Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Smuggling as social negotiation: pathways of Central American migrants in Mexico

Migrants travelling north from Central America employ guides and coyotes to facilitate their journey, but their time together is characterised by continuous re-negotiation. Español

Yaatsil Guevara González
4 April 2016

Directly over the US-Mexico border. Bill Morrow/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by)

The people of Central America who migrate and flee to Mexico, the United States or Canada include mixed migration flows and mixed populations. Along the routes one can find people who have been displaced, persecuted or expelled alongside vendors, temporary workers, and travelers. The majority of those who rely on this migration corridor are people from the northern triangle of Central America: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Although the mass exodus of people from these countries is not recent, reinforced border control is – especially at crossing points (formal and informal) along the Mexico-Guatemala and Mexico-Belize borders, as well as in the states of southeast Mexico. In recent years, the difficulty for migrants to travel through this south-north passage has increased, with Mexico becoming the main hunter of Central Americans without a regular migration status.

Due to this constraint in migratory flows, the wide variety of social actors who participate within this migratory corridor have been driven to diversify the tactics and strategies that facilitate the crossing of Central American migrants to Mexico and the United States. Their roles in enabling transit across the southern Mexican border is thus of great importance, as their choices can determine some of the events undocumented migrants face on their journeys. Guides and coyotes are two of the main actors helping migrants to cross the border. The first are people who generally know the migration routes and often hold legal residence permits for one or more countries. They are in charge of guiding migrants in their journeys to avoid risks, primarily deportation but also kidnappings or extortion. Coyotes, on the other hand, are in charge of making the clandestine border crossing and coordinating logistics and strategies to ensure full service for the customer. Guides and coyotes try to offer an efficient and safe service to their clients, as the former's success depends on migrants continuing to hire their services during their journeys.


Mexico’s southern border extends approximately 1,139 kilometers – 962 of which correspond to the border with Guatemala and 176 with Belize. The Mexico-Guatemala border is delimited by the Suchiate and Usumacinta rivers, and comprises 53% of its length. Similarly, 87% of the border between Mexico and Belize is delineated by the Hondo River. In this sense, the jungle, rainforests, and bodies of water separating Mexico from Central America create a porous and mobile border, which has been an unconditional ally of Central American migrants in transit. For decades, the majority of Central American flow has primarily transited through the crossing point of Ciudad Hidalgo (Chiapas, Mexico)-Ciudad Tecún Umán (San Marcos, Guatemala), and the second-highest level of Central American migrants’ crossings has been the Tabasco, Mexico-Petén, Guatemala border.

The increase in flows of undocumented migrants, primarily from Honduras, has led some Guatemalan cities to become a platform for strategic planning to cross the border toward Mexican territory. In Santa Elena, Guatemala, smugglers offer a wide variety of crossing service packages for undocumented migrants. A few hundred meters from the bus terminal, one can find hotels serving as headquarters for providers. At the Santa Elena terminal, transporters (mainly taxi drivers) offer their help to migrants in search of accommodation. Generally, hotels have agreements with drivers, who receive a commission based on the number of migrants they take to the hotel for accommodation.

At the hotels, some migrants report already traveling with a crossing facilitator, others have agreements with the hotel, or arrange for services upon arrival. Some packages include accommodation, transportation to the border with Mexico, and border crossings through the southern border, primarily to the Mexican cities of Tenosique or Palenque. It is unusual for migrants at this stage to hire a full service package – that is, the service hired from the country of origin, sometimes through family members living in the United States – which would include crossing through Mexico and the US-Mexico border. Generally, it is once migrants reach Mexico that they start the negotiations with smuggling networks and decide the rest of their journey, although this process varies considerably.

Smuggling as social negotiation

In the migrant's journey, everyday exchanges between migrants and crossing facilitators are a constant exercise of resistance and negotiation. During the trajectories, all parties engage in collective and personal negotiations that allow them to define the mechanisms and routes to be followed, which in turn determines the duration, dismantling, and reconstruction of migrants’ itineraries. For example, some coyotes offer packages that include three border crossing attempts – i.e., if during the journey the migrant is arrested by immigration authorities or is taken by a drug trafficking organisation, the migrant can contact his or her coyote for up to three tries.

Interactions between smugglers and migrants can be a contested and relational exchange. Through negotiations and agreements migrants learn how to navigate the terrains of clandestinity. Sometimes coyotes and guides provide tactics to their clients to become imperceptible, i.e. dress codes, speech accent. But depending on the situation, migrants also need to become visible. Accordingly, migrants and smugglers must come to know the precise moments and spaces in which stop being invisible and stand out. A clear example is the moment when migrants arrive to migrants’ shelters: they become visible in order to receive support and humanitarian aid, and on the contrary, smugglers have to become unnoticeable and camouflage themselves amongst the migrants, since most aid networks prohibit entry for guides and coyotes. Thus, migrants and smugglers must be able to identify when the border becomes an ally or a hurdle.

As a result of this process, migrants cultivate and enrich their agency to generate mechanisms of border crossing – hidden or visible – that are perfected with the number of attempts the trip requires. Border crossing strategies and trajectories of Central American migrants are not linear. Rather, they are constantly interrupted and their nature depends on a wide variety of circumstances, such as financial resources, treatment from Guatemalan and Mexican authorities, exposure to assaults or kidnappings, physical health, and means of transportation, among others. Coyotes are a key element in this process since they lead a broker position within migratory flows. They also mediate simultaneously between migrants and other social actors, i.e. narco cartels, immigration authorities, local inhabitants, etc., making them, in some cases, the safest way to cross Mexico and the United States.

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