Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Feature

The violent, hopeful world of children who smuggle people

On the US-Mexico border, smuggling offers children a risky way to support their families in times of need

Gabriella Sanchez Cameron Thibos
3 May 2022, 6.00am

Contemplating the border wall near Ciudad Juárez, Mexico

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Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción. All rights reserved

Children on both sides of the US-Mexico border help smuggle people and drugs into the United States. For most of them, it’s an occasional job that they do alongside many others. These same teenagers sell goods in the markets, clean tables in restaurants, apprentice in workshops, and labour on construction sites.

When asked why, they usually say they need money yet lack opportunities to earn it. They are poor. They live in distant parts of the city where public transportation is scant. They face stigma due to their poverty and the darkness of their skin. And they have left or been pushed out of school. These characteristics narrow their employment options. They know that smuggling is illegal, but on the border it is one of the few ways that young, marginalised people can effectively convert their knowledge into profit. Their earnings, while limited, benefit them and their families, so for them smuggling is a legitimate, albeit criminalised, form of labour.

It is also a dangerous one. Children can get lost in the desert or drown in the Rio Grande. They can be bitten by animals or apprehended by US immigration authorities. Yet some of the most severe violence they face comes from within: from other teenagers involved in the smuggling of people and drugs. Despite the stories of indomitable drug mafias operating in the borderlands, border children’s testimonies make clear that those recruiting them as guides, runners, and lookouts are often no more than loosely organised groups of young people like themselves. Some are even recruited as enforcers and make a living by punishing others. Violence among young men in this setting has become normalised. To a degree it is even expected.

Some of the most severe violence they face comes from within.

Girls, in contrast, only rarely become involved in smuggling. One reason for this sheds light on why so many boys do: a large part of the labour market near the border relies on the work of women and girls. These employers are the maquiladoras. They are foreign-owned manufacturing centres producing goods for export, and they systematically rely on what is believed to be a more docile, more manageable, female workforce. As a result, men and boys have been largely excluded from a major source of employment in an area where there is precious little to be had.

This shift has affected more than just labour dynamics. Social scientists have long argued that the displacement of the male workforce by an industry that privileges female labour has helped foster sexual and gender-based violence in border communities. The murder of women is rife, and disappearances in connection with long histories of intimate partner violence are a widespread phenomenon. And all along, one of the leading causes of death among young men is homicide by deadly weapon.

Growing up on the border

This is the background for the collection of testimonials from border children and their families that we will be releasing over the next two weeks. All of the children you will hear from have crossed the border irregularly, either pursuing their own migratory aspirations or to smuggle other people. They also all come from Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican sister city to El Paso on the western-most tip of Texas. The two places are so close that if no border ran between them they would be a single community.

Juárez has long lived in the collective consciousness thanks to Hollywood, mainstream media, and organised crime literature. It’s known as a battleground for Mexican drug cartels; as a world capital of femicide; and, thanks to the Trump and Biden administrations’ efforts to contain migration, as a massive refugee camp.

Juárez is also where an NGO called Derechos Humanos Integrales en Acción (DHIA) launched Mexico’s first effort to address the challenges faced by children involved in smuggling. The project started in 2016, and the local child protection agency quickly began to refer children caught crossing the border to DHIA for restorative justice services. Today, DHIA is still the only non-profit in the country providing legal, educational and psychological assistance to this population.

The closure of the US border was a busy time for smuggling facilitators.

The testimonies in this series were prepared alongside DHIA’s advocates, with the support of the children and mothers who come to DHIA to receive services. They were compiled during the height of the pandemic in 2021. Businesses were closed, employment options were reduced, and many families were suffering scarcity of basic goods and services. At the same time, the closure of the US border to asylum seekers was increasing the demand for border crossing services in communities like Juárez. It was a busy time for smuggling facilitators.

The testimonies revolve around a central moment of violence: the murder of a young man who crossed people into the US. We learn what happened, why, and what the consequences of his death were from those who were closest to him.

The stories told by his family and friends not only describe this death but also place it in context. They throw light on the crude mechanics of smuggling, the social and economic pressures of this community, and the burdens and aspirations of its inhabitants. To flesh this picture out further, five others from the DHIA community were interviewed as well.

Together these testimonies paint a fractured yet detailed picture of how lives unfold in the shadow of the border wall. They foreground the people, not the crime, and they communicate the complexities faced by a specific group of young people in a city like Juárez. In many ways, these complexities are not that different from those faced by young people elsewhere. Boredom. The longing for travel and adventure. A desire for self-improvement. The love for parents despite the constant imposition of rules. These stories show the often devastating consequences of young people’s choices amid youth criminalisation, border militarisation and migration control, but also the love and determination of a community seeking to achieve change.

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