MS-13 ‘Coyote Rips’ in Houston Give Migrants Another Headache

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The recent U.S. arrest of two suspected Mara Salvatrucha (MS -13) gang members who had kidnapped a group of illegal immigrants reveals a new threat along the already perilous trail for those seeking to enter the U.S.

The arrests, according to a Houston Chronicle article, were the result of a tip from a woman who had received a call from one of the kidnappers demanding ransom money unless she could find a “coyote,” or human smuggler, nicknamed “Chino.”

Police used the cellphone number she provided to find the trailer park in Houston where the victims were being held at gunpoint. The victims told police that six or seven other gang members also visited the trailer in the two days since they had been taken hostage, and that they overheard the gang talking about carving them up with knives if they did not get the ransom.

Texas authorities, in their 2010 gang assessment (get pdf version of the report here), call this kind of incident a “coyote rip,” in which gangs kidnap migrants for money. But it may be slightly more complicated than that.

Like their counterparts, which include large criminal organizations like the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel and street gangs like the MS-13 and the Barrio 18 stretching to Mexico and down through Central America, the Houston gangs appear to be claiming their right to “piso,” a toll they charge those who do illegal business in their territory.

In this case, the attempt to reach the smuggler nicknamed “Chino” was most likely an effort to collect this toll. Too often, it appears, the migrants are caught in the middle of two groups: the smugglers who have to pay the tolls (normally per migrant) and the large criminal gangs who collect the tolls.

The typical migrant route, as seen in this map by InSight, often includes parts of Central America, Mexico, and finally Texas. But just who the smugglers pay along this route is not always clear, especially as they get closer to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, two of the Mexican states where many migrants cross into the United States, are in dispute between the Gulf Cartel and their former militia group, the Zetas, who broke ranks definitively last year to form their own organization. The territories they control shift almost weekly, making the job of a smuggler nearly impossible. Yet who he pays and who he does not quickly becomes part of a deadly game of Russian Roulette for the migrants in his hands.

The dispute between these organizations may help explain the rise in kidnappings and murders of migrants in recent months, particularly in Tamaulipas. Last August, 72 were killed in an abandoned farm in the Tamaulipas municipality of San Fernando. Since the discovery of dozens of mass graves in April, 187 bodies have been unearthed throughout the municipality, some of whom are thought to have been migrants.

Adding to the confusion for the smugglers is the involvement of Mexican law enforcement in the scheme. Some police and military personnel also demand piso. In the most recent example, Mexican officials arrested four police from Reynosa, Tamaulipas, for taking part in the kidnapping of 130 migrants who authorities found in different safe houses in that city in April.

Most migrants use smugglers to cross into the United States. Mexicans often obtain their services at the border and pay between $2,000 and $3,500. But non-Mexicans often attempt to contract services beginning in their home countries for prices ranging from $7,000 (El Salvador) to $40,000 (China).

These services have elaborate networks throughout the region, reaching into the United States and, as one New York Times story says, using cell phones to guide them to their destinations. However, the members of these networks sometimes fail or deliberately trick migrants, then kidnap them while their relatives and friends in the United States gather the money to secure their release.

Still others are trafficked. The Texas gang assessment says that the gangs are increasingly involved in trafficking people to work in brothels or in child prostitution. The same appears to be true with the Zetas, who traffic women who are then forced to work in brothels in places like Chiapas, along the Guatemalan border.

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