Guatemala has passed tough new laws against smugglers in a bid to stem the flow of undocumented migrants to the United States. However, the legislation does little to address the underlying causes of migration and may even lead to the development of more sophisticated criminal networks.
On November 19, Guatemala’s Congress approved harsher prison sentences for migrant smugglers, known as “coyotes,” in an attempt to reduce undocumented migration in the country, reported Reuters. The reforms provide prison terms of six to eight years for smugglers who help foreigners or Guatemalans with passage, illegal documents, or employment. Smugglers assisting minors or pregnant women, or causing serious harm, may receive 13 years in prison. Smugglers are now also subject to fines of up to $50,000.
Jean Paul Briere, president of Guatemala’s congressional migration committee, said the law directly attacks organized crime and the structures dedicated to the illegal trafficking of persons.
Under this new “anti-coyote law” the act of migrating abroad in search of employment or a better life is not illegal. Instead, Guatemalan migrants will be reimbursed any payments made to smugglers, and debts incurred will be cancelled. Additionally, any physical, psychological, or economic damage is to be compensated by smugglers.
Under discussion for over year, a driving force behind the reforms was pressure from the United States. Between October 2013 and July 2014, around 60,000 unaccompanied Central American child migrants arrived at the US southern border. Guatemala’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Fernando Carrera, blamed coyotes for this crisis, claiming they provided false or partial information to entice potential migrants to undertake the journey north.
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Involvement in illegal migration is a lucrative undertaking for criminal groups in Central America and Mexico. While fees vary, a Central American migrant may pay as much as $10,000 to a coyote for guided passage into the United States. During the perilous journey through Mexico, however, many migrants fall victim to extortion or kidnapping by criminal groups — such as the Zetas — who see vulnerable migrants as easy prey for extracting revenue.
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As Briere suggests, Guatemala’s migration law reforms do provide greater legal tools to attack those criminal structures that facilitate, or exploit and profit from, undocumented migration.
However, targeting coyotes may not have the desired effect of stemming migration north. As some skeptics rightly point out, the legal reforms do little to address the structural factors or motivating causes fueling migration from the region, namely, violence, poverty, unemployment, and underdevelopment. Instead, a more likely outcome is that, given added risk, smuggler’s fees will increase. This, in turn, may make migrant smuggling an even more lucrative business, potentially drawing in more serious and sophisticated criminal entrepreneurs with an eye for profit, and further exposing migrants to violence.