q: Do you think there are a lot of border officials who would take money?
A: Yes. I’m sure there are people who are taking money. But they always want to keep it tight, because nobody wants to go to jail.
Q: In terms of your own experience, were you ever afraid of being caught?
A: When I have driven cars across the United States with people, it’s like an adrenaline rush. It feels really good, actually. I’m not encouraging people to do it, but it feels really good. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s unique. When you get the people out and you tell them you’re already in the United States, they are really happy. It’s a reward when you see the happy faces of the people. It feels really good.
Q: Have you ever been caught? What happens if you are apprehended?
A: Yes, I was caught. Nothing happened. [Border officials] took me and the people in. That time, I had three people in the trunk. [The officials] asked me to open the trunk and so they saw the people inside. They just take you to this little box; it’s like this little room, with stainless steel everywhere. They put you there with all the others. The most you’re going to stay is 24 hours. Then, they put you back out along with the people you tried to smuggle. It’s nothing.
Q: I understand that many of those who drive illegal immigrants across the border are American citizens?
A: Most of the time, yeah, I would say 70 percent, 80 percent of the time. Americans, you usually get them at parties. A few Americans will be at a disco or a bar, and they will see these flashy Mexicans with a lot of money and they’ll be like, “What’s going on here? I’m an American – I make a lot more money than these guys. What’s going on?” So sometimes they just directly ask, “Hey, do you know any people? I want to smuggle people.”
It’s not really hard to get people, because everybody wants to make money. If they’re going to pay $1,000, $2,000, $5,000, and you’re going to make it in half an hour, well, who wouldn’t want to make $2,000 in an hour, you know? I think that’s a very good deal.
I’m sure there are more Americans taking Mexicans across the United States because they’re not going to do any jail time if they get caught. They get a free chance, you know. I don’t know how many times you’ve got to be caught to actually do time. A lot of female friends have tried [smuggling], until they get caught. Some of them keep doing it because it’s easy money.
Q: The penalties for trying to help people across the border, are they really a deterrent?
A: If you’re an American citizen they do nothing to you. They do nothing. So that’s why American citizens are usually the ones who do that kind of job.
Q: How do people here [in Mexico] view the smuggling business?
A: People don’t see smuggling as bad. It’s just people trying to get the American dream, you know. Here, a day’s work is 50 pesos. That’s like $5. A whole day’s work. Eight hours. So that’s why people try to go over there to live the dream. It’s just an imaginary line. It’s not like people want to go over there and commit a crime. It's just people trying to get their families money in Mexico, Guatemala or Salvador.
Q: Did you feel like you were doing something illegal when you were smuggling people?
A: I did not feel that it was illegal when I crossed people because people wanted to provide for their families. What’s the harm in that? What I see as bad is our government and all the other governments that don’t really care about their people. There’s a lot of money in Mexico, a lot of money to go around, but it’s just in a few hands.
Q: For you, personally, was it a good living?
A: The smuggling people business – it’s easy. The problem with drug smuggling is that you lose money sometimes. With polleros it’s always making money because you don’t lose the product. It’s win-win, because they always give you back your immigrants and you always try again. Yeah, I did make a lot of money.
Q: Once someone has been smuggled into the United States, how does the fee-collection process work?
A: One of the cardinal laws in smuggling is that you never put the money and the product together. Then, if you get caught you either just lose the product or you just lose the money. It’s not a total loss ever.
Q: We’ve heard that smugglers sometimes use safe houses or load houses in the United States to store people.
A: Yes, yes. When you cross, [smugglers] take you to a safe house until you pay. You stay there until you pay. To collect the fee, you send somebody to meet the friend or the relative, and they collect the money. Once payment is confirmed by phone, they send the person from the safe house or wherever they have him.
If you don’t pay, they will drive you and throw you back – and they’ll keep your money. So, it’s better to pay.
Q: I understand you want satisfied customers so people recommend you to others or come back to you to cross again?
A: The smuggling business, it's exponential because you take people across and if they are happy, they will tell their families. “Who got you through? Well, it was this person – this is his number.” There’s a sense of trust because you already have relatives who have gone with the [smugglers]. Even if you’ve failed, they say, “Well, it worked for me, so try again.” It's always exponential.
As long as we have low income in Mexico, we will go to the United States for money. So long as there is that need, you will never stop people getting across to United States. You will never stop it. It doesn’t matter how tall the wall is; we’ll just dig a hole. You will never stop people from getting across to the United States.
Q: People here and people who study the business have told us that it is usually small mom-and-pop operations, not big cartels. Is that true?
A: That’s partially true because you only have so many people you can trust. That’s why sometimes a lot of people who smuggle try to keep it in the family. But sometimes you can’t – you don’t have enough family to trust. So you always got to trust more people. Sometimes there are big organizations, but they eventually get caught because you can’t trust people with money.
Q: How many people are involved in the human smuggling business on Mexico’s side of the border? Is it a big business?
A: It's not a franchise – it's not like Wal-Mart. It's not a monopoly. It's a lot of families.
Q: A lot of different families?
A: Yes, different families. But the smart ones will talk to the organized crime [people] in Tijuana and say, “OK, we’re polleros. How much are you gonna charge us a month to leave us alone and for the cops to leave us alone?” The price varies on how big the organization is. There are people who pay up to $25,000 a month.
Q: For protection?
A: For protection, to not be bothered or kidnapped.
Q: Before 9/11 was it easier to smuggle people across the border?
A: Yes, before 9/11 everything was easier. Everything. From smuggling people, to smuggling drugs, to smuggling emeralds and diamonds. It was easier. There were no X-rays, no extra precautions, no Amber Alerts. We didn’t even know what a Red Alert was. After 9/11, everything was tight security. Nobody could work, at least for a couple of months. Nobody tried [to cross the border] because the people who tried failed.
Q: The border was really sealed?
A: The border was really, really sealed. After a couple of months, everybody started working again. In those couple of months, [smugglers] started developing new ways [to move people], making special compartments in the dashboards that are harder to find. It was like a 50 percent chance they might open your trunk, but since 9/11, it's really easy [for border officials] to open your trunk. Since 9/11, it's been really hard for people smugglers and drug smugglers alike.
Q: Are you saying that fewer people get across?
A: No, the same amount of people get across; it takes longer. It takes them several tries. People who want to go to the United States will get to the United States. It's just a question of when. [Border officials] are not going to stop anybody. Very few people quit trying. They will find a way.
Q: You said that you got upset when you heard that people in the United States were saying after 9/11 that Mexican smugglers – drug smugglers, human smugglers –were helping al Qaeda?
A: Yes, in a Southern California newspaper I read an article about how the Mexican smugglers and the Mexican drug traffickers and drug lords were linked to terrorists and al Qaeda. That really, really made me angry. Tell me why would us Mexicans help the guys who screwed us the most? Because of them, people can’t get across. It's harder. Most people get caught. Why would we help those people?
Q: The U.S. government has built a lot of walls, they’re trying to make the fence longer and they’re adding more border patrol agents. What does that do to the pollero business?
A: Nothing. The U.S. government is spending a lot of money that is going to waste. They will never stop people from going across to the United States. [In terms of the] points of entry, not a lot of people go through the hills, and when they do, they go through the river. What kind of wall are you going to put over the river? I don’t know about any wall over the river. You can’t stop that. Or in Playas, a lot of people, maybe 100 every day, cross through the sea. What wall are you going to build there?
Q: A researcher at the University of California in San Diego did a study showing that about 50 percent of would-be immigrants get caught. But then they keep trying, and eventually about 97 percent of them get through. Do you think that’s true?
A: Ninety-seven percent sounds a lot, but maybe 90 percent. That sounds about right.
Q: When will the human smuggling business stop? Do you think there is any way to control it?
A: The smuggling people business, the pollero business, will stop only when there are no borders, like [in] the European Union. And then it’s just going to move a little farther south, and it’s going to be people trying to get from the border into Mexico. That’s going to be the new U.S. once that happens. But smuggling will never stop unless you can stop poverty or hunger. It will never stop because people will always want to help their families.