Coy­otes tell lies to lure Gu­atemalans to U.S., many cross­ing in re­mote Bootheel


Editor’s note: The Jour­nal’s bor­der re­porter, An­gela Kocherga, re­cently vis­ited Gu­atemala to try to dis­cover what is driv­ing a large num­ber of cit­i­zens of the Cen­tral Amer­i­can na­tion to the United States, with many now wind­ing up in New Mex­ico’s re­mote Bootheel.

CIENEGA GRANDE, Gu­atemala — Martina Al­varez sat at a wooden ta­ble in her small tor­tilla shop and lamented the ex­o­dus of fam­i­lies from Gu­atemala headed for the United States, in­clud­ing some of her own rel­a­tives.

“They left eight days ago,” Al­varez said. “They said they are go­ing to turn them­selves in to im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties there, to ask for help.”

One of those ask­ing for asy­lum is a young mother who de­parted with her 5-year-old boy.

Deep poverty and vi­o­lence — in­clud­ing ex­tor­tion by street gangs, im­punity and gov­ern­ment cor­rup­tion — are real fac­tors in­flu­enc­ing Gu­atemalans to mi­grate.

But these days there is an­other driv­ing force: smug­glers ac­tively pro­mot­ing their ser­vices with the prom­ise that par­ents who make it across the bor­der will be al­lowed to stay in the U.S.

New Mex­ico’s Bootheel has be­come one of the new­est routes used by coy­otes tak­ing peo­ple to the U.S. bor­der. Since Oct. 27, large groups to­tal­ing more than 5,370 peo­ple have ar­rived in An­te­lope Wells. Most are par­ents with chil­dren, or mi­nors trav­el­ing alone from Gu­atemala, ac­cord­ing to Bor­der Pa­trol.

“No­body leaves be­cause they think it’s go­ing to be easy,”

said Luis Ar­gueta, a Gu­atemalan film­maker who has pro­duced a tril­ogy of doc­u­men­taries ex­plor­ing mi­gra­tion is­sues.

Spurred by smug­glers, Gu­atemalans who may have con­tem­plated leav­ing for the U.S. see this as their mo­ment.

“It is a fact if you ar­rive at the bor­der with an un­der­age child your chances of be­ing ad­mit­ted tem­po­rar­ily are very high,” Ar­gueta said.

With lim­ited fam­ily de­ten­tion space and a ban on keep­ing chil­dren locked up for more than 20 days, smug­gling or­ga­ni­za­tions ped­dling the Amer­i­can Dream dan­gle the ul­ti­mate re­ward for mi­grants who ask for asy­lum at the bor­der.

“Smug­glers will tell peo­ple, ‘You’re go­ing to get a per­mit,’ which is not true. They’re go­ing to get an or­der of ap­pear­ance (for im­mi­gra­tion court), but they con­fuse the im­mi­grants. They tell them with this pa­per you can work for how­ever long you want. It’s not true,” Ar­gueta said.

Cen­tral Amer­i­cans with chil­dren are re­leased, of­ten with an­kle track­ing de­vices, and though most won’t be granted asy­lum, a back­log in cases means they can stay in the U.S. un­til a judge de­cides their case.

“It can take years. But peo­ple know that in a year or two years they can pay the debt, the debt to the smug­glers,”Ar­gueta said.

Smug­glers are look­ing for new cus­tomers, and not just in ru­ral ar­eas with a his­tory of heavy mi­gra­tion. They are also drum­ming up busi­ness in places like Chi­mal­te­nango, in cen­tral Gu­atemala.

Chi­mal­te­nango, one of 22 de­part­ments, which are sim­i­lar to states, is home to 15 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, in­clud­ing San Martin Jilote­peque. At the ope­nair mar­ket in front of a his­toric Catholic church un­der ren­o­va­tion, it’s an open se­cret that coy­otes are look­ing for new cus­tomers.

“If you have a child, they say you get into the U.S. Is that true?” asked Dina Muzuzt, 36, perched on a stool at her fruit and veg­etable stand be­hind piles of tan­ger­ines, pota­toes and ap­ples. She is amazed that her cousin’s hus­band made it to the U.S. so quickly.

“He took his daugh­ter. In 11 days he ar­rived. Now, he’s in New Jer­sey,” Muzuzt said.

“They’ve told me I should go be­cause my hus­band is there,” she said. He left 12 years ago.

“I’m not go­ing to go. You know why? He can come here,” she said with a chuckle. Muzuzt said she is con­tent. “What do I want over there?”

A woman ap­proached when she saw Muzuzt talk­ing with a stranger and asked her, “Are you leav­ing for the states?”

“No,” Muzuzt an­swered, ex­plain­ing that the vis­i­tor is a re­porter.

Crime vic­tims

But at an­other pro­duce stand in the mar­ket her cousin was re­luc­tantly con­sid­er­ing leav­ing with her 14-year-old son to join her hus­band and teenage daugh­ter in the U.S. The im­pe­tus for her to leave was the crime she sees.

“They’ve robbed the truck we were rid­ing in twice,” Ana Matzutz said.

Gun­men stopped the ve­hi­cle when they were on the way to buy pro­duce and fired warn­ing shots into the ceil­ing of the truck, she said. They made peo­ple strip down to their un­der­wear and “they put their hands in un­der­gar­ments and bras,” to make sure peo­ple were not hid­ing cash, she said.

“What do we have left when bad peo­ple rob us?” she asked. “This is what we live from. This is how we eat.”

She wouldn’t con­firm that they will hire a smug­gler to take them to the U.S. bor­der.

Now that her hus­band is in the United States, she said, the fam­ily has been tar­geted for ex­tor­tion be­cause gangs be­lieve they have money.

Many mo­ti­va­tions

“It’s a very trou­bled coun­try that isn’t pro­vid­ing to the vast per­cent­age of its pop­u­la­tion what any gov­ern­ment should be pro­vid­ing,” said Sue Pat­ter­son, a for­mer U.S. consul gen­eral serv­ing in Gu­atemala.

After re­tir­ing from the for­eign ser­vice in 1996, Pat­ter­son started WINGS, a non­profit that helps ru­ral and indige­nous women with re­pro­duc­tive health and fam­ily plan­ning in Gu­atemala, where half of the pop­u­la­tion copes with chronic mal­nu­tri­tion.

Poverty, a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion and high un­em­ploy­ment fuel mi­gra­tion, Pat­ter­son pointed out. Gu­atemalans work­ing at min­i­mum wage in the U.S. can make as much in an hour as they can work­ing a whole day at home.

“There are true, valid rea­sons for head­ing off to

the U.S. and a lot of op­ti­mism in that, and a lot of that is based on ac­tual sto­ries of the brother who got up there and started send­ing back money,” she said.

But she sus­pects some­thing else is be­hind the sud­den surge in mi­gra­tion from Gu­atemala.

“What’s made it ex­plode so sud­denly, in my opin­ion, has to be the traf­fick­ers. They’re spread­ing false in­for­ma­tion. I can’t find any other ex­pla­na­tion,” Pat­ter­son said.

The largest num­ber of fam­i­lies and un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren ar­riv­ing at the bor­der now are from Gu­atemala, more than from both Hon­duras and El Sal­vador.

Since Oc­to­ber, 50,593 fam­ily units — par­ents with chil­dren — from Gu­atemala have turned them­selves in to Bor­der Pa­trol, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures.

“This is the new­est mar­ket, if you will, of peo­ple who are very des­per­ate peo­ple to get to the United States,” said Theresa Brown, an im­mi­gra­tion ex­pert with the Bi­par­ti­san Pol­icy Cen­ter, a non­profit think tank based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

She said so­phis­ti­cated smug­gling net­works are ag­gres­sively pro­mot­ing their ser­vices in Cen­tral Amer­ica by tout­ing their knowl­edge of the bor­der, U.S. policies and the best time to cross.

“Think of it like a car dealer. They al­ways want you to be­lieve that right now is the time you must buy be­cause they’ve got to make their num­bers,” Brown said.

In some cases, fam­i­lies use deeds to prop­erty as col­lat­eral

while they pay their debt to smug­gling or­ga­ni­za­tions. Oth­ers get a loan from rel­a­tives in the U.S. to pay smug­gling fees, which ac­cord­ing to var­i­ous peo­ple in Gu­atemala can range from $5,000 to $10,000, depend­ing on the ser­vices pro­vided and fi­nal des­ti­na­tion.

Bor­der tricks

The policies of the ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump may also be boost­ing smug­glers’ prof­its when Cen­tral Amer­i­can fam­i­lies are turned away at of­fi­cial ports of en­try and told to wait in Mex­ico for their turn to file an asy­lum claim, ac­cord­ing to Brown.

“The smug­glers are go­ing to the peo­ple wait­ing in those long lines and say­ing, ‘Why are you wait­ing here? They’re never go­ing to let you in. I can get you into the U.S. to­day,’” Brown said.

They are tak­ing fam­i­lies by the bus­load to re­mote stretches of the bor­der, in­clud­ing An­te­lope Wells, where mi­grants are told where to cross and turn them­selves in to Bor­der Pa­trol agents, ac­cord­ing to the Bor­der Pa­trol.

Gu­atemalans know about the two mi­grant chil­dren who died while in Bor­der Pa­trol cus­tody in De­cem­ber and oth­ers who have lost their lives head­ing north, but Ar­gueta, the film­maker, said a “deep ei­ther faith or fa­tal­ism” tem­pers their fears.

“‘God will­ing, it won’t hap­pen to me. God will­ing, I’ll make it. God will­ing, I’ll suc­ceed and achieve some of my goals.’ And they’ve seen oth­ers who have done it,” Ar­gueta said.

Al­varez’s son was 20 years old when he set off for the U.S. six years ago to earn some money after the birth of his sec­ond child. He quickly ended up in an im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion cen­ter and was de­ported.

“When he ar­rived, I was so happy to have my son back,” Al­varez said. “I told him we have beans, corn and that’s enough.”

Not long after her son came home, the smug­gler showed up offering him an­other chance to cross the bor­der. Her hus­band talked to the man.

“The coy­ote came here, and I told him, ‘Don’t bother us be­cause my son will not be leav­ing,’” Ce­lestino Al­varez said.

But on a busy street cor­ner in the city of Chi­mal­te­nango, some­one else’s son said he will be set­ting off for the U.S. The shoeshine boy said he’s 13, but he looks much younger. Jose Macario tells a cus­tomer, “My fa­ther says we should go.”

He said they will de­part for the U.S. as soon as they have enough money to pay the smug­gler.


Ven­dors at an open-air mar­ket in San Martin Jilote­peque, Gu­atemala, pre­pare to close their stands after a busy day. It’s an open se­cret at the mar­ket that smug­glers are look­ing for new cus­tomers to take to the U.S. bor­der.

Martina Al­varez holds one of her grand­chil­dren as she talks about rel­a­tives who re­cently left for the U.S. to seek asy­lum at the bor­der.


Dina Muzuzt sells pro­duce at the mar­ket in San Martin Jilote­peque. She said smug­glers are telling par­ents it’s eas­ier to get into the U.S. with a child.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.