Neha Patil (Editor)


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Coyotaje is a colloquial Mexican–Spanish term referring to the practice of people smuggling across the U.S.–Mexico border. Smuggling should not be misinterpreted to mean human trafficking. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) define smuggling as the "Importation of people into the United States involving deliberate evasion of immigration laws. This offense includes bringing human beings into the country, as well as the unlawful transportation and harboring of immigrants already in the United States." In short, human smuggling centers on the willful, illegal transportation of migrants into another country. The word coyotajes originated in the early 19th century, where it was used to describe a person that employed Mexican immigrants for labor in the United States. During this period the United States had a demand for Mexican workers, therefore the first form of coyotaje was created. The Coyote’s main job would be to recruit hard-working Mexicans by traveling to Mexico and transporting them to the United States or hire the workers once they arrived in the U.S. Most of the coyotajes that worked in Mexico were either natural born Mexicans or Mexican-Americans that would convince workers that lived along the border due to their ability of speaking fluent Spanish and their common appearances. Due to the labor conditions improving, a policy was implemented by the U.S., which enabled the workers to go back to their home towns and their word of mouth spread about job opportunities in the U.S. This system was known as enganche (the hooking). The enganchaderos(hookers) would decrease the recruitment possibilities and the practice of enganchadores by informing their family and friends of the employment opportunities. Their main focus would be border towns where contractors hired workers who were pursuing employment.


Autonomous migrants pay coyotajes a fee to guide them across the border. Fees are normally collected once the migrant arrives to a pre-determined destination— most likely border cities in California, Texas, and Arizona. In recent years, the proportion of migrants hiring human smugglers—"coyotajes," also known as "polleros,"—has increased drastically as a result of intensified surveillance along the border.

Early system: 1882–1917

Since the end of the nineteenth century, coyotajes have been a part of the illegal migratory process for many Mexican migrants. From 1882 to 1917 a series of U.S. legislations contributed to the rise of the coyote in illegal border crossings. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and Immigration Act of 1885 cut the flow of foreign labor force dramatically and created labor shortages in the southwestern and western regions of the country. U.S. employer demand for Mexican workers rose and supply was guaranteed by the 1884 completion of rails connecting El Paso, Texas, with Mexico. The illegal migratory crossings were largely unregulated and accepted as de facto acceptable practices.

Enganchadores, Spanish for “hookers,” verb “to hook,” were Mexican individuals hired by U.S. employers as labor recruiters. Enganchadores would persuade Mexican peasants to travel the rails in acceptance of American jobs. The enganche system was not a novelty in Mexico. It had been established to recruit southern peasants for work in northern industries within the country. U.S. companies effectively used the system to satisfy their labor needs. It can be argued that enganchadores are an ancestor of the modern-day coyote. Like today’s coyotajes, they acted as middlemen between migrants and the United States.

Explicit restrictions on Mexican immigration during the late 1910s and early 1920s caused U.S. labor-seeking migrants to increasingly rely on middlemen for labor-brokerage with American companies.

Labor-brokerage coyotaje: 1917–42

The U.S. Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 required foreign individuals crossing the border to take literacy tests, undergo medical exams, and pay head taxes and visa fees. The new requirements “combined with the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924, prompted thousands of Mexican migrants to cross the Rio Bravo surreptitiously to enter the country.” As a direct result, demand for coyotaje grew exponentially. The U.S. Commissioner of Immigration observed the trend commenting, in a Congressional report, that a “new and thriving industry…having for its object the illegal introduction into the United States of Mexican aliens on a wholesale scale by means of organized efforts” had emerged.

Ciudad Juarez became a hub for coyotaje during the mid-1920s. In his study on Mexican migration, anthropologist Manuel Gamio details the process. Coyote fees were considerably less than those needed for visitor’s visas; an approximate $100 to $150 difference (based on today’s exchange rate). Working individually, or with others, a coyote would lead his client across the Rio Bravo via automobile, boat, or by swimming. Crossings were widely successful as Gamio notes: “These people know their ground thoroughly…and sometimes even have an arrangement with some district official.” The prevalent use of false documents, or “leased” legitimate documents, contributed to the success.

Upon arrival in the United States, coyotajes were paid their fees and migrants were delivered to their employers. Competition for Mexican workers grew so high among labor contractors that it inspired a short-lived coyote system in the United States. For a fee, “man-snatchers” would kidnap Mexican workers from one company and deliver them to a competing firm. The threat of losing money, on account of a stolen employee, “led labor contractors to keep workers en route to employers locked up and under armed guard to prevent their theft.”

Labor-brokerage coyotajes continued to profit despite the Great Depression. Texas demand for cotton harvesters used coyotaje to recruit about 400,000 migratory workers by the end of the 1930s, two-thirds of which were Mexican. Coyotajes would load trucks with fifty to sixty workers to be delivered to different Texas companies. The practice received international attention in 1940 when a “delivery” truck got into an accident, resulting in forty-four Mexican migrant injuries and twenty-nine fatalities, including eleven children. The U.S. and Mexican governments worked together to end labor-brokerage coyotaje, by implementing the Bracero Program in 1942.

The Bracero Program: 1942–65

The popularity of the Bracero Program resulted in a greater Mexican demand for guest-worker contracts than there were contracts to give. Consequently, thousands of Mexican laborers unable to participate in the program sought the help of coyotajes to enter the United States. "Clandestine-crossing" coyotaje saw a rise during this period.

By 1950, the U.S. Border Patrol relied on approximately 1,000 agents to patrol the border. Mexican migrants seeking entry relied on the coyote. Crossing the Rio Grande became the route of choice. This was achieved mostly by boat with the help of a patero (boatman), or more dangerously, by swimming. Thus, creating the slur “wetbacks.”

In 1953, Border Patrol reported to have detained 1,545 “alien smugglers” along the border. The end of the Bracero Program would lead to greater illegal crossings.

Clandestine-crossing coyotaje: 1965–86

The Hart-Celler Act, passed in 1965, set strict quotas on the number of annual visas it issued. More than ever before, Mexican workers in search of American jobs were dependent on the coyotaje system to accomplish their goals. A study reports that, by the 1980s, “do-it-yourself” border crossings were rare and “virtually everyone” was paying a coyote. The coyotaje industry’s prosperity garnered the attention of the U.S. and Mexican governments. U.S. authorities continued to expand Border Patrol, while the Mexican government enacted laws penalizing individuals convicted of aiding illegal entry into the United States.

Coyotaje strategies evolved during this period. Some Mexican cities witnessed the spring of smuggling rings. Larger organizations had expansive networks with contacts across Latin America. Several of these rings were capable of moving an estimated eight to ten thousand migrants into the United States annually. The use of tractor-trailers to carry passengers across national lines proved to be extremely effective. Hidden compartments were built in the floors of truck beds to hide “cargo.” Furthermore, coyote leaders strategically chose juveniles as drivers or guides, so as not to be tried in the U.S. if caught. That way they could then be recycled into the system.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA): 1986–93

The IRCA was passed in 1986 under the Reagan administration. It created an amnesty program allowing currently undocumented immigrants the opportunity to legalize their status in the U.S. and eventually obtain citizenship, and established employer sanctions against individuals hiring undocumented workers. In order to obtain amnesty, migrants had to demonstrate they had been continuously living in the U.S. since 1982. Documents of proof included “pay stubs, rent receipts, bank statements, and affidavits from persons who knew them during the period they had resided illegally.” The IRCA also required employers to ask potential employees for documents confirming their authorization to work in the U.S. As a result of both provisions, a black market of counterfeit documents emerged catering to the demand. Shortly after, the media covered numerous stories revealing a coyotaje network of document falsification. The Houston Chronicle reported that “flea markets, grocery store lots, even the more secluded corners of Hispanic restaurants, are increasingly the scenes of blatant wheeling and dealing of phony documents at premium prices.”

Different roles of Coyotajes

Since the practice of human smuggling(coyotaje) is a financially growing sector, many people are wanting to participate in the business. To guarantee a successful journey for the immigrants, human smugglers have created an organized hierarchy roles of coyote’s. As years passed by, the business had a demand of job opportunities for coyote’s due to the U.S. implementing laws and enforcing the border patrol. Every role plays a big part of the process of transporting immigrants and it displays an image of a coyote.

The lowest position in the human smuggling hierarchy is the vaquetones. While the human smuggling organizations are headquartered at the border, vaquetones are assigned to recruit migrants within their communities at the interior of the country. After vaquetones recruit a bus load of immigrants eager to cross the border, migrants are placed in hotels nearby the border, waiting patiently for a coyote to signal an opportunity to cross the border. Due to the coyotajes being the primary source in getting immigrants across the border, they avoid being identified by using nicknames. Being responsible for crossing the immigrants to the border safe, human smugglers have kept up to date with the border patrols new technologies, monitoring their surveillance activity, aware of border patrol shift schedules and their stations.

Another important role in the human smuggling hierarchy is the Chequadores. The chequadores work for the coyotajes and the coyotajes assistant, keeping an eye out at checkpoints and border patrol areas enabling them to signal for a safe cross. They are provided with the same quality equipment as the border patrol agents, such as nigh-vision scopes and are consistently on their cell phones or two-way radios keeping the smugglers aware of border patrol movements. To make the chequadores job less suspicious, they often rent a room near the border and set up telescopes to have a better view.

Also an important role in the human smuggling process are the cuidanderos, also known as caretakers. Most of the caretakers are American kids that are hired from local high schools who if caught will receive a less severe punishment. They are used as a way of distraction by throwing rocks at the agents and remove tire spikes set on suspected transport routes, while immigrants cross through the border. After successfully crossing the border, immigrants are transported to a load house(safe house), usually located at the nearest large city. Most commonly the bosses are the owners of the hotels, safe houses and vehicles used in the process and fund the process.

Bosses, also known as the patrones or socios, are the highest rank of hierarchy in the coyote business. The bosses duties are to manage the finances and business aspects of the operation. Due to the coyotajes being the primary source to guiding the immigrants through the border, the bosses heavily depend on them to run their business. Overall, the many forms of coyotajes are needed for an immigrants successful journey

Post 9/11 border patrol

Since 9/11, the U.S. government has taken numerous measures to tighten security along the southern border. Part of the Border Patrol’s mission statement declares “an ever-present threat exists from the potential for terrorists to employ the same smuggling and transportation networks, infrastructure, drop houses, and other support and then use these masses of illegal aliens as “cover” for a successful cross-border penetration.” Increased surveillance makes clandestine crossing a lot more difficult, but not impossible. In reality, as economic conditions in Latin America continued to deteriorate, the motivation to come work in the U.S. only rises, leaving potential migrants one realistic option—engaging in coyotaje.

Migrant fees and Coyotaje start-up costs

Because anti-smuggling legislation, such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), hardened the civil and criminal penalties for alien smuggling and expanded the use of the IDENT database (fingerprint recording system), coyotajes increased their fees to match the risk. According to experts like sociologist Douglass Massey, coyotaje grosses more than $5 billion a year. Crossing fees can range from $1,500 to $2,500 in Mexico. Police note that on a “good day” large coyote organizations can transport 500 people into the United States. This suggests that on a “good day,” larger enterprises can earn an average of $1 million, while “mom and pop” rings can earn $780,000 annually.

“Mom and pop” coyote businesses do not require exorbitant amounts of funds to get started. It depends on the type of coyotaje an individual, or group of, chooses to direct. Most methods require a mode of transportation, including automobiles and rowboats, while other more “sophisticated” and expensive options require cash to purchase documents, scanning and graphics equipment to forge said documents, and real estate in the form of “safe-houses.”

All coyotajes need social capital “in the form of social connectedness to trustworthy collaborators willing to assume the risks of engaging in extralegal conspiracies.” The construction of a good reputation is also significant to the success of coyotajes in an ever-growing competitive market. Reputations are defined by competency, trustworthiness and decent customer service. They are primarily achieved by word of mouth amongst migrant social networks. When considering a coyote, migrants prioritize the success rate of border-crossings, the treatment received during trips and, for female clients, the respect shown to their gender.

Media portrayals and controversy

Generally, negative connotations are associated with coyotaje. International media coverage tends to highlight stories of coyotaje human rights violations. In the last decade, the media has reported on stories that have added to negative perceptions of coyotaje:

  • New York Times, 2002: Since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994, increasing policing in major border cities has pushed migrants to the “most severe terrain, with the most extreme climates, winter and summer,” raising the migrant death toll, between 1994 and 2002, to 2,000. Besides the harsh terrain, the article argues that “possibly hundreds of migrants have died because they have been abandoned by smugglers.”
  • Coyotaje’s growing associations with drug cartels have added to their vilified character. U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Special Agent Joe Romero argues “the Mexican drug cartels have merged human smuggling with drug trafficking, forcing immigrants to act as ‘mules’ in transporting drugs as the price of passage.”
  • On May 14, 2003, Victoria, Texas, police authorities found the bodies of 17 people, including a seven-year-old boy, inside a trailer truck used to smuggle them into the United States. Later, the death toll reached 19, as two more victims died in the hospital. The tragedy makes it “among the largest losses of life in any immigrant smuggling incident.” The trailer was packed with approximately 100 people, mostly migrants from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala. Health officials determined close quarters, combined with Texas’ 100-degree temperatures, created a deathly environment prone to death from asphyxiation and heatstroke. Upon investigation, the trailer showed desperate signs of “the trapped people [trying] to punch holes through… so air could come in.” Asa Hutchinson, of the Department of Homeland Security, remarked “The grim discovery is a horrific reminder of the callous disregard smugglers have for their human cargo... These ruthless criminals, who put profit before people, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
  • In January 2005, the Mexican government published Guia del Migrante Mexicano, a "Guide for the Mexican Immigrant." The pamphlet, containing tips and warnings on the dangers of illegally crossing the U.S.–Mexico border, cautions migrants not to trust coyotajes. It reads, "They may try to fool you with assurances that they will take you across in a few hours... This is not true! They can risk your life... If you decide to resort to "coyotajes" to cross the border, consider the following precautions: Do not let him out of your sight; remember that he is the only one who knows the terrain and, therefore, the only one who can lead you across."
  • Most recently, there was police speculation that a coyote was responsible for the death of Robert Krentz, an Arizona rancher, on March 27, 2010. The death induced great pressure on Arizona's state government and is thought to have contributed to the passage of Arizona SB1070 on April 19, 2010.
  • References

    Coyotaje Wikipedia

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