This narrative is based off an interview I conducted with acoyote or human smuggler in a rural village in Guatemala in July of 2015. This was one of the most unique interviews that I conducted that summer. The human smuggler, we’ll call him Pedro, was also a bus driver. I interviewed him during his lunch break on an empty bus, that was parked, to put it frankly, in the middle of nowhere. I was introduced to him by a friend of mine who rode his bus to school. When I first traveled to Guatemala, I never thought that I would have the chance to interview a coyote, but when the opportunity presented itself, I immediately seized it. I was skeptical because coyotes are often known for being corrupt and for having ties to the drug trade, and while the coyote I interviewed did meet some of those criteria, he was more than that, he was also a remarkably funny and charismatic person. He was just Pedro. He was just a human. He was just a person trying to make ends meet and who wanted to help other people. While Pedro does not represent all coyotes, hopefully his story can shed light on the risk and dangers that migrants and coyotes alike, confront to make the journey from Guatemala to the United States.
One of the things that immediately caught my attention was the way that Pedro spoke. Pedro was Guatemalan, but he spoke with the most exaggerated Mexican accent that I have ever heard. It felt like someone was impersonating Mexicans for a comedy show. It was obviously fake. There were various instances in the interview where I had to keep myself from laughing because his “accent” was so pronounced. Pedro spoke with a Mexican accent so he would pass as Mexican while guiding people north. But the question that I have is: why was Pedro speaking with a Mexican accent in the middle of the Guatemalan highlands where the only Mexican in a hundred-mile radius was me? Hopefully, this narrative sheds light on his reasoning.
Note: Certain names and places have been changed to protect Pedro’s identity. Nothing expressed in this interview reflects my own opinions or beliefs. Some content was edited for clarity, but these are Pedro’s words and memories.
I have had many interesting experiences as a coyote[i]. Each experience crossing into the United States is different because it depends on the people I’m taking. There are people who follow my instructions and others who don’t. There are people who say that coyotes are bad people and that we always travel comfortably compared to the people that we take, but not all of us operate in the same way.
There are some immigration officers in the United States who get mad at coyotes for dumping unaccompanied minors at Border Patrol checkpoints, and then completely ignoring them. The thing is if you are caught with minors in the desert, you have to go through legal proceedings. As coyotes we cross people into the United States any way we can, but when you are caught by immigration they take you to jail and they try to humiliate you. Immigration tries to humiliate you because they take you into a cold room and a lot of people get really scared.
All of this happens in the United States. In Mexico, it’s not that bad. I cross Mexico in a car, and in Mexico, immigration doesn’t check your car. In Mexico, the people I take are always in good spirits. I don’t mistreat people, I don’t leave them alone, I don’t make them walk on mountains, I just drive across Mexico in a car. But I do make them walk across the desert once we get to the US-Mexico border. That part is complicated. That part is difficult because it’s what hurts people the most. It doesn’t hurt me because I am used to it, but walking across the desert is difficult. It’s also difficult because in the desert you can be caught by Border Patrol. When they surround you, you can’t run anywhere because you are so tired from walking all day and all night, it’s just not possible.
I cross in Altar, Sonora, and Nogales, but when I have women with me, I try to make them cross the wall in Nogales. It’s easier to take women across the border wall in Nogales, than it is to make them walk across the desert. But it’s getting more difficult. Recently, I have seen a lot of immigration, a lot of immigration. I usually take men through Altar, Sonora because that route is cheaper, but it’s also tougher. I charge more for women because they take a special route, but if men want to go through Nogales they can pay too. However, most coyotes treat men and women equally. They don’t offer a special route like I do.
The women have to pay 5000 (641 dollars) quetzales more than the men because I have to pay the mafia in Mexico. I have to pay the mafia so they don't rape the women. You have to pay the mafia in Mexico because there have been many cases where women die because the coyotes didn’t pay the mafia. If you don’t pay the mafia, the mafia kidnaps you and they call your family so they can pay your ransom, and if they don’t pay they kill you. That is the environment that we work in, and as a coyote you take a big risk, the people that you guide aren’t the only ones that are risking their lives. I take the same risk that the people that I guide take. I’m always by their side, I never leave them. I’m with them until we get to the US-Mexico border and cross the desert.
We sleep on the ground without blankets, without anything. That’s how one crosses the desert. There are people who are grateful once we get to the United States, there are other people who aren’t so grateful. That’s why there are some people who make a lot of noise in the US and don’t succeed, but that’s mainly the Mexicans. The Mexicans misbehave much more than the Guatemalans. In the United States, Guatemalans are liked more than the Mexicans. Guatemalans know how to value the opportunities they have in the United States because they risk so much to get there.
To give you an example, one crosses Mexico on a bus, and you sometimes encounter thieves, but there aren’t just thieves, there’s also the mafia. The mafia is a whole different beast. If a coyote doesn’t pay them, they gather their people. They don’t just gather them up, they ask whose taking them, and who’s the coyote. Then the coyote has to pay 100,000 (5,800 dollars) Mexican pesos, and the people have to pay 5,000 (300 dollars) pesos each. If you pay, the mafia lets you pass. I always say, I always say that I try to help people, I never try to treat them poorly or anything.
People tell me that they like the way I work. People who have traveled with other people, say they have suffered a lot, but not with me. They say that they were forced to walk through mountain ranges and ride the train, but I don’t work that way. I never take people on the train. I prefer to pay for a rental car, and make sure that my clients are safe. I don’t want them to walk across the mountains in Mexico, I prefer to just drive by Mexican immigration. If they stop me, I always pay them, and they let me go through.
In all of Mexico you can see the drug trade. From Guatemala, I always make an arrangement with the mafia. If you know the password and you give it to them, they leave you alone. You have to work with the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, those are the two largest mafias that one has to negotiate with so they don’t bother the people you take. The Sinoloa Cartel, Chapo’s people, are also a group you have to negotiate with.
The Zetas are the most bloodthirsty ones, that’s why I don’t like working with them. I don’t like working with them. Each mafia group has a route that they control and that the others respect, but when the other groups don’t respect it they start to kill each other. For example, if I work with the Gulf Cartel, I take the Gulf Cartel’s route. They are much calmer than the Zetas. They don’t do the same things that the Zetas do, if you cancel a payment or you forget to fix something with them, they will take your people, and until you fix whatever it is you need to fix, they won’t give them back. I have never had my people carry drugs in the desert. The cartels have their own routes across the desert. Sometimes you can see people carrying cocaine and marijuana in the desert, but if you pay the mafia, they don’t make you carry it.
I have never gotten lost in the desert, but I have been caught by immigration four times. That as how I realized that immigration tries to humiliate immigrants in the United States. They only give you a small sandwich and a little juice, and then they put you in a room that is very cold to scare people. That is what they do. When you are on the plane being deported from the United States to Guatemala, you see how the Americans mistreat us. When you are in the United States they make you wear shackles on your arms, waist, and legs, but when you are about to land in Guatemala they take off all of the chains. The people exit the plane as if they were never mistreated, and the Americans can say they treated us well. But that’s not true. US immigration also receives extra money for every immigrant they catch.
[i][i] Coyote is Spanish slang for human smuggler
Immigration gets extra money for every immigrant they catch. In Mexico it’s the same way. Let’s say that in the United States each immigration officer gets 500 extra dollars per person. Let’s say each immigrant they catch is worth 500 dollars, if they catch five, it’s 2500 dollars. As a coyote you try to get along with immigration as best as you can, because all you are trying to do is help people so they can make it to their final destinations. But sometimes you just can’t get along well with them, you just can’t.
In Mexico, in Altar, the Marines sometimes show up, but you can’t play games with the Marines. They Marines are very respected in Mexico, they won’t accept money or anything, they just won’t. The Justice Department in Mexico is the same. They always try to investigate whole group, and they always want to identify the guide. They usually let the people go, but they always try to investigate the guide. I always tell my clients that I am helping them, and that they have to say that they are traveling alone. If we are ever caught, we have to say that we are traveling without a guide, because if we don’t say that, we won’t make it to the border.
Recently, a lot of women are traveling to the United States. It’s mainly widows. A lot of women are leaving with their children, because they have no opportunities here, so they try their luck in the United States. A lot of women who travel with kids also have their husbands over there, so they want to reunite with them. A lot of women are leaving with their children, because they have a right to bail. Children or people with children have a higher chance of getting, or rather staying in the United States. There are a lot of people over there who make it and they succeed. There are some people who come to the United States who have no really need, but they still go. There are others who are really in need, and they leave because of it. For example, I always say yes to widows because they are in a lot of need and they just can’t make it here. Even with kids, they can’t make it.
The majority of people that I take to the United States leave because of economic reasons. There are also just people who leave because they want to. There are some women who have husbands over there and they want to reunite with them. But there are definitely people who leave because they really need to, like widows who have three or four kids. Men leave because they can’t accomplish their goals at work, and they want to create a better life for themselves.
I charge 60,000 (7,700 dollars) quetzales per trip. The majority of coyotes are now changing 80,000 (10,250 dollars) quetzales, but they are just taking advantage of people. But again, paying the mafia is very expensive. I charge 65,000 (8,333 dollars) per woman. I make them pay more, so they are well protected. The majority of guides try to help people, especially women.
I take people from Guatemala all the way across the desert. I used to change hands on the US-Mexico border with a Mexican guide, but I don’t do that anymore. The women were saying that the guides were very rude to them, and they were being humiliated and raped, so I decided to change my strategy. For that reason, whenever I take women, I try to cross the desert with them. As long as they respect me, I let them sleep next to me in the desert. If they respect me everything works out.
I have taken some unaccompanied minors too. They leave because they want to leave. They say that they need to move forward, and their parents just can’t provide. Many of them just want to pay for their education. For example, right now I have two young women who are 16 years old, who want to leave because their families can’t support them. They stopped studying because their parents ran out of money. They hear other people saying that life in the United States is better so they want to leave. I tell them that I have been over there, and that life in the United States isn’t like how people say it is. Every person’s experience is different. There are some people who just go the United States to have fun, but there are people who leave because their families have nothing.
After 2014, the number of people traveling has gone down. You used to see guides taking 30, 40, or 50 people. Now most groups are 4, 5, 10 people at the maximum. The number of people traveling is falling because they started to crack down on coyotes in Guatemala. That’s when the number of people traveling started to fall. No one wanted to travel anymore. I always tell people that if they want to travel, I will take them, but they can’t spread my name. I never obligate people to travel, I only take people if they have the desire or the need to travel.
A lot of people left last year, but a lot of them were caught. The majority were caught. A lot of them gave themselves up to immigration without walking across the desert. Crossing the desert is harder than ever. People are surrounded all of the time. One always tries to take people and find a way to get into the United States, but if it doesn’t work out, it was for a reason. That’s why I always tell people to give it their best shot.
Luckily, I have a guarantee with my clients. I give them another opportunity if they are caught. I don’t earn anything from the trip, if I have to go twice. It’s expensive to travel. One car, costs 3000 (175 dollars) Mexican pesos per person, so if I have five people it’s 15,000 (875 dollars) pesos. Then I have to pay immigration in Mexico. It’s better to travel in a car than in a bus, because immigration always checks buses. There are a lot of people who carry fake identification cards, but if it’s not valid and immigration finds out they cut them. It’s better to just tell the truth. Immigration in Mexico always says, “If you want to travel, why aren’t you sincere with me? Say that you are going north and I can help you. Give me x amount of money and you can leave”. That’s why I don’t work with fake IDs. I just tell Mexican immigration that I am carrying people from Guatemala and that I am traveling north. I pay them a set amount, and I go. I will say, I enjoy working with Mexican immigration more than with the mafia.
I give people a second chance to cross if we are caught. There are people who are caught in Tapachula, close to the Mexican-Guatemalan border, and they don’t know that they have another chance to cross. I always tell my clients that if they are sent back, they have another chance. It’s so they know that I don’t take advantage of anybody. I used to let people pay me with their land, but I don’t do that anymore. The problem is you later try to sell the property, but you can’t. Then you have to sell it for very cheap, and it’s not worth it. Then there are some people who are ungrateful and never pay. I have one person who never paid me.
I usually travel with three or four people. I don’t travel with a lot of people, because driving a car is easier and faster. In four days, I can make it to the border. That’s very fast. I used to go to Reynosa, but that is the Zetas’ territory. I prefer to go through Sonora through Nogales, Caborca, Agua Prieta, or Cananea. There’s mafia there, but at least I know the mafia that I’m dealing with. It’s Chapo’s people. With the Zetas you never know. The last time I went through Reynosa, they took the people that I was guiding and held them for ransom. I don’t like working with them.
They kidnapped them the last time. The Zetas take the people that you are guiding, which causes them to get desperate and quit the journey. That’s why I try to find a better route for them, so they don’t have any problems. That’s why I go cross the desert with my clients. I want them to be safe. The problem with crossing the desert, is that when you are caught you can be put into prison for 4-5 months over there.
The last time I was over there, I was captured for three months. I was in the Florence Detention Center in Arizona. It’s different from when you are first caught by immigration. Immigration guards try to humiliate to people, they treat them how they want to, and they say what they want to. They scare people. They make some people shower in cold water and then they put them in really cold rooms. They make them freeze. There are some people who don’t get scared, but a lot of people do get scared. The people that are in a lot of need end up going back anyway, the cold doesn’t deter them. It hasn't deterred me.
I have been a coyote for four years. I started considering becoming a coyote when I first traveled as a migrant. I went because I wanted to make money, and then I came back to Guatemala. The first time I left was for three years. I lived in Kentucky where I worked at a Japanese restaurant as a cook. I loved living there, I was friends with everyone, even with the black people. I worked at a Japanese restaurant, but the owners were Korean. They treated me really well. They gave me a house, they gave me everything. On Christmas my boss would allow me to come to her house. She would let me watch her television, and she would offer me food, beer, anything really.
After three years I came back to Guatemala, and after some time I went back, but I was only there for five months. But if I wanted to go back, I could go back whenever. I can call my boss and tell her that I am coming, and she would allow me back. She has always said that to me. When I lived over there, I worked in two restaurants. My first boss was also very kind to me. He helped me buy a bed and a television. He was always very kind to me, I have never had a bad experience living in the United States. That’s what I like about the United States.
I definitely believe in the American dream, but it depends on the person. My English isn’t at 100%, but in the kitchen I learned what I needed to know. My boss said that I should go to school, and that I could work with her part time and that she would pay me the same, but I said no because I don’t like studying. But I understood everything that the tickets said, and I understood all of the orders. I understood all of the styles of meat–medium, medium rare, well-done, everything. I didn’t need to go to school, so I didn’t go.
When I am crossing the desert, I always tell my clients to give it their best shot and that once they get to the United States, they have to work, send money home, and save. That’s why they are in the United States. I have realized that there are people in the United States who are grateful for their jobs, but there are others who aren’t. The Mexicans aren’t grateful, and a lot of them end up going home.
A lot of Central Americans end up working in construction. People are always offering them jobs. I hear families here complaining about how their sons can’t find jobs, but that’s not the problem. The problem is that their sons don’t want to work. There are so many job opportunities in the United States. You have to dedicate yourself, and if you work hard you will triumph.
I once sat with a group of construction workers and saw them reject various jobs. They were happy just sitting there and drinking. Then the family members think that there are no jobs. But that’s not the problem. I remember seeing the Americans approach with their trucks, and watching the Central Americans reject their job offers. They also don’t try and learn basic English, which doesn’t help them either.
I saw that especially, the one time I was in a jail in Chicago for a month and a half. I was working in another kitchen, and they paid me a dollar a day. I worked and everything, and the other Latinos in the jail asked me how I managed to get that job. I told it was because I spoke English, speaking English helps you a lot of over there. Speaking English is the most important thing in the United States.
Like I don’t know how to speak Mam, and whenever people speak to me in Mam, I’m always like “Ay güey” and I don’t understand anything. The same thing happens in English, people talk and you can’t understand anything. But once you start to understand English you can start to speak it, and you can defend yourself and get along well with Americans, especially with black people.
I have lived many experiences on the streets and in jail and there are people who say that black people are racist, but not all of them. People say that black people are racist, but they were never racist towards me. People say that black people are racist, but that’s because they don’t know how to get along with them. When I was in jail, I noticed that the majority of the people in there were black, it was always black people. I became friends with them without a problem. People would ask me how I got along so well with them, and I said that it was because I could speak English. If you know how to speak English you can talk back, if you can’t speak English there’s no way we can understand each other. Those are just things that one lives.
I have been in jail for four times, three months each time. I use the same name that I use here over there. That’s why the last time that I was caught, they saw my name on my license and they immediately took me to prison. I was in Colorado, and I said that I was driving some construction workers. The immigration officers asked me where I was from, and I said California. I said that I worked at a large company, and I gave them a fake business card. They already recognized me, because I drive through Colorado a lot, and they asked me why I was always driving people. I told them that I was a chauffeur for the company because I speak English. They let the people I was driving go, but they took me to prison. They investigated me, but they couldn’t find anything. During the time they were investigating me, I was in jail for two or three months.
I was jailed in Colorado once. I have been jailed in Florence, Arizona twice, and once in Chicago. People always say that coyotes make easy money, but I’m also risking a lot when I take people across the border. If I’m not caught, I make 5,000 (640 dollars) quetzales per person. If I take five people, I make 25,000 (3200 dollars) quetzales, if I take six, I make 30,000 (3840 dollars) quetzales. I only make money if people cross the desert successfully the first time. If they are caught, I reinvest the money that is my profit into them. That means that if I have to make a second journey, I make no money. In fact, I lose money.
Right now, I’m not traveling to the United States because the weather is very hot. It’s very hot in Mexico. The last time I traveled was four months ago. On that journey, only one of my clients made it, and the rest came back. I think it has a lot do with luck if I’m being honest. The kid that made it was just sixteen years old, immigration didn’t grab him, but they did grab the rest.
I always tell my clients to not let themselves get caught. When I’m with my clients, I don’t let myself get caught because I know what will happen to me if I get caught, so they don’t grab me. That’s why I tell people to not let themselves get caught. I always buy them phones, American phones, so that we can split up in the desert. I’m with them in the desert, but there are moments where we have to split up and hide from immigration. When they are in hiding they call me, and we meet up in a certain spot. I try to orient them as best as I can, so I can find them later, and we can continue walking. I don’t like getting caught by immigration.
Some of the immigration officers are very aggressive, and they can threaten you with their guns. I have had friends who have had their clients be killed by immigration officers. They have never killed any of mine. I’m not saying that all immigration officers are racist, but a lot of them are. I think it’s because they don’t like the fact that we don’t speak English, because when they talk to us, we ignore them. I think that’s the problem. I think the ones that are racist get angry when they talk to the migrants, and they can’t respond. I think that’s what makes them hit and kill people.
The immigration officers often try and find out who the guide is, but they can make mistakes. I’ve heard of people getting 8 month sentences in the US arbitrarily. I have never been caught, but I have been accused. They get suspicious, when they see that I have been caught so many times. They call my old boss at the Japanese restaurant. They just ask her if I worked with her, and she always says yes. While they are doing the investigations, I am imprisoned, and I can’t come back to Guatemala.
I haven’t left Guatemala in some time, but right now I am planning on leaving on August 1st. I have two sixteen-year-old girls, a man from Nicaragua, and a man from here. So I have four people total. I gave them two options, either they could go through Nogales or they could walk the desert with me starting from Altar, Sonora. They chose to walk the desert with me. But they could go through Nogales and not walk. When I do that I have to drive by the border wall on the Mexican side, and observe ways that I can sneak people across. What I sometimes do is I go play pool in a building next to the wall and scope out the area, to see where I can take people across because there’s a lot of border security in Nogales.
If you are able to get people across the wall in Nogales, it’s much easier, because you don’t need to walk into the remote parts of the desert. After that you can just drive, and walk around the Border Patrol checkpoints. But I can’t be with them for the entire time. When we have to avoid immigration, I make my clients wait for me at the Burger King. That’s why it’s good to get dollars in Mexico, because they can sit at the Burger King and buy food while they wait for me. Border Patrol always surrounds the Burger King, so I also make sure that their clothing is in good shape. They then buy food like any regular client and they wait for me. The good thing is that there are a lot of Mexicans who have visas, so my clients fit right in. While they are eating, I call them and I pick them up.
Between Nogales and Tucson, there is only one immigration checkpoint. When we approach the checkpoint, I make my clients get out of the car and they have to walk around it. While they check my car, they walk around the checkpoint, and I pick them up later. Once we get to Phoenix, everyone is very happy. Once I get to Phoenix we all go our separate ways. After Phoenix I take a van to the Nogales, then Tuxla, and then Tapachula. I used to take people past Phoenix, but I have been imprisoned so many times, I don’t want to take the risk.
I am scared of getting caught again. It’s not that I am afraid of being imprisoned, it’s more that I get really bored while I’m in jail. You’re like a little kid. You don’t do anything all day. You just sit, watch TV, and you play the same games all of the time. It’s boring. Also the problem is that the more times I get caught, the longer the jail sentences will be. But I’m more afraid of the narcos.
Whenever I’m in Altar or Nogales, they invite me to drink, to drink alcohol. They have invited me to drink beer and do lines of coke. When I have to meet up with them, I always prefer it to be at the hotel that I’m staying in, and where there’s a big cantina. I prefer that they come to my hotel, because it’s private, it’s safe, and the owners know that they are coming. The mafia usually comes with two vans and they bring a ton of alcohol. I don’t like to get too close to them because they always have guns, and they don’t like you to mess with them. It’s just business.
I have tried not paying their quotas before to make extra money, but I have stopped doing that. If they realize that I’m not paying them money to cross, they can kill me for lying. They don’t play games. Because of the mafia, Mexicans are the only ones who can cross people across the desert. If you are Guatemalan, they take your clients away from you. That’s why I always report myself to them. In Mexico, people don’t know that I am Guatemalan, they know me as a Mexican. In reality, I am Guatemalan, but I am identified as a Mexican.
There have been moments where I have forgotten my fake ID, and I have had to ask Mexicans for help. Whenever I need to take out money, I asked random women on the street to help me. Taking and depositing money in Mexico can be difficult, and if the mafia finds out that I am not Mexican they will kill me. If they found out I’m Guatemalan, they will kill me. They don’t like being lied to. When I am crossing through Mexico I’m not only dealing with the law, but I’m also dealing with the mafia. But it’s hard to tell the difference, law enforcement works very closely with the drug cartels. That’s why I prefer to pay the mafia, so they don’t take my clients and scare them. I never leave my clients side. I never send them to places by themselves because that’s how you lose people. I work well, but if the other person works badly, everyone thinks that I work badly. Those are stereotypes.
I have never been caught for smuggling, but I have friends who have. I have friends who have been given ten year sentences in Mexico. That’s a huge problem. I currently have plans to travel, but the problem is that with El Chapo’s escape from jail, there’s more security on the border and in Mexico. I have to call my contacts in Mexico to see how I am going to make it to the border, and once they tell me what the road looks like, I leave. The problem is with all of this security, I’m going to have to spend more money because I will have to pay off more immigration officers. So you see this job is complicated, but I try to make it less complicated. I don’t like to frighten my clients, I always try to keep them calm and comfortable. I never scare them.
But I’m not always successful in keeping my clients calm. I have had some people turn back. The good thing is that Mexico is easy to navigate, and they can come back to Guatemala quickly. I have also never left anyone behind in the desert. I am especially careful with women. The last time I had women with me, and I got really tired because I was carrying all of their luggage. That’s very tiring. When I’m working with men, I tell them that they have to look out for themselves. The men are more independent. I always try to help the women.
This is a difficult job. In this line of work, you have to know how to win and how to lose. I risk my life, in the same way that my clients do. People think that all coyotes are the same, but we aren’t. I don’t want to take money away from people, I want to help people. Their lives are in my hands. The moment we leave Guatemala their families know that I am responsible for them. It’s a lot of responsibility, but at the end of the day I like my job. I like my job. I have no intention of quitting.