People attempting to illegally cross from Mexico into any state along the U.S. border don’t face great odds: They’re unsuccessful 55 to 85 percent the time, according to a report released last week by the Office of Immigration Statistics. Those numbers are up from 10 years ago, suggesting that increased efforts to secure the border are paying off.
And while the report leaves some questions unanswered – due partly to the fact that it’s difficult to measure the people who get away – it analyzes a variety of measures, including the number of migrants who are stopped, turned back or hire a smuggler.
The findings don’t surprise Victor Clark-Alfaro, a lecturer at San Diego State and director of Tijuana’s Binational Center for Human Rights. But for Alfaro, the report sidesteps an important piece of context: Research indicates more Mexicans left the United States than came to it over much of the same time period.
Alfaro was born in Tijuana, and has lectured at SDSU for more than 20 years. In 1987, he started doing field work with smugglers because, as he puts it, he wanted to learn about the border from its true experts – those who actually cross it.
“When I want to know something about migration, I don’t talk to my colleagues in the U.S. I talk to the experts: human smugglers. They have a lot information. They don’t have scientific information, but they have a lot of knowledge on the issue. They are my teachers, my professors,” Alfaro said.
Alfaro said he’s learned so much from smugglers, or coyotes, that he could probably bring people across the border himself.
“They’ve taught me how to cross. They’ve told me everything they do on several occasions,” he said.
I caught up with Alfaro at his office in Tijuana. Here’s what he had to say about crossing the border, how it’s changed in recent years and the business of smuggling people.
This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited lightly for style and clarity.
Can you explain the business of smuggling and how it works?
There are different types of smugglers. Some have been working alongside the border and have crossed migrants for many years. The people that have crossed over already know those smugglers, so they recommend them to their families and friends who might want to do the same. And because of that, it creates a string of connections. Many migrants who come to Tijuana already have the contact information of a smuggler because someone they know recommended them and brought them to the U.S. safely.
The other way smugglers find their clients is through someone known as a talonero. A talonero is someone who finds clients. They can usually be found in bus stations, airports or in the middle of cities trying find people that want to cross over. They get a commission for every client they find.
That’s just one way smugglers find clients, but there are many other ways. There are smugglers who operate internationally and bring immigrants from overseas to Tijuana. I don’t know that network, but I’ve heard of them.
What’s the most common way for people to cross illegally?
It’s all about how much money you have. It’s like a catalog and you choose what you want: What way would you like to cross? By car, foot, boat or through the mountains and deserts? It depends on how much money you have.
The most common way is to cross through the mountains and deserts because it’s the cheapest. It all depends on how much money you’re willing to pay and if your smuggler uses that method because there’s some who specialize in one type of crossing.
How much does it cost to get across? What are different options, and pricing?
The most expensive way is to cross through the port of entry. At this moment, it costs around $13,000 to $14,000. If you want to cross through the mountains or desert, it costs around $6,000 to $7,000. But it also depends on who you are. If you’re a foreigner (not from Mexico), it’s going to cost you more. For instance, if you’re in Tijuana and you’re Salvadoran, they’re going to charge you more than a Mexican. So it also depends on your nationality. And there are smugglers who don’t cross foreigners.
What other countries have people been coming from in recent years, besides Mexico?
It’s a very small number. The majority of those trying to cross are Mexicans and then from Central America and finally people from different countries. I’ve heard that around 15,000 Haitians have recently come over, but I don’t know those networks, either.
Where do people find the money to pay those fees? It seems like a lot of money.
They get it from their families living in the United States.
How has smuggling changed recently?
There are new smugglers that have different ways of charging people. It’s a new generation of smugglers. They’ll say, “Pay me and I’ll get you over,” but they never end up doing it. There are fake smugglers that charge people and never actually cross them over. Some of them even drug or rape people when they’re crossing them. Traditional smugglers don’t do that. So, if a person wanting to cross doesn’t know the smuggler or didn’t have anyone refer them, they could be in trouble.
Smugglers are the same as coyotes?
Yes, the same.
Do coyotes recruit U.S. students to do the smuggling?
They have done that before. They used to recruit them near bars and clubs in Tijuana and buy them passports and find people they could smuggle in, but that’s not really happening anymore. And the reason why is because not a lot of people are wanting to cross into the U.S. It’s not like it was before.
If the U.S. government truly wanted to crack down on the cross-border smuggling, what investments would be most effective?
What we need is an agreement with the U.S. so that those who want to cross and work in there can do so legally. That will cause the downfall of smugglers because they won’t have any clientele.
If a migrant is caught crossing, do they face punishment, or are they just returned?
Mexico’s immigration laws say that it’s illegal to cross the border (without authorization), but if they catch someone crossing, they won’t do anything with them. The ones they will go after are the ones trying to cross people, because that’s a crime in Mexico. So, the one organizing the crossing will get in trouble, but two things can happen then: The authorities can extort that person and force them to give up money, or they can arrest the individual (and detain them) for a short amount of time. But for the migrant trying to cross they may be detained, then released. Many try again.
At this moment, not many Mexicans are crossing to the U.S. The number of Mexicans crossing has been reduced to its minimal expression. At this moment, many Mexicans aren’t thinking about going to what used to be known as the Promised Land.
Why do you think that is?
There are several reasons why. (President Donald) Trump’s rhetoric during his campaign was very aggressive and provoked Mexicans and changed the way they think about the U.S. Some no longer see it see it as the land of opportunity.
But it also goes back to the economic crisis of 2008. That caused many Mexicans to become unemployed, and it made them see that there weren’t many opportunities in the U.S. A lot of Mexicans who already lived in the U.S. started moving back to Mexico. It also has to do with the 2.8 million deportations under the Obama administration. Plus, add to the fact that prices for smuggling were going up at the same time. It started getting more difficult to cross. All that caused Mexicans to stop thinking about crossing over. That’s why the number of Mexicans heading over to the U.S is very small. Between 2009 and 2014, 1 million Mexicans returned voluntarily, some with kids who were born in the U.S. And during that same time, 870,000 Mexicans crossed illegally. More Mexicans came back then those who left for the U.S.
A new report from the Office of Immigration Statistics suggests recent security efforts have been effective because they catch the majority of people who attempt to cross. Does that sound right to you?
Well, that’s true. But what’s also true is that the number of migrants has reduced. The number of Mexicans trying to cross is very small. It’s not like back in the ‘80s or ‘90s where you would see more than 1,000 people trying to cross on a Friday night. Yes, it’s true that they are arresting more migrants but still, many of them use human smugglers because it’s the best way to cross.
If I come to the border with my family and try to cross through the desert, I’ll probably die because I don’t know the routes, so the only way to cross is to hire a human smuggler.
Who are coyotes? How old are they?
Well, there are smugglers that already have a legacy. They’re usually 50 or 60 years old and the new ones are around 30 years old. They’re ex-migrants that became smugglers.
The new ones are usually cold-blooded individuals. They like adrenaline and money, of course. They also have a lot of common sense, intelligence and talent.
It’s like any other business. There are bad businesspeople and good ones. There are some smugglers that leave people behind, but the responsible ones really do care about their clients and they won’t abandon them. If they wind up actually leaving someone behind, responsible smugglers will themselves call 911 to go and pick them up. It depends on the smuggler you hire.
Do you think they see what they’re doing as wrong or illegal?
They see that it’s illegal but not wrong. They see themselves as doing a service to others. They know they’re doing something wrong in the eyes of the law, but they see themselves as someone who’s helping others join their families in the U.S.
I’ve heard that in some cases there’s generational smuggling. That it’s something handed down, almost like a family business. Can you talk about that?
Yes, the whole family is involved in some cases. It’s a family business just like it is in drug trafficking. Sometimes it can be just a couple of family members that run the business like a father and his sons. But in most cases I’ve seen, it’s one individual and the people they hire. They try to keep their families out of it.
I’ve heard that some of them “own” certain territory near the border that no other smugglers can use. Does that sound right?
Well, because there’s so many smugglers, no one can say that one smuggler owns a specific area or territory along the border. What actually is happening right now is that there are areas that are owned by cartels and there some who charge smugglers that want to cross through those areas. Sometimes a smuggler’s route crosses a cartel’s route, and that’s where they can get charged for using that area.
To what degree do smugglers and drug traffickers intermingle?
There’s a clear division between both jobs. Here in Baja California, a smuggler is a smuggler and a drug trafficker is a drug trafficker. A smuggler doesn’t deal with drugs nor does a drug trafficker deal with trying to smuggle people. The only place I know of this happening is in the state of Tamaulipas.
What are the Mexican authorities doing to find and arrest coyotes?
Nothing, because they’re not looking for them. Only when someone files a complaint, but that’s not common.
Why is that?
Because there are networks of corruption. And because smugglers, like anyone else committing a crime, understand they need to bribe authorities in order to stay in business.
But since there’s not a lot of migrants crossing over, the smuggling business isn’t thriving. There aren’t clients. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, smugglers would pay authorities so they could continue working. That’s the system: It’s illegal but it’s a corrupt system that allows for bribery.
Adriana Heldiz contributed to this report.