Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Jeremy Slack

Jeremy Slack
26 March 2016


Provided by author

Question 1 – the rhetoric surrounding smugglers is packed with graphic images of violence and exploitation. What does your research indicate? Are smugglers really parasites profiting on human desperation, or, at the end of the day, do they provide a service to those on the move?  How do we move the conversation forward?

In my ethnographic work in migrant shelters in northern Mexico and through post-deportation surveys, I have found there is a vast array of experiences. It is important not to demonise people (the violence surrounding smuggling is clearly a product of the prohibition of labour migration), however, I fear creating a strawman at either extreme, as the evil smuggler or the totally benevolent smuggler. We have found instances of coyotes carrying sick people on their backs through the desert, and we also have found many instances of rape, kidnapping, and death threats. Additionally, the migrants themselves are not passive actors and we have documented stories of migrants refusing to pay, fighting back, and even killing their coyotes. The goal of my research is to find the points where the interests of the migrants and the interests of the smugglers diverge. These are where problems occur. Understanding these complex motives allows us to create a more fully formed subject. 

Question 2 – media, academic and policy circles suggest that human smuggling is a gateway into human trafficking. Many times both terms are used interchangeably. Does your work provide any insight into these phenomena and what does that say about migration?

This question is entirely contingent upon one's definition of human trafficking. Most research on human trafficking is focused on sex trafficking, which is relatively rare, whereas labour exploitation is a far more common way that people are indebted and taken advantage of. To give an idea of the prevalence of labour exploitation, in our post-deportation survey 15% of migrants were denied pay (median $1,500), 24% worked for less than minimum wage, and 17% had been extorted with threats of deportation, generally by bosses and neighbours. I have also seen people forced to work to pay off debts (usually to a third party employer that paid for the journey on the condition that the migrant would then work for them, often in a highly exploitative situation), but to assert that coyotes themselves have some sort of complex sex trafficking ring is a work of fiction.

Question 3 – another myth connected to smuggling is the one pertaining to its organisation. We hear of smugglers organised into cartels, networks or transnational groups, but also of small-scale operations. What does your work suggest, and what does that say about irregular migration?

This one is more complicated. It stems from an erroneous idea about how illegal activities work. There are power structures that set the rules of smuggling, if you will, but generally there is a great deal of distance between the different actors so as to make it harder for law enforcement to arrest others based on information obtained in interrogation. Therefore, regardless of whether the smugglers are part-timers or professionals the networks stay loose.

However, our data show that crossing the border with someone from the migrant's hometown is increasingly rare. More and more people meet their guide at the border for the first time, which suggests greater monopolisation of smuggling on the US-Mexico border. Moreover, there are complicated rules and procedures for crossing (when, where, how many people, and how big a toll must be paid in order to smuggle people through any given area). This is a barrier to less professional groups of smugglers. The tolls are frequently exacted by transnational criminal organisations and have drastically changed the experiences of migrants, often brutalising both the coyotes and migrants if they are caught disobeying these rules (for instance if a load of drugs is lost due to migrants).

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