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The Complicated World of Human Smuggling

A bracelet used by human smugglers and inscribed with the name of an immigrant who crossed illegally from Mexico to the U.S. to seek asylum is discarded near the Rio Grande river at the border city of Roma, Texas, on March 29, 2021. Credit - Ed Jones—AFP/ Getty Images

The Sonoran Desert sun is disorienting and merciless. Santos (his name has been changed for privacy) thinks they’re headed in the right direction, but only because he puts faith in the Mexican leading this train of drug mules. Days into this exhausting journey he is questioning his decision to come. Still, carrying drugs on his back will cover his border‑crossing fees all the way to Phoenix. Alone, he could never come up with the $5,000 to pay a “coyote”(another word for human smuggler) for this trip. He is suspicious of the person leading his group, but he knows the drill. This is because at 18-years-old, he already has years of experience guiding migrants through the jungles of southern Mexico while trying to avoid immigration officials and gangs seeking to deport or rob him and his fellow Hondurans.

Santos is one of many low-level smugglers I followed for more than seven years to try and understand what their daily lives look like and the difficult pasts that often lead them to this occupation. Why study those who profit from desperate people? Because smugglers play a crucial, but poorly understood role in our global migration crisis. Not to mention, the majority of them are also impoverished people trying to make ends meet.

In the discourse about immigration, human smugglers are often simplistically painted as villains, scapegoats for every conceivable horror that migrants experience as they work their way toward a better life. However, if smugglers only brutalized migrants, there’d be little incentive to hire them, as many do. As an anthropologist studying migration, I have attempted to complicate this narrative. I want to show that despite often being implicated in various forms of violence, smugglers are actively sought out by those seeking help to illegally cross hardening geopolitical boundaries. This doesn’t mean smugglers can’t be thieves, rapists, or murderers. They can be all those things and then some. However, enough of them make good on the promise of safe passage for the system to keep functioning.

In Latin America, many smugglers call themselves guías (guides), a designation that reflects the work they often do. This being said, it is important to keep two additional things in mind. The first is that smugglers are not human traffickers. I repeat, smuggling and trafficking are not the same thing. People who are trafficked have that happen against their will. The second is that smugglers do not materialize out of thin air. They are service providers responding to changes in border enforcement and the growing needs of desperate people seeking safer ground. Smuggling is a symptom of larger problems including poverty, climate change, and the Global North’s hypocritical desire for cheap labor and its simultaneous hatred of migrants. For as long as those problems exist, so too will human smuggling.

Santos didn’t set out to be a drug mule but he finds himself in the desert putting one sluggish foot in front of the other while quietly praying for a future job that doesn’t involve doing this type of work. His daydream is shattered by the pathetic voice of a young kid, the only other Honduran in his group, who has fallen to the ground.

“Give me five minutes,” the kid begs.

“F**k you! Hurry up,” the guide barks.

The knife the guide pulls out is chipped and rust‑stained with craggy teeth like a child’s drawing of a monster.

“Get up now or you’re gonna get two puñalazos. Then I’ll leave you here to die.”

“Leave him alone,” Santos commands.

“Why do you care?”

“If you’re going to do this shit to him, how do I know you won’t do it to me too?”

Santos unties the ropes cinched around his shoulders and chest. Fifty‑five pounds of hard‑packed marijuana makes a dull thump as it hits the dirt.

The kid starts vomiting foam.

“Let’s go!” someone yells.

“Look at him. He can’t walk,” Santos explains.

“If I get caught, I’ll find you in Mexico and kill you.”

“Kill whoever you want” Santos says, “but I’m staying here.”

“Please don’t leave me!,” the kid begs.

After more arguing, the guide relents and tells everyone to hide their packs.

The men lie beneath gnarled mesquite trees that offer little respite from the violent midday sun. They contemplate their futures in a desert where thousands have died since the 1994 implementation of the U.S. border enforcement strategy known as “Prevention Through Deterrence” that purposefully funnels people towards remote parts of the southern border. The logic is that the “hostile terrain” will act as a weapon against migrants. In Arizona alone, more than 4,151 sets of human remains have been recovered since 1994.

The kid sips water and tries to slow his pounding chest. His skin is cold. He wonders how he can be freezing in this heat. Around him, men in camouflaged clothes are scattered about in similar positions of uneasy repose. For hours they chase shade pretending that an escape from the heat is possible.

“You saved my life,” the kid tells Santos. “They were going to kill me.”

Santos thinks about his mother. He imagines how she would feel if he never walked out of this desert.

The sky blackens and night brings on a temporary sense of stillness. One of the Mexicans passes Santos a cigarette and looks away as he speaks into the coming night. “You don’t have what it takes to be a guide out here.”

“Why is that?”

“You’re too soft. This job requires that you do bad things. People die out here. If you don’t threaten them, they won’t keep going.”

Santos opens his mouth and releases a cloud of dry smoke into the Sonoran Desert air. “I think you’re right. I’m not built for this.”

As border security ramps up globally, migrants now need a new breed of smuggler who can provide safe passage through the increasingly violent world of clandestine movement. This means hiring someone willing to do brutal things to get their paying clients through a deadly gauntlet that spans multiple countries. It is a gauntlet characterized by extreme environments and transnational gangs, drug cartels, and law enforcement looking to profit from or impede the journey. These days, the low-level smugglers doing this dirty work have a lot in common with their clients. They, too, are all trying to escape poverty and the now unlivable places they once called home.

A human smuggler pulls an inflatable raft across the Rio Grande and into the United States on July 7, 2021. <span class="copyright">Paul Ratje—AFP/Getty Images</span>
A human smuggler pulls an inflatable raft across the Rio Grande and into the United States on July 7, 2021. Paul Ratje—AFP/Getty Images

In a tiny Honduran village, a child watches the body of his father being lowered into a void of dark soil. Two years later, Santos, barely 13, walks north out of the village and never looks back.

Juvenile and malnourished, Santos enters surreal worlds in Mexico built on violence. Rail yards inhabited by soot‑faced men crazed with drink and sex. Jungles dense with animals of all species, including predators armed with machetes and the rejection of mercy that comes from having no witnesses. The child memorizes this perverse landscape while trying not to let it devour him. He begs, borrows, and steals to stay alive. Santos comes of age alone, with increasingly vague notions of what home is and what it means to live.

At 16, he is tied to a chair while a man in a ski mask methodically slices designs into his forearms like some cruel and ancient rite of passage. “All you have to do is give us a phone number,” the man whispers. “Who is going to save you?”

Santos counts himself lucky as he limps bloody and beaten down a highway outside San Fernando, Tamaulipas, a town known for the mass murder of hundreds of migrants and locals over the years. The Zetas, one of Mexico’s most brutal cartels, have had their way with him, and miraculously he is still breathing. He looks at the red parallel lines cut across both his forearms. It was like his torturers were keeping score. The police pick him up from the side of the road and bring him to a hospital. After two weeks of recuperation, he is handed some cash for a bus ticket back to Honduras.

But there’s no going back. There is nothing in Honduras except poverty and the gangs Santos has run from his whole life. The future is forward, even if it means facing death again. He buys supplies and enters the South Texas backwoods. The Border Patrol catches him outside San Antonio. He eats his leftover rations on the deportation flight back to Central America. A week after failing to enter the United States, he uses the last of his money on a bus ticket out of Honduras.

When Santos approaches the gangsters who control the southern Mexican migrant trail

asking for work, he is already a hardened soldier who can follow orders. He’s been on the train tracks for years and understands what it’s like to be a failed migrant. He’s had shit luck getting to America, but has become an expert at clandestine movement. The gangsters give him instructions and a handful of migrants. “Get them to Celaya,” they say. “A man will be waiting for you.” This feels like a job he’s been training for his whole life.

Santos helps his clients onto a train somewhere in the jungles of Chiapas. Seven days later, his people are tired and hungry but safely in Celaya. They pile into a vehicle. Someone hands him $400.

In the years to come, he will make many drop‑offs across Mexico. The work becomes steady enough for him to save some cash before deciding he’s had enough of the train tracks and heads north toward Arizona. He pays for his passage by carrying marijuana across the desert.

Santos’s experience as a drug mule forces him to examine what he is willing to do to survive. He crosses the border taking solace in the fact that he didn’t leave that kid from Honduras to die. He also didn’t leave any part of himself in the desert because of greed or selfishness. The trip was worth it because he soon finds that life in Phoenix brings a newfound sense of tranquility. He rents a cheap room. He sleeps on a real bed. He finds pride in steady employment. Building houses in the suffocating Arizona heat is rough, but the $180 he sometimes earns in a day is more than he’d make in a month cutting sugarcane in Honduras.

Life away from the migrant trail is good even if the American dream is not perfect. He lives in constant fear of deportation, but that’s better than the constant fear of being murdered. He lives the under‑the‑radar life of the undocumented and goes where the work takes him. One morning his boss accepts a job in Tucson, where Border Patrol presence is more intense than in Phoenix. “Don’t worry, I go down there all the time,” his employer reassures him. After their vehicle changes lanes without signaling, Santos finds himself handcuffed and on an airplane soaring toward Honduras.

His village is different after so many years away. MS‑13 now rules his neighborhood with impunity. Santos is offered a job extorting money from friends, neighbors, and family. He refuses. The gang gives him an ultimatum: “Join us, leave, or die.” Santos has spent his youth avoiding gang life. He knows it is a dead‑end. Once again, he escapes from home.

He is soon back in Mexico escorting migrants through a maze of dangers.

<span class="copyright">Courtesy of Penguin Random House, LLC.</span>
Courtesy of Penguin Random House, LLC.

Some clients are arranged via phone calls. Others come to him with the number of a relative in the states who can cover the costs of the next leg of the journey. Either way, he never makes more than a few hundred dollars per trip, but that’s enough to buy food, cell phone credit, and a few nights’ rental of a mattress in a cinder‑block room on the tracks. The bursts of money are intoxicating, and he doesn’t mind the low moments when he sleeps on the street or has to pass himself off as needy migrant to get a free meal at a shelter.

In many ways, Santos is a needy migrant just like his clients. The difference is that he has no one to guide him to safety or salvation except maybe himself.

From SOLDIERS AND KINGS by Jason De León by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2024 by The Bigham De León Trust.

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