Mexican Migrant-Smuggling: A Cross

Mexican Migrant-Smuggling:
A Cross-Border Cottage Industry
David Spener
Trinity University
As the United States has intensified surveillance of its southern border with Mexico,
unauthorized migrants have become increasingly dependent on hired smugglers
when they cross the border and reach their destinations in the US interior. According to the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, tighter border controls
have systematically transformed migrant smuggling into a sophisticated and highly
profitable industry dominated by large-scale criminal syndicates that prey on migrants desperate to enter the US without official authorization. In this article I argue
that despite the rise of larger-scale smuggling organizations, smuggling of migrants
across the US-Mexico border is still undertaken by small-scale and/or part-time
smugglers who are embedded in the Mexican migrant community itself. Moreover, I
suggest that the logic that predicts the elimination of small-scale smugglers from the
market is flawed because it is based on an unrealistic assessment of the requirements
for mounting a successful smuggling enterprise. I base this claim on preliminary
findings from an ongoing ethnographic study of migrant smuggling on the South
Texas-Northeast Mexico border that I began in summer 1998.
Depuis que les États-Unis ont intensifié la surveillance de leur frontière avec le Mexique, les migrants non autorisés ont de plus en plus recours aux passeurs de clandestins engagés pour traverser la frontière et arriver à leur destination américaine. Selon
le United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (service d’immigration
et de naturalisation des Etats-Unis), les renforcements du contrôle frontalier ont
systématiquement transformé la migration clandestine en une industrie perfectionnée et très rentable dominée par des associations de malfaiteurs qui exploitent les
migrants voulant à tout prix rentrer aux Etats-Unis sans autorisation officielle.
Dans cet article, nous faisons valoir le point de vue selon lequel une grande part de
la migration clandestine entre les Etats-Unis et le Mexique est encore contrôlée par
des passeurs dont le travail est d’envergure réduite ou à temps partiel et qui sont
intégrés dans la communauté migrante mexicaine et ce, en dépit de la montée des
réseaux de passeurs qui oeuvrent à grande échelle. De plus, nous proposons que les
prédictions voulant que les passeurs qui travaillent à petite échelle seront éliminés
du marché ne sont pas fondées puisqu’elles reposent sur une évaluation peu réaliste
de ce qui est nécessaire pour réussir le trafic d’immigrants. Des résultats préliminaires découlant d’une recherche ethnographique en cours entreprise à l’été 1998
et portant sur le passage de clandestins le long de la frontière entre le sud du Texas
et le nord-est du Mexique viennent appuyer cet argument.
Key words/Mots-clefs: Mexico/ Mexique; United States/ Etats-Unis; Texas; International Migration/ Migration internationale; Human Smugglers/ Passeurs de clandestins; Immigration Policy/
Politique en matière d’immigration.
© 2004 by PCERII. All rights reserved./ Tous droits réservés.
ISSN: 1488-3473
JIMI/RIMI Volume 5 Number/numéro 3 (Summer/été 2004): 295-320
At the outset of the 21st century about 10% of Mexico’s approximately
100,000,000 citizens lived outside the nation’s territory, most in the United
States. These migrants, together with their friends and kin remaining in
Mexico and their US-born children and grandchildren, constitute the demographic raw material for one of the largest “transnational communities”
(Basch, Glick, Schiller, & Szanton Blanc, 1994; Portes, 1996) to have emerged
in the course of human history. Although large-scale Mexican migration to
the US dates back over a century to a time when the border between the
two countries was little more than a line on the map, most of the growth
of the Mexican transnational population has occurred since 1970, a period
that has witnessed progressively greater restrictions placed by the US on
migration across its southern border. Thus the rapidly growing Mexican
transnational community has had to contend with a steadily “thickening”
border separating its members from one another. As Massey (1999) notes,
any satisfactory theory of international migration must include treatment of
“the social and economic structures that arise to connect areas of out- and
in-migration”(p. 50). In this article I analyse the migrant-smuggling enterprise as one such structure and examine how its existence has permitted
the Mexican transnational community to expand and remain socially integrated despite efforts by the US government to restrict the border-crossing
movements of its members.
Fortifying the US Border with Mexico at the End of the 20th
Since 1993 the US government has undertaken an unprecedented attempt
to deter illegal entry across its southern border with Mexico. The principal
strategy in this attempt has consisted of amassing agents, surveillance
equipment, and physical barriers along urbanized stretches of the border.
This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for unauthorized, mainly Mexican,
migrants to cross the border and blend into the largely Mexican-origin
populations of US cities along the international boundary itself. This strategy
has been embodied in a series of “operations” launched consecutively by
the Border Patrol since 1993 in the main US population centres along the
border. It is now well documented in the literature that these operations
have had their intended effect of drastically reducing the number of unauthorized crossings attempted by migrants in urban sectors of the border
(Andreas, 2000; Bean et al., 1994; Nevins 2001; Spener 2000). Rather than
abandoning the attempt to enter the US without authorization, however,
Journal of International Migration and Integration
migrants have begun crossing in less guarded stretches of the border. These
are in more remote, rural areas where after crossing the international line
migrants must frequently walk long distances through desert, brush, and/or
mountains to evade immigration checkpoints on the main highways leading away from the border. In some areas, these journeys can take several
days or even a week and can be deadly in times of extreme temperature
or flooding of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. Since 1993 the number of deaths
of migrants attributable to drowning, hypothermia, dehydration, or heat
stroke has risen markedly to several hundred per year (Eschbach, Hagan,
Rodríguez, Hernández, & Bailey, 1998; Eschbach, Hagan, & Rodríguez,
2001). Indeed Massey, Durand, and Malone (2002) have calculated that
the death rate per 100,000 unauthorized crossings by Mexicans tripled
from 1993 to 1998.
Nonetheless, the increased rigour of the unauthorized migrants’
journey and the increased risk of death accompanying it do not appear to
have substantially reduced the overall number of attempts migrants make
to enter the US (Massey et al., 2002). Thus although the US government’s
operations have reduced the number of unauthorized crossings made by
migrants in urban areas—which are highly visible and give the US public
the impression of a border “out of control"—they have not significantly
deterred unauthorized migrants from attempting to enter the US by other
less visible routes. Not only has the US border build-up not deterred unauthorized migrants from attempting to cross the border, but it does not
appear to have been effective in reducing the number of migrants who
successfully enter and remain in the US either. In this regard it is important to remember that US attempts to restrict unauthorized entry across
its southern border mainly involve restricting the movement of Mexican
nationals, who accounted for 96% of arrests made by the Border Patrol in
fiscal year 2002 (United States Immigration and Naturalization Service,
2002a). The US Census figures show that the number of Mexican-born
persons (a significant undercount of the true size of the Mexican population in the US) rose from 4.3 million in 1990 to 7.8 million in 2000 (United
States Bureau of the Census, 2001), a net increase of 3.6 million, most of
whom seem to have entered the country without permission.1 Clearly not
only were migrants continuing to attempt to cross the increasingly fortified
border regardless of the additional effort required and dangers encountered,
they were successfully crossing it in large enough numbers to promote a
significant growth of the unauthorized Mexican population settled in the
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According to many Mexican migrants’ accounts, crossing the USMexico border before 1993 was easier than it is today. Far fewer Border
Patrol agents with far fewer resources were stationed in the major crossing
areas, and crossing the border was a cat-and-mouse game that the mouse
nearly always won after a few rounds. In addition, few migrants who were
apprehended were subjected to criminal penalties for illegally reentering
because the Border Patrol had no systematic way of identifying recidivists
for prosecution. Today attempting to pass through the old easy transit areas
in or near cities is much more likely to result in apprehension, and all migrants who are apprehended are photographed and their fingerprints are
entered digitally into a sophisticated database called IDENT that enables
Border Patrol agents to identify recidivists quickly. These new conditions
and the new, more arduous routes that migrants must now take through
increasingly remote terrain raise the question of how such large numbers
of Mexican migrants have continued to evade the ever tighter controls imposed at the border. Apparently they do so by employing smugglers known
variously as coyotes, pateros, or polleros. According to data from the Mexican
Migration Project and surveys conducted by the Colegio de Michoacán,
since the 1980s, about three quarters of Mexican men have employed paid
guides to make their first unauthorized crossing of the border (Massey et
al., 2002; López Castro, 1997). Accounts in the press and research reports
from the field suggest that today guides are employed for most crossings
attempted. Thus Escobar Latapí, López Castro, and Donato (1997) in Binational Study: Migration Between Mexico and the United States concluded
that “the increased use of [smugglers] helps to explain why most migrants
attempting unauthorized entry succeed … despite significantly more U.S.
Border Patrol agents and technology on the border” (p. 167). Although no
statistical data exist that would indicate what proportion of unauthorized
Mexican migrants entering the US were mistreated by their smugglers,
the above suggests that smuggling on the border is a mass phenomenon
and that most smuggled migrants arrive at their US destinations without
suffering death or serious injury.
Alien Smugglers: Public Enemy Number 1 for the INS
Not surprisingly, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) regards
migrant smugglers as public enemy number 1 in its ongoing efforts to stem
unauthorized migration (Novarro, 1998). Official INS estimates show a
marked rise in the number of apprehended aliens being smuggled into the
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US from about 70,000 in fiscal year 1992 to 237,000 by fiscal year 2000 (US
Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2001). Apprehension of suspected
smugglers by the Border Patrol averaged 12,500 annually from 1996 to 2002
(US Immigration and Naturalization Service, 2002b). The INS Investigations
Division, which operates in the US interior, arrested an average of 3,700
suspected smugglers annually during the same period (US Immigration
and Naturalization Service 2002c). Increasingly the “battle for the border”
discussed by Rodríguez (1996) is portrayed both in the press and by US
officials not as a battle between Mexican migrants themselves and the
Border Patrol, but between the Border Patrol and clandestine battalions of
smugglers, who as they lead migrants on their hazardous crossings subvert
US national sovereignty. At the time of writing (July 2002), nearly one year
after the terrorist bombings of the Pentagon and the World Trade Center,
these smugglers are also seen as a threat to US national security, a point
to which I return in the conclusion.
Several elements recur in how the INS talks about migrant smuggling
on the Mexico-US border. These also appear frequently in varying combinations in mainstream press accounts of the phenomenon. First, tighter
border controls imposed by the US mean that nearly all would-be illegal
immigrants are obliged to contract the services of a smuggler if they wish to
avoid repeated apprehension by the Border Patrol. Second, because it is now
so much more difficult to penetrate Border Patrol defences, the individuals
and small-scale “mom and pop” enterprises that formerly dominated the
business of guiding and transporting migrants have been driven out of
business because they lack sophistication and resources. Third, the plethora
of small-scale smuggling enterprises have been replaced by a much smaller
group of larger-scale, better financed, and more sophisticated mafia-like
organizations that charge much higher fees. These new enterprises are
professional, profit-driven operations and are not embedded in the migrant
communities where members contract them to enter the US. A news report
in the Christian Science Monitor in summer 2000 highlights the second and
third elements of the story.
They’ve come a long way from the mom-and-pop scofflaws who
would guide immigrants across the Rio Grande for a hundred
bucks and the thrill of it. These days, smugglers have infrared
scopes, two-way radios, and computer databases to keep track of
each immigrant, how much they have paid, and where they are
supposed to go. It is this new breed of smuggler−call them “Coyote 2.0”− that has forced the US Immigration and Naturalization
Service to make monumental changes in its border strategy.… The
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irony [according to Mike McMahon, an INS official in Houston],
is that [the agency’s] success in shutting down illegal entry points
in major urban areas, such as south Texas, El Paso, and San Diego,
has forced smugglers to cooperate with one another, and form
sophisticated networks capable of delivering immigrants from
multiple countries to virtually any destination in the US. (“U.S.
Tries Spy Tactics,” p. 1)
A crucial fourth element of the story told by the INS is that smugglers
have become more ruthless and show little regard for the well-being of
the migrants they guide and transport. This is because the new smuggling
enterprises are not embedded in the migrant-sending communities in
Mexico, but rather prey on them for profit. Affective bonds between migrants and their guides have been broken, and the stakes for the smuggling
enterprises both in terms of money and the threat of lengthy incarceration
of its members if caught are much higher. An INS official in Houston put
it this way:
Smugglers used to have many faces—friends, family, church people, in addition to criminals. Today the smuggler is more likely to
be a professional criminal than a family member.… Mexicans are
just another piece of merchandise for the smugglers now. This is
a business driven by greed. (Interview, 2001).2
This greed translates into migrants frequently being misled about the
conditions under which they will travel across the border, abandoned by
guides on their treks through the desert, crowded into poorly ventilated
tractor-trailer compartments, and held hostage in drop houses in destination cities until friends or relatives can pay the smugglers.3
Several of these abuses occurred in a single spectacular case in south
Texas that was made public in spring 2001. In“Operation Night Rider”the
INS gained the convictions of 21 smugglers who transported migrants from
a number of Latin American countries from the Mexican border to San Antonio and Houston for fees ranging from $800 to $3,500. Investigators said
they became involved in the case after an informant told them that one of
the smugglers was forcing male migrants at gunpoint to perform sex acts on
him in a drop house in San Antonio. At a news conference announcing the
smugglers’ guilty pleas, investigators showed reporters colour videotapes
of immigrants crawling out of a smuggler’s pickup bed and limping weakly
into a safe house, having just completed a six-hour journey in the Texas
summer sun piled one on top of the other.“These organizations traffic in
human cargo and human misery,” said Mervyn Mosbacker (King, 2001),
US attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “They transport the aliens
in life-threatening conditions.”
Journal of International Migration and Integration
One tragic case has played an especially important role in drawing
public attention to the abuses inflicted by smugglers on Mexican migrants in
recent years. In May 2001, 14 Mexican migrants perished while attempting
to walk across in the scorching desert near Yuma, Arizona after their paid
guides left them to search for water (Sterngold 2001). This horrific incident
shocked high-level officials of both the US and Mexican governments, who
issued a joint statement promising to redouble efforts to put the criminal
enterprises behind these deaths out of business (Embajada de los Estados
Unidos en México, 2001).4 Mexican President Vicente Fox denounced the
polleros as criminals who had “fleeced” Mexican workers before leading
them down “the road to death” (Sistema Internet de la Presidencia, 2001),
and Arizona Governor Jane Hull called for the death penalty to be imposed
on the smugglers if convicted (Televisa, 2001). Even before this tragedy, the
INS and its Mexican counterpart the Instituto Nacional de Migración had
begun to broadcast public service announcements on Mexican television
warning potential migrants of the dangers of crossing the border with
coyotes who were likely to abandon them, probably to their deaths.
Interestingly, the story about smugglers told by non-governmental
human rights organizations on both sides of the border echoes that told by
US authorities whose migration and border policies they strongly oppose.
When I asked a leader of the Centro de Apoyo a Migrantes in Reynosa,
Tamaulipas in summer 1998 about the various types of coyotes operating
there, instead of telling about their modus operandi as I expected, she
quickly replied, “the rip-off artists, the greedy ones, the rapists, and the
murderers.” In her opinion, “scrupulous people no longer work as coyotes.” The main difference between the account of smugglers offered by
the INS and the human rights groups is that the latter blame the INS for
further victimizing migrants by pushing them into the hands of smugglers
to be abused. The script of a documentary video about present-day border
crossing conditions produced by the Centro de Estudios Fronterizos y de
Promoción de Derechos Humanos AC (CEFPRODHAC, 2000) provides
an excellent illustration. It describes how migrants arriving at the newly
fortified border can expect the smugglers’ abuses to include exorbitant fees,
inhuman conditions, lack of food, being held hostage until their families pay
their smuggling fee, being transported in vehicles without ventilation, and
being marched on long treks through scorching desert or frigid mountains
only to be abandoned by smugglers who disappear with their money.
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Ethnographic Findings From the Tex-Mex Border
The absence of a public record that describes in detail the experiences of
migrants and their smugglers from their respective points of view means
that US law enforcement authorities’ accounts of the smuggling process
are seldom contested. Such a public record can be established only through
in-depth, ethnographic research of a type that few authors have undertaken
in recent years. Even an analyst like Andreas (2000, 2001), who has written
extensively about smuggling and who is strongly critical of US border policies, builds his critique in large measure by analysing data drawn from the
same government institutions and mainstream media that have generated
the dominant discourse. On the other hand, a number of anthropologists
and sociologists have written ethnographic reports about Mexicans’ recent
migratory experiences, but have not focused their attention on the smuggling process at the border. The principal exception to this lack of explicit
focus on smuggling by sociologists and anthropologists is López Castro’s
(1997) brief report published in the Binational Study on Migration Between
Mexico and the United States that reports on conditions prevailing through
the early to mid-1990s.
In the remainder of this article, I present some preliminary findings from
ongoing ethnographic research on migrant smuggling in the South TexasNortheast Mexico border region that I have conducted intermittently since
summer 1998. Because space limitations preclude an exhaustive presentation of the evidence I have collected to date, I limit myself to examples that
offer some counterpoint to the main elements of the narrative of the INS
about smuggling and smugglers. My field informants have been a variety
of actors who are familiar with the process of unauthorized border crossing.
These include Mexican migrants, human rights activists, US Border Patrol
agents and other US Immigration and Naturalization Service personnel, US
federal prosecutors and public defenders, US federal court officials, private
immigration attorneys, Mexican consular officials, agents from Mexico’s
Grupo Beta (the special force charged with protecting migrants on the
Mexican side of the border), and smugglers themselves.5
In this examination and interpretation of narratives about coyotes, I limit
myself only to the Mexican experience of migration across the stretch of the
US-Mexico border constituted by the Río Bravo del Norte/Río Grande, and
especially to crossings between Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas,
Nuevo León, and Coahuila. This limitation is crucial to the reader’s understanding of my arguments for two reasons. First, undocumented Mexican
migration across the northern border with the US historically has been
Journal of International Migration and Integration
socially embedded in a dense web of networks that runs through the towns
and cities of the border, and this is not typically the case in the migration of
other nationals across this border. The socially embedded nature of much
of Mexican migration strongly affects the experiences of migrants in making their border crossings (Singer & Massey, 1998; Spener, 2001) and may
include their relationships with their coyotes. Second, the Texas-Mexico
border, especially the south Texas-northeast Mexico part, is geographically, culturally, and socially different from other stretches of the border,
especially the Arizona-Sonora and Alta-Baja California sections (Spener,
2000). The functional operation of the border especially in cultural terms,
as well as the relationships between migrants and coyotes and the nature
of the border-crossing experience, thus may also be different in this part
of the border (Spener, 2000, 2001).
The Survival of Small-Scale Smugglers
It is four years since I began field research in the Texas-northeast Mexico
border region and four years since the launching of Operation Rio Grande.
At the time of writing (June 2002) the claim that five of all the small-scale
smugglers have been driven out of business by large-scale organized crime
does not seem sustainable, at least as it applies to this stretch of the border.
Most of the knowledgeable informants I have interviewed concur that significant numbers of migrants continue to cross the border illegally with the
assistance of friends, relatives, individual coyotes, or small-scale smuggling
organizations that are frequently an outgrowth of the social networks of
migrants from particular sending communities in Mexico. This is not to say
that larger-scale criminal syndicates are not involved in human trafficking
in the region—they certainly appear to be—but rather that they exist side
by side with individuals and organizations that often escape detection by
the authorities. Moreover, it appears that criminal syndicates have not yet
monopolized the many places and ways to cross the border in the Lower
Rio Grande/Rio Bravo valley, nor to have succeeded in driving smaller
operations out of business through intimidation and violence. As a federal
public defender in Houston who has been assigned to represent many
smuggling defendants put it,“There are plenty of [unauthorized] workers
to go around!”In other words, so many Mexican migrants still seek to enter
Texas illegally that there is no systemic imperative for smuggling organizations to fight for control of routes or groups of migrants except through
“normal” competition at the levels of price and quality of service.
Revue de l’intégration et de la migration internationale
In addition, not all the many smugglers operating in the region are
necessarily professionals, but rather are people who typically transport
other extended family members and/or residents of their communities in
Mexico. A Mexican consular official in Texas told me that many of the migrants arriving in his jurisdiction in early 2001 continued to be transported
there by relatives or fellow townspeople. He questioned whether these
individuals should even be thought of as coyotes, although they do violate
the laws of both the US and Mexico. Several other informants along the
Texas-Tamaulipas border commented in spring 2001 that smuggling in the
region was in some measure an outgrowth of a tradition of aid offered to
migrants who were passing through. A Grupo Beta agent in Matamoros,
for example, acknowledged that many Tamaulipas border residents were
sufficiently familiar with the terrain and the activities of the Border Patrol
to help migrants cross into Texas, whether as a favor or for money.
Undoubtedly anyone in the region who crosses [the border] daily
and finds someone trying to cross can tell him the way, is going
to tell him, sometimes for free and disinterestedly, but many other
times in exchange for a favor in return, right? This could be money
or in-kind, right?… Yes, people around here have this custom. We
shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that a good part of the Matamoros
population is not from here originally. They are people who one
way or another emigrated to the border, some with the intention
of crossing but who ended up here in Matamoros. So this has a big
influence on how people from around here think. (Interview,
This Tamaulipas-side account is mirrored on the Texas side in the comments
of a staff member of a human rights NGO in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.
This NGO arose as an outgrowth of the Central American sanctuary movement in the 1980s, in which religious activists in contravention of US laws
against alien smuggling provided shelter, assistance, and transportation
to Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans who sought
refuge from the violent political conflicts raging in their countries. Today,
it lobbies principally on behalf of Mexican migrants, but does not provide
sanctuary as it did for Central Americans. When I asked my informant why
not, he answered that it would only duplicate what many members of the
local community were already doing covertly:
For decades you’ve had poor mexicano families over here that
were helping folks out whether from Mexico or Central America.
I know a number of folks who live along the train lines. You talk
about care and aid? People regularly come to their doors asking
for food and water and they set them up. And even connections
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that they may have to someone who can move them on up the
line. I don’t know about how much people charge! Although I
guess I understand how the Sanctuary Movement sort of captured
everyone’s imagination as the new Underground Railroad, this type
of resistance has been going on a long time! Ultimately I think
you’re really looking at the folks who live in the colonias, who live
in the rural areas. They’re the ones who have taken on, who’ve
really done the most. And continue to do the most because that’s
just part of their reality. (Interview, 2001)
As was the case with the Central American sanctuary movement itself
(Bibler Coutin, 1995), US law enforcement authorities sometimes construe
this type of solidarity with migrants when they become aware of it—an
example of what Scott (1985) has referred to as“weapons of the weak”—as
criminal, even as organized crime. A number of migrants told me about
being harboured and transported by strangers of whom they requested
aid as they trekked across the South Texas ranch country with no coyote to
guide them. In some cases this aid first takes the form of charity—giving
water, food, or directions—but then turns into a business transaction when
more substantial aid is given: temporary housing followed by transportation out of the borderlands.
A federal public defender in Brownsville echoed comments made by
lawyers whom I interviewed in Brownsville, Laredo, Houston, and San
Antonio−and even of some of the law enforcement authorities−when he
said that nearly all the smugglers he has defended over the years were
working-class Mexicans and members of small-scale organizations of
limited scope and income:
The biggest operations I’ve seen are still “mom and pop.” We’re
not talking“Guido the killer pimp”here, we’re talking about“Mrs.
Cavazos.” My clients are mostly low-down on the food chain.
They’re anyone who’s desperate for a little money.… When one
of my clients does get “flipped” and fingers somebody else up the
line, it usually turns out to be an aunt or an uncle.… Almost everyone I see is just trying to make some money for their family.
They aren’t getting rich.… I’ve defended working people from here
[Brownsville and nearby towns] who’ve devised a trunk that’d hold
two or three people. They’ll drive these cars across the bridge carrying people and then on through the checkpoints. They know
when it’s easiest to get through the checkpoints. Some of them
have been doing this for years. As long as you don’t get too greedy
or try too often, you don’t get caught. The ones who get caught
are just unlucky! Then there’s middle class couples from here who
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bring people across in their cars, get them ID, and take them to the
Harlingen airport to get on a plane!… I don’t go home and worry
that I’ve gotten someone acquitted of transporting that’s really
guilty. Almost all the people I’ve represented have not violated
any of society’s general norms. (Interview, 2001)
Comments from two US attorneys whom I interviewed in Texas in 2001
concurred with this public defender's assessment of the size and structure
of the smuggling enterprises they prosecuted. They saw most smuggling
organizations operating in south Texas as Mexican immigrant/ Mexican
American “cottage industries” or “mom and pop” operations involving “a
whole series of independent contractors” including migrants, safe-house
operators, guides, and drivers. One of the attorneys underlined this point
by saying,“smuggling organization is probably too grand a term.”This, she
said, made it difficult for the INS and federal prosecutors to attack smuggling rings in their entirety, as typically agents were able to make arrests
only“at one point along the chain.”When asked how effective prosecution
was in curtailing smuggling activities in Houston, she replied simply,“We
get what we can.” Due to their limited resources, US attorneys sometimes
choose not to prosecute cases involving the transportation of fewer than five
migrants and/or those that involve no aggravating circumstances, a practice
that can be taken as an indicator that small-scale smuggling enterprises
continue to operate in the region.
Part of the problem faced by US authorities in curtailing smuggling
is that despite the crackdown on unauthorized crossings along the South
Texas-Northeast Mexico border since the mid-1990s, there are still relatively
few barriers to engaging in the smuggling business. A handful of people
with contacts at the border or in migrant-sending communities in Mexico,
a knowledge of river crossing points and paths through the ranches on
the Texas side, and a vehicle to transport migrants to San Antonio, Dallas,
Austin, or Houston are still sufficient. As another federal public defender
in Houston put it, “All you need to be a coyote is a van!” Moreover, these
small operations can be capable of smuggling surprisingly large numbers of
migrants into the US. The case of a ring based in Austin, Texas is exemplary
in this regard. This consisted of three Mexican men employed as construction workers during the week, plus two collaborators in Mexico: one at the
border and one who travelled as a recruiter among migrant-sending communities in his native state of Zacatecas (another man in Austin was also
from Zacatecas). Nearly every Friday two of the men in Austin would drive
two vans to the border to pick up a total of 20-25 migrants and transport
them back to Austin. A member of the ring whom I interviewed estimated
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that he made about 30 trips in 1999-2000, charging each migrant $1,300 ,
which indicates that the group transported upwards of 600 migrants and
generated annual gross revenues in excess of $780,000.
Another story that emerged from my interviews with a variety of
informants at the border itself as well as in Houston, San Antonio, and
Monterrey is one that regards the coyote as“el que mejor conoce el camino”
(the one who best knows the way). This person is an experienced migrant
who is sought out by friends and relatives to guide them on their border
crossing and who eventually begins to charge for his services as people
farther from his inner circle begin to approach him for assistance.6 In his
typology of coyotes used by migrants from the Bajío region in Central Mexico,
López Castro (1997) refers to these as “local-interior”(pp. 966-970) coyotes
who are preferred by migrants from their own communities as being more
trustworthy and affordable. A related category in this typology is the“local
and border” coyote, that is, a smuggler originally from a migrant-sending
community who now lives along the border. In northeastern Mexico these
two categories can blur because the close geographic proximity to the border
of migrant-sending communities in the states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo
León means that many of the local coyotes may collaborate with contacts
at the border itself.
López Castro (1997) contrasts these two types of coyotes with largerscale, more sophisticated “border business coyotes” who actively recruit
migrants from all over Mexico and move them across the border in much
greater numbers. He suggests that by the mid-1990s these business coyotes were far better able to penetrate tightened border controls than their
smaller competitors linked to specific migrant-sending communities. This is
especially so following the introduction by the INS of the IDENT database
that allows agents to identify migrants who are apprehended repeatedly in
the same area of the border, which would call attention to them as probable
coyotes. In my field research I have found several cases where local-interior
coyotes have begun to collaborate actively with border coyotes in response to
tightened border controls. These are not from the migrant-sending region,
but rather are people that the local coyotes have met either at the border
in their years of crossing or while working in the US. In one case the collaboration came about when a local coyote and a border coyote served their
smuggling sentences together in a federal prison in Texas.
The growing number of arrests of smugglers transporting scores of
migrants in the cargo compartments of tractor-trailers could be taken as a
key indicator of the rise to dominance of large-scale professional smugglers
along the Texas-Mexico border. It is not necessarily the case, however, that
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the use of such conveyances is limited to large-scale syndicates located at
the border itself. Migrants from the state of Guanajuato whom I have interviewed explained how smugglers based in their home towns can deliver
loads of migrants to cities in Texas in tractor-trailers by collaborating with
Mexican or Mexican-American truck drivers whose employers trust them
to park their rigs at home when they are not working. I subsequently confirmed the reality of this possibility when I interviewed a family of migrants
and coyotes in a colonia in a semi-rural area in South Texas and saw half a
dozen full cab and tractor-trailer rigs parked in front of mobile homes and
other self-constructed dwellings surrounding their home. Thus smuggling
rings consisting of a small number of collaborators with limited capital
resources may find it possible to move large numbers of migrants through
the Texas border region in tractor-trailer compartments. This practice also
appears to be nothing new (see Lewis’, 1979, p. 50, description of it on this
same stretch of the Texas border).
Abandonment and Hostage-Taking
One of the most common accusations against coyotes discussed above is
that they lead migrants on arduous treks through dangerous terrain in
extreme temperatures, only to abandon those who are unable to keep up
with the group or the entire group if there is apparent danger of apprehension by the Border Patrol. Interviews with both migrants and coyotes
have confirmed these types of incidents. On the other hand, abandonment
may not occur as frequently as the Border Patrol reports, because sometimes “abandoned” groups include their coyotes, who pretend to be fellow
migrants. When agents ask who their guide is, migrants reply either that
they had no guide or that he ran away before the Border Patrol arrived. In
fact both migrants and coyotes interviewed report that members of groups
sometimes rehearse among themselves what they will tell the Border Patrol
if they are apprehended, which enables them to attempt their crossing again
with the same guide after being returned to Mexico. In addition, migrantsmuggling to a significant extent remains a cash-on-delivery business in
that the coyotes do not receive half or more of their fee until migrants are
safely delivered to Dallas, Houston, Austin, or San Antonio. Moreover,
guides are often paid per head—the going rate in 2001 seemed to be about
$100 per migrant—so that it is in their own pecuniary interest not to lose
migrants along the way.
Journal of International Migration and Integration
When asked about the abandonment issue, Pepe, a 25-year-old native of Tamaulipas who worked in a Texas border town as a mechanic and
sometime coyote, echoed the comments of several other coyotes when he said
that the INS blames coyotes for cases of abandonment to deflect criticism
against themselves for making the crossing more dangerous on the one
hand, and because it wishes to discourage migrants (“lo dicen para quitarse
la culpa de ellos mismos y porque no quieren que la gente siga pasando”). He
explained further that as a guide he would not abandon migrants who
could not keep up with the group unless it was absolutely necessary and
that even then he would point them to a nearby highway where they could
turn themselves in to the migra. This, he said, was a reasonable thing to do
because unlike in the Arizona desert, in the South Texas farm and ranchlands migrants were usually not far from the nearest highway and that
highways in the region were heavily travelled by Border Patrol and state
police vehicles. In addition, he said, when migrants are abandoned by their
guides, it is sometimes because they fail to follow a guide’s directions or
get separated from their guides when a group is being pursued by Border
Patrol agents and everyone scatters into the brush to avoid apprehension.7
Thus he claimed that coyotes are sometimes blamed for mishaps that are
not exclusively their fault.
Pepe also remarked that it is not only in his economic interest to treat
migrants well, but also in the interests of maintaining his own freedom.
In his opinion, the greatest danger facing a coyote working in this region is
not violent assault by bandits or the natural hazards posed by the crossing
(snakebite, drowning, dehydration, etc.), but rather facing imprisonment
as a result of being identified as the coyote by migrants angered by his
mistreatment. Although a coyote could get away with pushing migrants
around or abusing women in a safe house, migrants had the upper hand
in the case of apprehension and could and would take revenge for bad
treatment by turning coyotes in to the Border Patrol. He himself had been
apprehended by the Border Patrol while leading migrants through the brush
on several occasions, but had never been identified as the coyote. As he put
it, a successful coyote needed to learn that “trick is to know how to treat
people” (“el chiste es saber tratar a la gente”). His concern about prosecution and imprisonment is warranted because Border Patrol agents in the
sector where he worked had turned 927 alleged smugglers over to the US
Attorney’s office for prosecution in the six months from October 30, 2000
to April 30, 2001, compared with only 390 in the same period the previous
year (interview with Border Patrol public affairs agent in McAllen, Texas,
May 31, 2001). A further point worth noting is that at every stage of the
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smuggling process, migrants significantly outnumber their smugglers, who
frequently are unarmed. This alone would seem to discourage smugglers
from mistreating their clients.8
Another reason for treating migrants well and getting them safely
to their destinations is to ensure a future supply of customers. Because
migrants must choose where along the border to attempt their crossing,
which coyotes to use, and because a coyote’s reputation can travel quickly
by word of mouth through migrants’ social networks, it is worthwhile for
coyotes to protect their reputations as relatively safe, honest, and reliable.
Alvin Santleben, head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s
Anti-Smuggling Unit in Eagle Pass, Texas explained it this way.
[The coyote] wants to take care of his people. He wants to be recommended for another load. If a coyote loses his load, he’s not very well
thought of. If he has a death occur in his operation, the organization is exposed. And if it disrupts the organization, people don’t
make money. And it’s all about the dollar bill! (Burnett, 2001)
Instead of coyotes so blinded by greed that they show no concern for the
health and well-being of migrants, this INS agent argues that to a certain
extent at least their greed pushes them to make sure that disasters do not
befall the migrants they transport. This also tends to support the argument
made above that no single organization or small set of organizations monopolizes illegal crossing in this stretch of the border, because through his
statement the agent implicitly recognizes that migrants can avoid crossing
with smugglers with a poor track record.
Another common accusation made against traffickers is that they hold
migrants hostage in safe houses in destination cities such as Houston until
their friends or relatives can pay the balance of the fee for their trip. By all
accounts the situation can be tense when migrants have difficulties paying their coyotes, and prosecutors and INS investigators say that one of the
most common ways they apprehend smugglers is when worried friends and
relatives call the police. Nevertheless, two federal prosecutors I interviewed
acknowledged that the smugglers operating safe houses in their city are
not always armed and do not necessarily detain migrants physically. Rather,
they note that migrants are “strangers in a strange place” who are in a
“relationship of dependency”with their smugglers. Some public attorneys
who defend coyotes make this point in stronger terms. One Houston lawyer
said she strongly objected to “the government’s contention that people
are held hostage until they pay” as usually no overt coercion is involved.
Rather, she said, some coyotes attempt to instill fear in the migrants, telling them that the area where they are staying is full of thieves or that the
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police or the migra will arrest them if they leave the house. According to
migrants, defence attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, and smugglers themselves, a common threat made to migrants is that they will be taken back
to Mexico if they cannot pay what they owe. Moreover, most migrants have
made arrangements with relatives in advance to make sure that funds will
be available to pay their fee upon arrival and understand they will not be
able to leave the safe house until such payment is made. For this reason
another Houston defense attorney averred that migrants in such situations
were “consensual hostages,” if they should be considered hostages at all.
She noted that although firearms had been confiscated in a few cases she
had handled, they typically had not been brandished. A Brownsville public
defender maintained that prosecutors sometimes brought charges of extortion and kidnapping against coyotes in order to pressure defendants into
pleading guilty to lesser charges.
Relations Between Smugglers and Migrants
If the chiste (trick) for the coyote is to know how to treat people right, then
the chiste for the migrant is to know how to pick his or her coyote. Law
enforcement authorities often argue that that the professionalization of the
business and increased threat of detection by authorities has driven a wedge
between migrants and their smugglers, making it increasingly hazardous
for migrants to trust their smugglers who feel little moral obligation toward
them. To the extent that smaller, local smuggling enterprises have been put
out of business—and not all seem to have been—this might be a logical
conclusion. Migrants I have interviewed argue that local coyotes based in
the Mexican interior are more reliable and trustworthy than those located
at the border, who have a reputation for dishonesty and disregard for the
well-being of their customers.
On the other hand, migrants who decide or who have no alternative
but to cross with the assistance of border business coyotes use a number
of strategies for reducing the risk of malfeasance by their smugglers. Foremost among these is to cross with a coyote who has safely and successfully
transported other members of a migrant’s family or community, that is, an
organization known to the community. Not only does this increase migrants’
trust of a coyote, but it also gives them the possibility of going to Mexican
law enforcement authorities to demand action against specific, identifiable
smugglers who abuse their clients although they have no guarantee that
meaningful action will be taken.9
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Migrants may employ several other practices to attempt to keep the
border coyotes more honest. First, they can strive to avoid smugglers who
demand a sizeable down payment before making the crossing because
they believe smugglers who have been given half of a $1,000 or $1,500 fee
up front are more likely to abandon them in the brush once in Texas. Second, local coyotes from the community sometimes establish relationships
with “reliable” border coyotes and bring migrants to them in exchange for
a finder’s fee. This can give the border coyotes an added incentive to treat
those clients well to ensure a continual supply of customers. It also means
that the community has someone at home to pressure if problems arise
with the migrants’ journey. Third, arrangements with smugglers today are
frequently initiated by family members already in the US, many of whom
are now legal residents or citizens as a consequence of the legalization
program of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (Massey et al.,
2002). Because these migrants hold the cash to be paid to the smugglers and
often know some of the smuggling enterprise’s members on the US side,
they may be in a better position to negotiate good terms for the trip—and
threaten to expose the smugglers if need be. Furthermore, smugglers have
some incentive to please clients already in the US because these may arrange for other family members to be brought across in the future. Indeed,
some migrants I interviewed commented that border-crossing conditions
have actually improved over time because smugglers now have enough
cash in their operations to rent vehicles and drop houses so that migrants
must no longer walk as far or spend as much time awaiting the next stage
of their journey in inclement conditions. Thus not only may smugglers be
motivated to please their customers, they may also have the resources to
do so.
Migrant smuggling is a classic example of informal economic activity,
that is, activity to generate income that takes place beyond the ability of state
institutions to regulate it (Castells & Portes, 1989). This may take the form
of production or exchange of goods and services that are otherwise legal
(e.g., clothing that is produced by domestic home workers) or may involve
goods and services such as migrant smuggling that are themselves inherently illicit. Although informal economic activity takes place outside the
legal institutional framework created by governments to regulate economic
transactions, it does not necessarily follow that such activity is unregulated
by other important social relationships and cultural norms, even when the
product or service is inherently illegal. It thus remains embedded in other
social frameworks for behaviour outside the state (Granovetter 1985) that
create sufficient trust for actors to engage willingly in exchanges with one
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another. Indeed Portes (1994) reminds us that informal economic activity that is also inherently criminal requires transactions to be even more
thoroughly embedded in social networks. These show high levels of trust
among members, who can be relatively sure that partners in an exchange
will both fulfill their economic obligations to one another and not report the
other to law enforcement authorities. This may explain why many migrant
smuggling enterprises are composed of members of the same family or
local community as violations of trust could lead to the dismantling of the
smuggling enterprise and the lengthy incarceration of its members.
Less obvious are the coyotes’ motivations to develop trust relations with
their clients. As discussed above, migrants have developed a set of strategies
to try to keep coyotes honest, but it may also be in the interests of the coyotes
themselves to work primarily with groups of migrants whose members
they know through previous experience and whose trust they have earned.
Several coyotes I interviewed found that working with migrants from their
own communities made them less likely to be fingered by migrants in the
face of hostile interrogation by agents if they are apprehended (see López
Castro, 1997, about local-interior coyotes in the Bajío). In addition, they note
that migrants who come recommended are more likely to know what to
expect and how to behave on a trip than migrants who come as strangers
to their organization. This may make recommended migrants better at
following instructions and less likely to panic during difficult moments.
Furthermore, just as smugglers may have reason to please clients who live
legally in the US, so may such clients have reason to please the smugglers
so that they can rely on them to transport other friends and family across
the border in the future. In this sense, the repeat customer who already
has a relationship with the smuggler—that is, the socially embedded customer—is motivated to instruct his friends and relatives how to act on the
trip to avoid problems.
The above observations are consistent with Singer and Massey’s (1998)
model of border crossing as a social process involving Mexican migrant
communities’ accumulation of human capital and social capital over time.
In this model the knowledge of how to negotiate the border crossing that
individual migrants accumulate through their experience of making repeated crossings (human capital) is made available to other migrants by
means of social network connections involving kinship and community of
origin (social capital). Today, however, such human capital may not consist
of the migrant’s own direct, up-to-date knowledge of how best to make
the crossing, but rather of his or her knowledge of what professional organization to contact in his own local community, at the border, or in the
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US interior in order to make the trip safely, with the most reliable service,
and at the best price. These observations are also consistent with Portes’
(1995) framework for understanding the sources and practical application
of immigrants’ social capital to their economic activities. In particular, current US border control policies and the century-long tradition of Mexican
migration to the US have created social structures that might be expected to
push both migrants and their smugglers toward relationships that include
some element of what Portes calls enforceable trust. In other words, both
parties to the exchange between smuggler and migrant may face sanctions
at least to some extent−either from within the migrant stream itself or in
concert with institutionalized legal authorities−should they violate the
trust that permits their informal economic exchange to take place. Finally,
we may hypothesize that both migrants and their smugglers depend on
relationships of trust to minimize the risks associated with an inherently
hazardous border crossing process. Here I add the observation that at
present, whatever the level of risk associated with trusting a coyote at the
border, the risks of calamity associated with making the crossing without
a competent guide appear to be even higher.
At the same time, we must remember the limited ability migrants have
to prevent smuggler wrongdoing, even when their economic exchange
is embedded in the preexisting social networks of migrant communities.
Migration is a social process about movement from one place-bound community to another, along with the development of all the new knowledge,
relationships, practices, and resources that such movement entails. Members of migrant communities who begin to participate in the smuggling
business over time can become less dependent on their relationships in
their communities of origin, and their individual interests may diverge from
those of the migrant-sending community. Expulsion from or sanctions
exerted by a community whose migrants have been wronged by a fellow
townsperson may not be a significant deterrent to that person if he or she
has access to other resources that make him or her less dependent on the
sending community. And, of course, human potential for wrongdoing being
what it is, we must also remember that many crime victims have a personal
relationship with the perpetrator, that is, the crime committed against them
occurs in a socially embedded context. Most migrants I have interviewed
recognize the limits of their ability to force smugglers to behave well despite
the strategies they pursue to improve the chances that they will. In the moment of making a dangerous crossing, trust may not be enforceable in any
immediate sense. Hence the advice given by both migrants and smugglers
whom I have interviewed: “It’s dangerous. Be careful. Trust no one.”
Journal of International Migration and Integration
Notwithstanding the perceptions of immigration officials and reports in the
in the mainstream press, the essential elements of the migrant smuggling
business across the South Texas-Northeast Mexico border seem to have
changed little since Samora (1971) and his assistants were in the field in
the late 1960s conducting research for Los Mojados (1971). Stories about
the transformation of the smuggling business in the region that emphasize
increased size and sophistication of criminal smuggling enterprises that prey
on hapless migrants echo those told by officials and repeated by reporters
in the 1970s (Halsell, 1978; Lewis, 1979). In addition, they are consistent
with negative stereotypes of Mexicans as having strong tendencies toward
corruption and criminality and negative stereotypes of Mexican border
towns as dens of iniquity (Arreola & Curtis, 1993; Martínez, 1994). They
are also consistent with stereotypes of Mexicans as backward and passive
where US officials and reporters marvel on the one hand that smugglers
now use cell phones and computers in their businesses—when such tools
are ubiquitous in everyday life on both sides of the border—and on the
other hand when migrants are portrayed one-dimensionally as victims of
dishonest smugglers who lure them into danger. Moreover, drawing on
such stereotypes tends to add emotional effect to the official story told
about smuggling, and subconscious belief in the stereotypes predisposes
listeners to accept the story unquestioningly.
This does not mean that INS officials deliberately mislead the public
about the nature of smuggling on the border today, only that they tell the
truth as they see it from their own inherently limited vantage point. It probably is the case that the smugglers who are most likely to be apprehended by
the INS or other police forces are those who have been denounced by their
clients, whether for abuses, failure to guide and transport them competently
and safely, or fear instilled by INS interrogators that is not outweighed
by migrants’ sense of obligation toward their smugglers. In other words,
selectivity processes may be operating that mean that smugglers who are
especially abusive, incompetent, greedy, and/or have weak bonds of trust
with their clients are those most likely to be identified and apprehended
by INS officials. It is not surprising, therefore, that immigration officials
take such a dim view of smugglers given that those they catch have often
committed acts more egregious than simply “harbouring and transporting”
unauthorized migrants. And to the extent that law enforcement authorities
are more likely to prosecute the “bad”coyotes than any “good”coyotes who
are still in business, they ironically perform a vital protective service for the
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unauthorized migrant community whose crossings they are dedicated to
The US’s crackdown on unauthorized migration across its border with
Mexico augments the demand for smuggling services by individuals committed to migrating north. Smugglers have had to contend with intensified surveillance of the border and heightened likelihood of apprehension
and prosecution by US authorities. In response, less committed and less
adaptable coyotes have left the business. Those who remain have raised
fees, reflecting the new costs and risks they incur. It makes some sense to
surmise that on average, surviving smuggling enterprises are larger and
more likely to be based at the border itself than before the last crackdown
began in the 1990s, although I have seen no reliable statistical data to prove
this. Growth in the size and sophistication of smuggling networks does
not necessarily imply, however, that they now operate outside the migrant
stream itself as outsiders preying on it. Some of the organizations that move
considerable numbers of people across the border seem to have emerged
from the nexus between Mexican communities in Mexico and their sister
communities in the US and thus do not represent alien interlopers inserting themselves into the migrant stream at the border to charge a toll for
crossing. Ethnographic evidence from this part of the border suggests that
even when Mexican migrants from the interior are obliged to cross with
border business coyotes, it may be possible for both migrants and smugglers to establish trust in their transactions just as the insights of economic
sociology would predict.
Thus we might speculate that over time the new-wave,“disembedded”
professional smuggling organizations will become “reembedded” in a web
of social relations with migrant communities not in spite of, but rather because of, the crackdown on unauthorized border crossings. In this regard it
is also worth noting the growing numbers of migrants heading to the US
from nontraditional sending states in Southern Mexico such as Chiapas,
Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, and Veracruz, as well as from major cities including the Federal District. By all accounts, migrants from new sending areas
who arrive at the border by bus and who are recruited to cross by strangers
unknown to members of their communities are the most vulnerable to
abuse by smugglers or thieves posing as smugglers. However, the history
of migration from other sending areas suggests that the human capital
and social capital useful for making the crossing will accumulate over time.
Eventually, communities may establish working relationships with given
smuggling organizations that have successfully and safely guided their
members across. Some of their own members may even become operatives
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in such organizations. Nonetheless, there may be a steep learning curve
in this process, and tragedies like that in Yuma are a stark reminder that
errors made early can cost migrant communities dearly.
The analysis presented here has significant policy implications for
the US government’s attempts to deter unauthorized entry across its land
border with Mexico. Although unauthorized Mexican migration depends
increasingly on organized smuggling enterprises, it will be difficult for US
authorities, alone or in concert with Mexican counterparts, to combat them
with police tactics. Because there are few barriers to getting into the highly
profitable smuggling business, new smuggling rings can quickly arise to
replace those whose members are incarcerated. In addition, many smugglers
are either former migrants or are linked by kinship and social network ties
to migrant communities. Because smugglers mingle with the migrants they
transport, and migrants who have not been mistreated by their smugglers
are not motivated to cooperate with law enforcement authorities, efforts
to identify and arrest meaningful numbers of smugglers would require
a thoroughgoing and continuous surveillance of the Mexican migrant
population itself, which is millions strong and geographically dispersed
throughout both countries. Such a high level of surveillance of a civilian
population has never been attempted in North America, and the effect of
such surveillance on human rights and civil liberties could be severe.
At present the main achievement of US efforts to shut down human
smuggling on the Tex-Mex border appears to have been to take action
against those organizations whose members have failed their customers
in some way or whose abuses against migrants have been brought to the
authorities’ attention. These efforts do not appear to have done much to
shrink the smuggling industry in the region. In early 2001, well before
the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, an INS smuggling investigator explained to me his heightened commitment to his work after
participating in a wiretap of a smuggling ring that brought migrants into
the US from a variety of countries. “Once that door is opened,” he said,
“it’s open to anybody that wants to go through it.” In other words, even
if smugglers mainly transport “normal” people who come to work in the
US, they may also inadvertently transport others whose goal is to do the
nation harm. Given the difficulties of combating smuggling organizations
serving Mexicans via policing strategies, a better strategy to address the
national security concerns expressed by this agent might be through migrant
legalization policies of the sort proposed by Mexican President Vicente Fox.
Such policies, if properly developed, could eliminate the need for most normal people to patronize smuggling enterprises in the first place and thus
Revue de l’intégration et de la migration internationale
sever the relationship between smugglers and the millions of otherwise
law-abiding Mexican migrants who sustain them.
From 1990 to 2000, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service admitted just 2.9 million
Mexicans legally. It must be noted, however, that most Mexicans “legally admitted” to the
US in 1990, 1991, and 1992 were “illegal immigrants” already in the country whose status
was adjusted under the amnesty provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control
Act (US Immigration and Naturalization Service 2001). Controlling for these legalizations,
we find that the number of new legal admissions of Mexicans 1990-2000 was around 1.5
million. Thus as a lower-bound estimate, only about 40% of the near doubling of the of the
Mexican population in the 1990s could be accounted for by new legal admissions.
I deliberately omit the names of informants and the precise dates of my interviews with them
to protect their anonymity.
At this point the reader might wish to consider that all four of these recurring elements in
the INS’s story about smuggling have been revived from the supposed transformation of the
business that took place along the border in the 1970s in response to that decade’s crackdown
on unauthorized migration from Mexico. They are vividly recited in Lewis’ (1979) Slave Trade
Today (see especially Chapter 5, “The Mexican Connection—Polleros and Coyotes”) and
Halsell’s (1978) The Illegals (see especially Chapter 6,“Smuggled to the Promised Land”). See
also Andreas (2000) regarding the growth in the size and complexity of border smuggling
organizations in the 1970s.
Indeed, although the two nations entered unprecedented high-level negotiations that year
to reach agreements about how best address the difficult issue of unauthorized Mexican
migration to the US, they have been able to agree only on their common commitment to
combat illegal alien trafficking. Other proposals to legalize Mexicans’ employment and residence north of the border remain on hold (US Department of State and Mexican Ministry
of Foreign Affairs 2001).
Ethnographic data for this study were collected in the following Texas locations: Austin,
Brownsville, Harlingen, Houston, Kyle, Laredo, McAllen, Mission, Pharr, Raymondville,
and San Antonio. Mexican data were collected in Matamoros, Reynosa, and Nuevo Laredo,
Tamaulipas, in Monterrey and two other migrant-sending towns in the state of Nuevo León,
and in three small towns in the state of San Luis Potosí. Data collection methods have
included in-depth, qualitative interviews with the types of informants mentioned above; a
limited review of court records of migrant smuggling cases prosecuted in San Antonio and
Brownsville; a review of published journalistic accounts of smuggling in the region drawn
from Texas and Mexican newspapers; and on-site observation of border-crossing conditions
and the conditions of life and work of migrants in the communities where they live on both
sides of the border. Migrant and smuggler informants were located using a snowball method,
working outward from initial contacts living in San Antonio, Texas. The Mexican migrantsending towns of Nuevo León and San Luis Potosí were chosen for data collection because
they were the home towns of migrants interviewed in one or more of the Texas cities. Because
of the nature of the data gathered in this study, the findings reported here cannot be generalized in any statistical sense. Rather, they should be taken as documentation and qualitative
interpretation of phenomena that are known to occur in this part of the US-Mexico border
region. In addition, readers are advised that due to the ongoing intensification of US policing
efforts, border-crossing conditions are changing rapidly. Thus the findings reported here can
only be taken as reflective of the conditions prevailing on the ground through early 2002.
I have described this process elsewhere with regard to a coyote from Monterrey, Nuevo León
(Spener 1999).
This may have been a factor contributing to the deaths of the 14 Mexicans who perished
in May 2001 while trekking across the Sonora desert near Yuma, Arizona. A family member
of one of the survivors of the incident recounted to the Mexican newspaper El Norte how
members of the group left behind jugs of water they were carrying when they scattered into
the night to avoid apprehension by Border Patrol agents who passed nearby (Turati 2002).
I have had the opportunity to ask several smugglers why they do not travel armed. They
have responded to the question with incredulity—why would they? Their clients generally
follow their instructions willingly and do not behave aggressively toward them. When they
meet other smugglers on the trail, they do not get into conflicts with them. In addition, they
know that if they are apprehended, being in possession of a weapon will only add to their
legal problems.
Journal of International Migration and Integration
When I asked migrants in a community in Nuevo León in June 2002 if Mexican authorities
would in fact take action against abusive smugglers, they said they believed that the Mexican
Attorney General’s office would take action even though law enforcement officials at the
border itself have been bought off by smugglers. Whether this belief is true or not is another
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Andreas, P. (2001). The transformation of migrant smuggling across the US-Mexican border. In
D.J. Kyle & R. Koslowski (Eds.), Global human smuggling Comparative perspectives (pp.
107-126). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Arreoloa, D., & Curtis, J. (1993). The Mexican border cities: Landscape anatomy and place personality. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Basch, L., Glick Schiller, N., & Szanton Blan, C. (1994). Nations unbound: Transnational projects,
postcolonial predicaments, and deterritorialized nation-states. Amsterdam, Netherlands:
Overseas Publishers Association.
Bean, F.D., Chanove, R., Cushing, R.G., de la Garza, R., Freeman, G.P., Haynes, C.W., & Spener,
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