Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Noelle Brigden

Noelle Brigden
28 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?

Smugglers are neither parasites nor service providers; their relationships with migrants are too diverse, dynamic and fluid to characterise in this manner. Indeed, migrants may become smugglers, and smugglers may become migrants. These roles are not necessarily fixed. That said, these relationships are often re-negotiated en route in the context of power asymmetries, often though not exclusively to the disadvantage of the migrant.

In the contemporary context of Central American routes across Mexico, new smuggling, trafficking and kidnapping relationships blur the line between treating migrants as consumers or cargo. These new relationships mirror the complexity of the social terrain within which they function. A variety of actors move and live along clandestine routes, and they may assume multiple, overlapping social roles: migrant, smuggler, kidnapper, trafficker, shop keeper, good Samaritan, mother, father, husband, wife, lover, friend, terrain boss, gang member, etc.

Smuggling does not happen in social isolation. Instead, it is a normalised practice incorporating the socio-economy of entire transit communities and involving everyday people. Despite smuggling’s normalisation as a socio-economic practice at the local level, both smugglers and migrants are frequently victims of violence. The violence and exploitation that often underpins relationships between migrants, their smugglers and other criminal actors is real and abhorrent. To move the conversation forward we must acknowledge the role that states, migration policing and border policy play in (re-)structuring these roles and relationships.

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?

The boundaries between smuggling and trafficking have never been fixed in practice. Migrants must surrender control to their smugglers at key points along the way. Payment protocols and debt to smugglers can constitute indefinite indentured servitude. Formerly reliable smugglers may suddenly become traffickers when opportunities arise to make a profit from forced labour. Some traffickers simply pose as smugglers. Abstract notions of migrants’ free will have never provided much analytical traction to understand the lived experience of the clandestine journey. The reality of trafficking is gruesome for migrants who fall victim to it, and often the exploitation that accompanies smuggling approaches this reality.

Nevertheless, the conflation of smuggling/trafficking serves the purpose of the state; it generates victims and villains for a narrative of rescue and protection. The most recent iteration of the Mexican ‘Plan Sur’ explicitly seeks to prevent migrants from “putting themselves at risk” by boarding dangerous freight trains. Nevertheless, Mexican deportations to Central America have risen dramatically in the wake of this ‘protection’ effort, even surpassing the number of deportations of Central Americans from the United States.

Often the interdiction and deportation of migrants traveling with their smugglers is portrayed as a ‘rescue’ in the Mexican media. Sometimes migrants have been saved from potentially life threatening situations in hidden compartments or from kidnappers, but often these rescues simply entail the apprehension of Central Americans traveling with their smugglers. Migrants themselves do not often experience the intervention of the Mexican police or military as a rescue. Thus, the humanitarian discourse of rescue provides a convenient rationalisation for states to apprehend migrants in transit (see Brigden and Mainwaring forthcoming for a cross-regional comparison that arrives at this conclusion). States appropriate images and narratives of trafficking victims, as well as of smuggling villains, to justify stricter migration controls.

The conflation of smuggling and trafficking frames migration as a melodrama between victims and villains. In reality, the route most closely resembles Primo Levi’s ‘gray zone’, in which larger structures of violence and scarcity blur the boundaries between perpetrators and victims. Heroes, villains and victims do not emerge unproblematic from a landscape of sustained violence. Uncritical discursive joining of smuggling/trafficking practice obscures this messy moral terrain. More importantly, however, this discursive link obscures the role of the state in establishing the larger structures within which migrants and smugglers must survive.

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?

The relationships between small-scale operations, transnational networks, corrupt officials and organised criminal groups have been changing with the intensification of the Mexican drug war. Between 2006 and 2012, the smuggling route across Mexico underwent a violent and rapid reorganisation in response to changing policing and political patterns. Terrain changed hands quickly between criminal terrain bosses, new challengers emerged within the old criminal groups, and competing criminal groups emerged. These changes dis-embedded the old smuggling route. In other words, rapid shifts in the clandestine political economy broke the established protocols for clandestine contracts and ruptured the relationships between different criminal actors, such as human smugglers and the terrain bosses who collect passage fees from them.

The result was extraordinary violence, and smugglers, alongside their migrant clients, were often victims. The terrain bosses began to kidnap smugglers to renegotiate passage fees, holding their clients for ransom, torturing migrants to get phone numbers of family in the United States with funds to pay for release, and killing uncooperative criminal competitors. A large-scale kidnapping market emerged alongside the smuggling market, symbiotic to it, and ransom demands are generally equivalent to what families would have paid for the delivery of the migrant in the United States. The practice of kidnapping diffused to local bandits, as well as organised groups.

Today, Central Americans primarily hire smugglers to cross this criminal landscape, not to avoid border patrols. Central American migrants generally understand that they pay a hometown smuggler because “he knows who to pay”, not because he knows the way. They pay for his knowledge of the social terrain of Mexican crime syndicates and corruption, not his knowledge of the physical terrain. Migrants hope that the money paid to their smuggler will be sufficient to pay bribes to authorities and the passage fees to the criminal groups, thereby avoiding kidnappings. A reliable smuggler offers a first good cog in this criminal wheel moving them north, but many Central Americans understand that the Mexican criminal terrain is dynamic and even ‘reliable’ smugglers cannot have good contacts all the time. This suggests that the social imagination and political economy of Central American migration is undergoing transformation at the present time.

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