Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Human smugglers roundtable: Yaatsil Guevara

Yaatsil Guevara González
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?

During my fieldwork I lived and volunteered for several months in ‘La 72’ in Tenosique, the first shelter you reach after crossing from Guatemala to Mexico along the ‘Petén route’. People were always talking about smuggling, and I often heard stories of the sudden disappearance of the guide or the coyote. Far fewer people were talking about successfully crossing the northern border into Mexico. I started to ask myself, why? Is it really true that coyotes are so frequently ‘betraying’ their clients?

I found this to be a very interesting situation. In a sense we, meaning the volunteers and people responsible for the shelter were influencing what stories were told. Due to the policies of the shelter, coyotes were not able to enter or stay there. If somebody was identified as such he or she was expelled, but their ‘group’ could stay. People were aware that coyotes were personas non-grata, and thus migrants were very careful when conducting negotiations inside the shelter to cover their tracks.

Furthermore, we would often hear again from migrants once they had reached US-Mexican border or had made it inside US territory. In contrast, when migrants really were abandoned by coyotes they would often come back to us, hoping that we would intercede. This was something we couldn’t do. Thus, many of the tales told about coyotes came after something negative had occurred (as opposed to discussions of plans or mere gossip). In practice, coyotes are most of the time confidants and allies of the migrants but political institutions and discourse reinforce the image of coyotes as engaging in ‘inhuman behaviour’. These images, in turn, are picked up and reproduced in everyday life by different actors along the migratory corridors.

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?

Within the migration process it is important to point out the central role of the migrant’s agency. During the last three years I haven’t met anybody who has told me that he or she was forced to hire a coyote, except for children (which is a more complex decision and a different process). All undocumented migrants who I met hired their services voluntarily. Using the categories of human smuggling and human trafficking as synonyms would be incorrect. The latter involves coercion and force, while smuggling underlines migrant’s self-determination.

Negotiations and power relationships are part of human smuggling, and although coyotes point out the ‘rituals’ and ‘rules’ to be followed by migrants, a two-way relationship is built between them that is constantly transforming for the better or worse depending on the situation. Of course, using smuggling services sometimes can finish up in human trafficking: social and cultural conditions in borderlands create spaces and ‘states’ where human trafficking and smuggling networks entangle, due to the precarious and clandestine nature of the migratory system.

For example, if something goes wrong with the smuggler services on the borderland, migrants will have to face precarious work conditions, fragile legal status, and unequal power relations. In such a scenario they will be constantly confronted by uncertainty and unstable status, as well as exclusion and mistreatment by the social structures. In Tenosique, I frequently observed that, after a couple of weeks of looking for a job, women were pressured to join networks of sexual work and drug trafficking – the most available jobs in the area.

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?

Following my ethnographic data, smugglers’ organisations are very diverse. There are many factors that interfere in coyotes’ practices: crossing passages, routes, current immigration laws, density of networks, collaboration with immigration authorities, etc. There are small-scale networks that operate for short distances and with relatively fast and secure transactions for migrants. There are also networks of families living across several strategic transit cities that function as a ‘chain’, which guarantee better service for migrants due to their knowledge of the territory and their expertise. However, at least in Mexico, it is not a myth that smugglers sometimes have arrangements with cartels. Such relationships have increased over the past decade, as the Mexican government’s ‘drug war’ against the cartels has prompted organised crime to diversify into new financial niches.

For undocumented migrants crossing Mexico, that shift increased the prices in smuggling services and also migrants’ vulnerability to threats, kidnappings, and murders by cartel members. This has had many effects. In some cases, the cartels kidnap migrants and then demand ransom from family members living in the US or Central America. In other cases, and depending on the route, coyotes must purchase ‘free crossings’ for their clients from the drug cartels, increasing the overall service price. In some regions, it has become a very fragile situation, and coyotes also run the risk of being kidnapped or hurt. To cross the country, smugglers also have to pay fees to Mexican authorities, which have also increased because of the immigration enforcement policies. The irregular migration industry had become a very attractive business for many, and mostly coyotes are not the main profiteers. On the contrary, they are also in constant persecution, both from Mexican authorities and organised crime members.

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