Inside Illegal Re-Entry – From San Salvador to Houston

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(Reprinted with permission from Southern Pulse.)

The United States deported over 25,000 Salvadorians back to their home country in 2010. During that year, between 150 and 300 Salvadorians left the small Central American country either to return to the United States or head out for the first time, every day. “Deportation feeds our business,” a coyote said late-February over lunch, seated on a worn wooden bench in a restaurant located just outside of San Salvador, where he explained the details of his business operation and how he benefits from deportation.

The source, El Chino, is a third generation coyote. The oldest man in his organization, known as the Coyotón, never leaves El Salvador and lives well outside the city where he oversees the entire business from a small ranch. A third man, Nelson, represents the middle generation; he only recently stopped guiding and now focuses his energy on recruiting new “passengers” for the trip north. A fourth man in the organization, Garzón, has a green card, lived in the United States for over 15 years, and helps manage the US-based side of the business, overseeing the communications with their employees inside the United States who bring the clients from Houston to where they’d like to go – for an extra fee. The coyotes refer to themselves as guides who help clients – or passengers – make their journey north, often assisting individuals headed back to the United States for a second, third…tenth time.

At 24 years, El Chino, is young enough to make a trip to the United States once a month, guiding between five and thirty people each trip. It takes between 15 and 20 days, and the walk from McAllen, Texas to Houston, is often the hardest. Depending on the size and composition of the group, it can take from 24 hours to three days.

Fifteen to twenty days before the Houston reunion, El Chino sets out from a small hotel on the Panamerican highway between San Salvador and the El Salvador-Guatemala border. With his small group of ten “passengers,” he boards a bus that takes his group to Guatemala City. Each person pays US$7,000 for the trip from San Salvador to Houston. In total, the $70,000 covers his earnings, those of his immediate boss and the man, known as the Coyotón, who oversees the whole group. Apart from transportation and food, costs include the fees levied by each safe house manager in Guatemala – two – and in Mexico – as many as six.

From Guatemala City, a smaller inter-departmental bus, as they’re called in Guatemala, takes the group to Huehuetenango, a department on the Guatemala-Mexico border and an extremely tense border crossing. Farther to the west, near the city of Tapachula, street gangs prey on the men, women, and children who choose to make the trip without the help of a coyote. This is where the infamous train runs over those unlucky enough to fall off the roof or in some cases are thrown off by aggressive immigrants or mareros – the street gang members who prey on the weak and helpless.

But not El Chino. He crosses into Mexico with this group carefully, via a path he uses every month – a path Nelson used before him, and one the Coyotón even used. It is safe and true, though hard going. Five, maybe six, days later, they wander into a small village in the middle of Chiapas scared, dead tired, and not yet half way to the US-Mexico border. From the cool shade of a safe house, El Chino rests with his group for at least a day. Everyone is allowed to take a shower and eat and drink his or her fill while waiting for the right time to again head north.

Within twenty four hours, his Mexican handlers give him the signal, the young coyote leaves the house to inspect the tractor-trailer containers that will take his group north to a small town in the Mexican state of Puebla, where they will wait before taking another trailer north. The twenty-foot containers can hold many more people than Chino will allow inside. Packing them in the metal box like cows is inhumane Chino said, more space per person, where everyone is able to sit up and even stand if careful, is the level of service US$7,000 will buy.

Others who want to head north with a coyote but can’t afford the more comfortable route go north “clavado,” a term that describes how the dead are buried. They are stuffed in a false trailer in a casket on their back, arms crossed, with no room to turn to the side and less than four inches of space between their nose and the wooden plank above.

“It may take as long as 60 hours to get from Mexico City to Agua Prieta,” the Coyotón said during a late night meeting outside of San Salvador, shaking his head slightly before recounting the story of those with the worst luck. “Some of the clavados are packed in the trailer near the exhaust pipes, so when they are pulled out of the trailer, they are covered in soot,” he said, black as night.

He went on to describe that after 60 hours riding clavado in the belly of a trailer made to look like a transport for farm produce, the people are weak and disoriented. Some vomit when they’re pulled out, but even in this state, many still manage to avoid the Mexican version of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, known infamously as “La Migra,” who are on constant patrol in the areas where the trucks stop outside of Agua Prieta – just across the border from Douglas, Arizona. Others are not as lucky.

“When the clavados riding near the exhaust are pulled out,” the Coyotón said, “they’re so dirty that La Migra immediately knows who they are and that they’re undocumented.” These unfortunate are deported before they can even get their bearings, just miles from the United States.

El Chino doesn’t work with this group; his clients are willing to pay more so they’re packed into a trailer in a seated position. The trip north from Chiapas to Puebla to Monterrey is long but relatively secure, and when they arrive, there is a little time to stretch, shower, and eat. Though they spend less than 24 hours in the Monterrey safe house, many are eager to get moving. They are over halfway now.

Before departing Monterrey, El Chino must take some time to arrange the final leg of the Mexico trip. Since March 2010, Monterrey has been a contested piece of turf between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. Each time he passes through Monterrey, the young coyote has to find out who controls the rest of the route they’d like to take north to Reynosa, where they will cross the river into Texas. On his last trip in January, the Gulf Cartel was in control over the route. For every person in his group, he must pay a “tax” of US$500 to ensure safe passage. Refusal to pay or any attempt to pass through the territory without paying the Mexicans would result in a mass kidnapping or worse. “It’s a delicate matter, but we always pay,” El Chino says. He adds that he prefers working with the Gulf Cartel. “Los Zetas are harder to deal with, unpredictable.”

Assured he will run into Gulf Cartel guys, El Chino gathers his passengers and all board a small private bus that will take them from Monterrey to Reynosa where they will wait in the safe house until Garzon calls him to let him know when it’s safe to cross.

“These days it is much more difficult,” El Chino says. “There are alarms in the ground, cameras, and La Migra in the US has people who can track you. Crossing the river into the US and getting to the safe house in McAllen is the easiest part.”

“It’s the walk to Houston that can kill you.”

The quick sprint from Reynosa to McAllen is normally uneventful, sometimes even boring, El Chino reports. But once in the safe house in McAllen, El Chino and the rest must keep a very low profile and simply wait for the signal. Once El Chino is told that the way is clear, the group gathers and leaves McAllen on foot in the middle of the night. Along the way, they rest during the day and walk at night. “This is the hardest leg of the trip. La Migra in the US are anywhere and everywhere, and the worst part is that we are so close to the end. To be caught on this part of the trip would be the most difficult to bear, not here,” he says pointing to his feet, “but here,” he says, tapping his chest over his heart.

The clapping, the crying, the shouting, the caressing and conversation all eventually fade away as the family members of his passengers meet, greet, gush, and go. It doesn’t take long for El Chino to find himself alone. But nostalgia for the group he successfully brought into the US doesn’t last long. With another trip under his belt, he simply turns on a heel and heads home, this time on a first class bus the whole way.

“And if they stop me in Mexico, I’ve got residency, so it’s no problem.”

The Coyotón has taken care of that. Seated next to him is his wife, thirty years his younger and the daughter of a federal agent in Mexico City. Call it a pre-arranged marriage of criminal nobility.

Names changed to protect sources.

*Southern Pulse provides actionable intelligence to reduce risk exposure in Latin America. It is a boutique professional services firm deeply rooted in the field, with a network of investigators that operates across the Americas. The original story can be found here.

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