Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Soledad Alvarez Velasco

Soledad Álvarez-Velasco
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?

For at least the last 30 years, Ecuadorean migrants have crossed the clandestine Ecuador-Central America-Mexico-US route with the aid of coyotes (smugglers). In the southern region of the country, the Zona Austral, as it is commonly known, coyotes have particularly played a key socio-economic and even political role. Firstly, the profession has come to be an absolutely acceptable and respectable occupation in local communities determined by migratory dynamics. For migrants, coyotes are ‘godfathers’ who at the same time encourage and enable the fulfilment of migratory and life projects.

Secondly, this practice has turned into a modus vivendi in which accumulated knowledge is now passed from generation to generation. For instance, local findings demonstrate that coyotes often retire after decades of service to establish other sorts of small businesses such as bakeries or coffee shops. Locally, being a coyote is a family business. However, for at least the past decade local coyotes work as brokers within much more complex business chains that link South American, Central American and Mexican coyotes together. A confluence of conditionalities may explain this change. Amongst others, the configuration of a highly technological and communicational network society; the contradictory border control in the neoliberal era and the consequent augmentation of irregularised migrants; and the increase of social and state violence along clandestine routes as a product of the global turn to a borders regime.

Thirdly, coyotes are highly respected social actors as they provide a solution to social concerns that should be solved by the state. The clearest example is clandestine family reunification from Ecuador to the US. Insofar as US security measures have strengthened, Ecuadorean migrants in the US have turned to Ecuadorean coyotes for family reunification purposes. As Ecuadorean families have increasingly reunified in the US, coyotes have reasserted their key social role.

Perhaps a strategy for moving the conversation forward is to reveal that locally coyotes are not simply ‘criminals’ who deploy forms of violence. The coyote industry is a modus vivendi that reveals two important facts: first, there is no clear distinction between the legal and illegal economies. This means that local economies are based not only on formal, legal activities, but also on illegal and informal ones. Second, far from being an activity performed mainly by coyotes, the smuggling industry involves a multiplicity of social actors that permanently but variably operate between legality and illegality.

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?

For the past eight years I have been analysing the complex interlinkages between irregularised migration, violence, and the capitalist state. I did ethnographic research in Mexico’s southern border with the aim of underscoring why social and state violence exerted against Central and South American irregularised migrants had been normalised along one of the clandestine routes which traverses that border. Since 2014, I have been studying how those complex interlinkages produce a space of transit. In other words, I’ve looked at how the tension between politics of control and the autonomy of migration has configured a zone of transit in Ecuador, which is articulated to and determined by the dynamics of a global migratory corridor between Mexico and the US. In my research, understanding the multiple roles of smugglers is crucial for comprehending the Ecuadorean migratory process.

Apart from being a sending country in which smuggling has played a key role in the past three decades, Ecuador has come to be a zone of transit for international migrants. For at least the past eight years, people from Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East have increasingly arrived to the country with the aim of moving to other destinations, mainly to the US in the north and Brazil, Chile, and Argentina to the south. Some local conditions explain why Ecuador has turned into this sort of migratory trampoline. The country has an ambiguous, incoherent, and selective migratory policy, a dollarised economy, a geographically central position, and history of smuggling. Furthermore, since 2008 people from all over the world (save 11 nationalities) can enter Ecuador and stay for up to 90 days without a visa. This measure has prompted the arrival of international migrants whose migratory project is not to stay in Ecuador but rather to move further south or north.

My initial findings reveal that in some cases human smuggling and human trafficking are interconnected. Such is the case of Senegalese, Haitian, or Dominican migration. In the first case, human trafficking is a sort of ‘requirement’ for enabling human smuggling, as my preliminary findings reveal that Senegalese migrants who want to reach the US via Ecuador ‘pay’ smugglers with a female relative who afterwards might be trafficked. In the Caribbean case, Haitian or Dominican migrants get involved with smugglers who often deceive and involve them in trafficking networks of sexual exploitation in Chile or Argentina (Dominican migrants) or in labour exploitation in Brazil (Haitian migrants). These initial findings reveal global interconnections produced by the entanglement between smuggling and trafficking. However, I must insist on the fact that these are preliminary findings that require further investigation and analysis.

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?

In Ecuador two sorts of smuggling dynamics co-exist. On the one hand, there is a traditional modus vivendi built along the past three decades. This sort of smuggling operates mainly in the southern region of the country and is directed toward Ecuadorean people who: 1) want to migrate for the first time to the US; 2) want to propel clandestine reunification processes; or 3) want to re-emigrate to the US after a deportation experience. This sort of smuggling operates as a family or community business. However, this sort of local/family smuggling is interconnected with other coyotes operating in other parts of the continent.

During the 1980s and 1990s, one coyote accompanied migrants along the whole route from Ecuador through Central America and Mexico to the US. However, this dynamic has changed over the past 10 years, with local coyotes now working as brokers for bigger networks of smugglers in Mexico. This means that family businesses now overlap with bigger transnational networks operating along the continent. There are smugglers who provide services for international migrants seeking to reach other destinations, mainly the US, Brazil, or Argentina. Preliminary findings show that these coyotes operate with an individual logic rather than a family one. This means that they are cogs within larger networks whose job it is to move migrants on to the next stage.

The family and individual logics thus co-exist, but both are now linked to bigger transnational chains that operate in the continent.

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