There is a booming business taking place on the U.S.-Mexico border: Human trafficking. Migrants who want to cross into the U.S. pay thousands of dollars to guides who use their knowledge of the land to bring them safely across while avoiding the border patrol. “Coyote” is the name given in the trade for the human smugglers who are responsible for the majority of the illegal immigration across the Southwest border.
One of these coyotes is a 29-year-old woman named “Paula”, who lives in the border city of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. She says she’s been a coyote since she was 17 years old. In the 12 years of doing this line of work, she says she has only been caught by the Border Patrol four times. Each time, her clients tell the federal agent that she is just another illegal immigrant and she gets released instead of being prosecuted as a human smuggler.
Paula and other coyotes make a very good living compared to the other economic opportunities available to them. In her case, clients will pay $1,500 to San Antonio or $1,800 to Houston, $300-400 of which goes to Paula for each client she smuggles. She usually makes a couple of trips a month.
“I feel like I’m helping them. Things are rough here,” she says. “They can earn a lot better living there, and then send money back to their families in Mexico.”
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is using more agents, better technology, and tougher prosecutions to try and stop the constant wave of immigrants trying to enter the country illegally, but Paula the coyote says it won’t stop the trade: “We move them across the way we’ve always crossed them. This work never ends; there’s always demand.”
Paula’s group walks through the night, and after doing this for a dozen years she knows where the trails are, which fences to jump, and the locations of the tanks where they can refill their water bottles, as well as the cell phone towers to use as directional guides.
After the nine-hour hike to get past the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 57, Paula will call someone on her cell phone and he sends vehicles to pick them up and take them to San Antonio or Houston. The next day, Paula takes a bus back to her home on the Mexican side of the border and waits for her next trip.
Increasingly, however, there is an epidemic of rape going on at these border crossings where women are sexually assaulted by the men they pay to bring them across. “When they get tired and say they don’t want to walk anymore, there are the bad coyotes who say, ‘I’m not going to argue with you. You stay here. We’re leaving.’ They don’t want to stop the trip because of one or two people. I won’t leave my clients. If they’re tired, I wait, let them rest a little, let the pain go away. Then we keep walking,” Paula revealed.
Pharmacist Maria Jaime Peña, in the smuggling town of Altar in northern Mexico, says women coming in her store, which is the last stop for many migrants before making the trek across the Sonoran desert into Arizona, often ask the same question: ‘What can I do in case I’m raped, and I don’t want to get pregnant?” Females understand they are completely at the will of the people who are transporting so they prepare themselves with contraceptives before the journey. Similarly, guides and coyotes advise their female clients to go on birth control because they know what goes on once the group goes into the desert.
One woman, a 43-year-old who recently tried crossing with her teenage daughter, started walking with the group but couldn’t keep up. One of the coyotes said he’d wait for her if he could have sex with her daughter. They refused so he abandoned them. She says they only survived because they were able to find the border patrol.
When a woman is raped in remote stretches of the border region between the U.S. and Mexico, it almost always goes unpunished. Women who are raped while crossing the border often won’t report the crime to anyone out of fear of retaliation from the crime networks who are responsible for the human trafficking trade. Victimized women are also afraid that they will get deported if they report the crime in the United States, something which is sad but true. Also, the coyotes might know where their families are back in Mexico, and they are afraid that their children or families would get killed.
Even if they do report the rape, there is a high likelihood that the culprit would still not be caught due to lack of evidence. A rape kit has to be administered by the hospital within 72 hours of the rape but if a woman is raped in the desert, by the time she gets to the hospital, it may already be too late to prove that she was raped, therefore making it impossible to identify who sexually assaulted her.
Some of the raped women will end up pregnant and try to get abortions after they have crossed over into the United States. The coyotes used to be someone that the family knew and trusted, but the industry has changed and now it is very dangerous, especially for women to cross. One woman from Nogales was brought across the border by a man under false pretenses then taken to the city of Atlanta and pimped as a prostitute for years.
Tony Estrada, a sheriff in Arizona’s Santa Cruz County, says rapes have likely increased since heightened border security has pushed migrants into remote areas of the desert and organized crime has taken over the smuggling routes. Contrary to popular belief, the US-Mexico border crossing is used by migrants from all over Central America, and even other regions. The overall number of migrants trying to cross illegally into the U.S. has dropped in the past few years, but the trip and border towns have gotten a lot more dangerous now that some of Mexico’s most brutal drug cartels are earning millions of dollars each year from the extortion and smuggling of migrants. Last year, hundreds of migrants went missing or were killed in Mexico, and more than 20,000 were kidnapped.
The drug cartels have turned the extortion of migrants into a highly sophisticated and lucrative criminal enterprise. Migrants are abducted and held for ransom until family members pay hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. The old mom-and-pop operations have been pushed out by organized crime.
Last year alone, almost 400,000 illegal immigrants were deported, many of whom are teenagers desperate to get across into the United States. Many of those who are sent back will try again and again until they succeed because they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Author Luis Alberto Urrea, who has written about the crime and brutality of the U.S.-Mexico border crossing, says that it’s not against Mexican law to leave Mexico at any time without papers. “You know, I was talking to one of the custodians at my university just this week, and she said: You know what’s so funny? I got here, and I had no idea I was illegal until somebody told me,” he says.
“When you think about it, a lot of the folks coming are very rural people from the deep south, you know, many of them illiterate, many people who — they don’t have access to the news. They’re just trying to get here. And they’re used to getting the better of their authorities because their authorities are out to get them.”