TAPACHULA, Mexico – He doesn’t like being called a coyote, pollero or people smuggler. He defines himself as a “facilitator of opportunities” for migrants.
I don’t even know his real name. We agreed to call him Armando, a Guatemalan living in Mexico who has been a source for Univision on other stories. I wanted to understand how his business works. And he agreed to an interview, wearing a black mask and cap, to denounce the abuses by Mexican authorities of Central Americans who are crossing Mexico.
We chatted before the tragic accident that left 56 dead in a Chiapas highway early last month, and which highlighted how migrants are transported – and abused – by smugglers. Despite complaints from politicians, the system continues. And that means the majority of migrants reach the US border with the help of coyotes, polleros or some sort of guides.
“Hondurans and Salvadorans are our biggest clients,” Armando told me. “We do the whole trip, from Tegucigalpa, from San Pedro Sula, from Choluteca. From there we have vehicles that transport them to the Honduran border with Guatemala. From Guatemala there are other vehicles that transport them to here, to any part of the border with Mexico. And from here they go by car to the United States, basically.” Armando’s team does not use the train known as “the beast” to transport the migrants.
What does it cost, the trip from Central America to the United States? “Between $9,000 and $12,000 per person,” Armando said. “If it’s a couple, a married couple with two children, the prices can vary a bit. We’re talking about keeping it at $12,000, or up to $25,000 to take them.”
How do they pay? “By stages,” he explained. “When they reach each border (on the way to Mexico) … we ask for 10 percent. When they reach Veracruz we ask for 15 percent. When they reach Mexico City we ask for the remainder to reach 50 percent. And from Mexico City to the next border (US) then we ask for the other 50 percent to take them to Dallas. The trip we offer is to Houston or Dallas. That’s where they are handed over to relatives, who are the ones usually paying the money.”
The trip offered by Armando and his group takes 18 to 24 days. And he assured me that every stage is by private car. The migrants carry little money. “Sometimes they have only enough money to pre-pay their cell phones or buy a soda. They don’t bring a lot of money. All of it comes from the United States or their home countries.”
What is the most difficult part of the trip? “From the Guatemalan border town of Tecún Umán to Mexico City,” he told me. Mexico has in fact become a new US border wall. “That’s very complicated. In fact, US immigration (authorities) are working with Mexican immigration. And in addition there’s the National Guard, municipal police, state police, border police. All of them are making the ability to move people a bit more complicated.”
How do the Mexican immigration officials behave, I asked him. And here is his complaint. “They are violent. They don’t respect the rights of the migrant. They beat them. They humiliate them.” In August of last year, the National Migration Institute of Mexico suspended two officials filmed beating migrants.
“I have witnessed that,” Armando said, “when they want to put them in the detention vans … that carry about 18 people. They put 25, 26, 30 people into one vehicle and drive them around the town for one, two or three hours. Sometimes they don’t even turn on the air conditioning before taking them to a migrant detention center.”
Despite the new obstacles created by Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s decision to cooperate with the United States on immigration policy, Armando’s business is thriving. He can earn up to $4,000 per month, and estimates that 85 percent of the migrants his group handles reach the United States. He started in the business making a couple of trips from Honduras and El Salvador to Guatemala, and was then contacted by the group he now works for. And if he gets caught? He said he could spend six to 20 years in prison, depending on the number of people he’s transporting.
The reality is that thousand of migrants use coyotes or polleros to reach the United States. Despite the risks, like the accident in Chiapas. The trek is increasingly difficult, and few can make it without help. The risks of hold ups, rape and death are always present. But the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic has hit the the southern part of the continent harder, and that’s why we see this new wave of migration heading north. In August of 2021 alone, the US border patrol detained more than 200,000 people who had entered the country illegally. That is more than in any month of the Trump administration.
In October of last year, I asked Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas how he could explain those extremely high numbers for border detentions. “It’s because of a huge number of individuals … who have been exploited by smuggling organizations,” he said, “that tell lies and whose sole objective is to earn a profit, not care for those people.” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard agrees. “What’s the tragedy? The deception,” he declared recently. “That they tell the migrants ‘let’s go on the caravan. We get to the United States and they will let us in.’ It’s not true.”
Ironically, Armando agrees with Ebrard and Mayorkas on some things. “There are people who abuse this,” he told me, referring to smugglers. “There are people who abandon other people. There are people who kill other people who try to transport people. There are coyotes, polleros who cram people into trucks and force them to travel with pigs, with cows, in trailers and in the trunks of cars. That is not good, I believe. They are paying us money, and that money represents someone’s future,” he said. “Sometimes I think people just want to make money. I don’t consider myself to be a coyote. I consider myself to be a facilitator of opportunities.”