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Ally or Exploiter? The Smuggler-Migrant Relationship Is a Complex One

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Ally or Exploiter? The Smuggler-Migrant Relationship Is a Complex One

Migrants being smuggled in a car trunk are intercepted at U.S.-Mexico border

The U.S. Border Patrol intercepted migrants being smuggled in a car trunk. (Photo: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

As highly industrialized countries ramp up their border controls, human smugglers are playing a central role in moving migrants through key migration corridors around the world. Despite the illicit nature of their work and being cast as villains in the public eye, smugglers have complex, multifaceted relationships with their migrant clients. At times, the relationship can be mutually beneficial or even lifesaving; at others, it can be predatory and dangerous. Abandonment, extortion, kidnapping, and even death are common.

Smuggling activities run the gamut in size and sophistication. At the smallest scale, smugglers can be the single individual who guides hiking migrants over rugged border terrain, the taxi driver who moves people from one place to another, or the small-time operation ferrying people across a river. At the larger scale, smugglers may belong to formal or informal networks that produce false papers, bribe officials, and facilitate logistically complex travel across routes that span oceans and continents. Collectively, human smuggling netted operators big and small around the globe an estimated US $5.5 billion to $7 billion in 2016, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated in its first-ever study of migrant smuggling.

There is an important distinction to be drawn between smugglers and human traffickers: smugglers have clients while traffickers have captives (see Box 1). To be sure, the two industries often overlap and the relationship may evolve from smuggler to trafficker along the way.

Would-be migrants turn to smugglers when legal pathways are limited, routes are dangerous to cross, and border controls harden—features of the picture in North America and Europe in recent years. Yet migrant smuggling is not confined just to these regions, taking place in every part of the world. In hiring a smuggler, migrants place their fate in the hands of criminals, often investing vast sums of money; fees for long, complex journeys that can take months to accomplish can cost tens of thousands of dollars. The migrant’s relationship with the smuggler is a recipe for vulnerability, and if things go wrong he or she is left without legal recourse or law enforcement protection.

Box 1. Migrant Smuggling versus Human Trafficking

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, migrant smuggling differs from human trafficking in three ways:
  • Despite the potentially dangerous conditions under both scenarios, migrant smuggling implies consent, while victims of trafficking have not consented to being moved. Sometimes migrants may originally agree to be smuggled, but if the relationship turns coercive, deceptive, or abusive, it may be considered a human-trafficking situation.
  • Smugglers may exploit migrants by demanding high prices, but the exploitation ends when the migrant arrives at his or her destination. Trafficking involves an ongoing exploitation of victims.
  • Smuggling always takes place across international borders, but trafficking can occur within or across country borders.

Because of the illegality of smuggling operations, official statistics on the number of migrants smuggled are scarce, and many countries do not collect or publish such data. The World Bank estimates there are some 47,000 possible migratory corridors, but just 300 account for more than three-quarters of all international migration—the U.S.-Mexico corridor being the world’s largest. Some of these corridors are between neighboring countries, others cross hemispheres, and the migrant-smuggler relationship plays out differently among them.

This article explores some of the many factors that go into the migrant-smuggler relationship, drawing on findings from studies conducted in Afghanistan and Mexico, which illustrate the varied dynamics between the smuggler and client. In Afghanistan, smugglers have long aided would-be migrants escaping conflict and are considered trusted community members who provide a necessary service. In the U.S.-Mexico corridor, however, the closer migrants perceive smugglers to be engaged with criminal enterprises (such as drug trafficking), the less likely they are trust to them. The article also touches on the changing models used by migrants and smugglers moving from Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Saving Lives in Afghanistan

For Afghan migrants, different migration corridors, a history of violence at home, and a strong, longstanding reliance on smugglers have had a profound influence on the relationship between migrant and smuggler.

From 1978 to 1992, a brutal internal conflict between anticommunist guerillas and the communist government of Afghanistan resulted in the deaths of around 1.5 million Afghans; millions more fled to neighboring Iran and Pakistan. For those fleeing, the smuggler represented a temporary lifeline out of a desperate situation at home. Later, when the U.S. military invaded in 2001, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks organized by al Qaeda from its base in Afghanistan, Afghans once again turned to smugglers for safety. Repeated need, travel along well-established routes, and the opportunity smugglers provide in the absence of other means to safety changed community perception of the smugglers as it did the smugglers’ perception of themselves, as saviors rather than criminals.

In a 2019 International Organization for Migration (IOM) study analyzing smugglers’ perceptions of themselves, one smuggler reflected:

“We have a good status and reputation among our people. They don’t look at us negatively. We take their children and youth to safety, to where they can work and send money back home.”

Another affirmed:

“I help people to access their rights and I’m sure I will get rewarded for that by God.”

Since then, Afghan communities have become well-established in Iran and Pakistan, so barriers to mobility are negligible, and the routes established in the 1970s are still used today to relieve short-term economic need, though the pressures to escape violence remain. But not all routes are so short, cheap, or accessible.

Amid rising returns to Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan, which have taken steps to pressure Afghans to leave, Afghans looked beyond the region, with Europe increasingly a destination. Yet as legal corridors to Europe have narrowed, a declining share of Afghan asylum claims been granted, and forced returns increased, migrants from Afghanistan have increasingly turned to Canada and other countries as an alternative.

For these farther journeys to be successful, many smugglers are involved, forming a network that is loosely connected and malleable to fit the migrant’s needs. In the case of these longer, multiple-border routes, the relationship between a migrant and his or her smuggler is better defined as a relationship between one client and many yet-to-be-known smugglers, where the initial point of contact is a smuggler in the prospective migrant’s home community. Even when trying to cross oceans, migrants rely on smuggler referrals from family or friends to avoid danger. But, regardless of referral, migrants rarely know the precise route to their destination, and smugglers do not necessarily know the other facilitators in the network; whatever trust was built between the initial smuggler and the migrant dissipates as the migrant’s journey goes farther and farther along the network.

In an IOM study of Afghan and Syrian transit to Canada, all of the migrants interviewed said they experienced some form of extortion or violence at the hands of smugglers. They are under the smuggler’s thumb, dependent for safety, food, and shelter. “They all lie to you, but you are forced to go, what choice do you have?” one interviewee said. “Your only assurance is if somebody else has gone with that smuggler and you can know better what to expect."

Migrants, who by the nature of their travel are in irregular status, have little recourse to protect themselves; they often do not know what country they are in, nor its language, and law enforcement is likely to deport them if they seek help. And again, they often take on large debts to finance trips abroad: the journey from Afghanistan to Canada, for example, can cost up to US $30,000. Any attention from authorities could send them back to square one: at home without recourse to escape their situation, and now indebted beyond their financial means.

Recently, cell phones and social media have added a modicum of security. Some migrants negotiate deals with third parties to hold the smuggler’s payments in escrow, and cell phones now allow them to phone home to release funds at agreed-upon points in the journey. While this step-by-step method provides the migrant with some way to hold the initial smuggler accountable, it does not prevent others in the network from holding migrants hostage to secure more than the agreed-upon amount.

Connections to Criminal Enterprises Complicate the Migrant-Smuggler Relationship

The 2018 IOM study also found that Afghan migrants’ trust in smugglers was influenced by the smuggler’s connections with criminal enterprises—the closer the criminal connection, the less they were trusted—and in Mexico these connections could not be more pronounced. Since the ending of the Bracero guest worker program in 1964, tens of millions of Mexicans have gone back and forth over the U.S.-Mexico border illegally to work on U.S. farms and construction sites, and in restaurants, manufacturing, and other sectors. After border security began to tighten in the mid-1990s, accelerating considerably after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, migrants began hiring smugglers with greater frequency to lead them across the border and bring them to destinations well in the U.S. interior.

Smuggling, which was once characterized by small-time operations, blossomed into a full-scale criminal industry, often with connections to more dangerous enterprises. Because uncontrolled smuggling of any kind is a threat to the business model of powerful drug-trafficking cartels—and there is a strong financial incentive to tap into profits—it is in drug traffickers’ interest to intervene in other border industries, including migrant smuggling, as discussed in Slack and Campbell’s 2016 analysis of the hierarchy of illicit regimes.

There is little evidence, though, that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations smuggle migrants themselves, as the RAND Corp. and others have reported. But the cartels charge a toll to cross their territory, known as derecho de piso (or the right to pass). The tolls also come with stipulations as to how many migrants can be smuggled at a given time, and there are accounts of drug traffickers dictating the migrant smugglers’ schedules to slip their charges across the border illegally, often sending groups of crossers ahead of drug shipments so as to overwhelm U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents. Organized criminal actors have also been known to coerce human smugglers into disclosing which migrants are wealthy so that they can be held for ransom. These factors diminish the level of trust between migrants and smugglers.

Much like those from Afghanistan, migrants crossing through Mexico aim to make the journey as safe as possible by finding a smuggler via referral, and by paying for half of the trip up front or otherwise upon arrival in the United States. However, some of the community dimensions of the migrant-smuggler relationship are less pronounced in Mexico: a 2015 study by Daniel Martinez found that just 30 percent of Mexicans intending to migrate illegally hired a smuggler who specifically serviced their community. Nearly half (45 percent) reported finding a smuggler when they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Regardless of where the smuggler is hired, friends and family already in the United States are valuable to both smuggler and migrant, providing referrals that benefit both parties. Coyotes depart from advertised locations on a set schedule so that they can make use of those referrals. Perhaps counterintuitively, migrants tend to trust their smuggler more after encounters with organized crime or bajadores (roving gangs that rob and rape migrants), end peacefully. A good smuggler keeps his or her clients safe by lining the right pockets.

Perspectives from Central America

Since 2012, hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied children, families, and individuals have tread a path through Central America and Mexico to the United States fleeing gang violence, extortion, insecurity, domestic violence, and poverty exacerbated by drought and crop failure, among other factors. Many have also been pulled by family ties in the United States and the prospects of better-paying work. Approximately 3.1 million immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras lived in the United States in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The route through Mexico is not safe; criminals and corrupt law enforcement officials kidnap, extort, and attack the travelers as they pass through. And amid intense pressure from the Trump administration to intercept and turn back migrants, the Mexican government in 2019 began seriously stepping up enforcement at its border with Guatemala and in the Mexican interior. These enforcement efforts, which have also focused on the freight train and other routes migrants often use to reach the U.S. border, have been paired with initiatives to offer transiting migrants work permits in southern Mexico or the ability to apply for asylum in Mexico.

Paradoxically, despite the stepped-up Mexican and U.S. enforcement, smuggling fees have not been on an endlessly increasing trajectory, perhaps as the result of growing competition and changing business models. Responding to the growing recognition that migrants traveling with children would be treated differently under U.S. policy, for example, smugglers began offering discounted rates to Central Americans if they traveled with a child.

Some experts also speculate that smugglers adapted to a possible threat to their business model—which the RAND Corp. estimated brought in anywhere from $200 million to $2.3 billion in fees from Central American migrants in 2017—with the growing popularity of a different mode of travel: Migrant caravans.

In the fall of 2018, a caravan of several thousand Central American asylum seekers and other migrants drew significant media attention as it made its way across Mexico to the U.S. border. That caravan, followed by others, served as a coping strategy to deal with dangerous conditions in Mexico; by banding together, migrants avoided smuggling fees that averaged about $4,400 per person and possible extortion from law enforcement and organized crime. Though the caravans drew massive media attention, their participants represent just a fraction of overall arrivals at the border.

Perhaps in response, smugglers responded by lowering fees in some cases, as well as offering less strenuous modes of travel, including buses ferrying people from Central America practically to the U.S. border.

The safest and quickest routes from Central America to the United States are the most expensive. In an interview with Stephanie Leutert, a University of Texas researcher who studies smuggling operations in Mexico and Central America, women traveling alone or with children seek smugglers’ services knowing that this will be the safest and quickest option to reach the border. Smugglers carry them by the busload to the U.S.-Mexico border, passing through paid-off Mexican immigration checkpoints and gang-controlled territory along the way. To afford the premium all-inclusive packages, which can cost $10,000 or more, asylum seekers and other migrants may take out loans or use property as collateral. In doing so, they may take on enormous debt.

Again, community referrals from family members, friends, and even pastors have played a role in connecting Central American migrants to smugglers, and there are reports of smugglers openly advertising their services on city streets, social media, and the radio as well. Surging demand has increased business opportunities for smugglers.

Finally, in this saturated market, there has been little investigation into how the relationship between migrants and smugglers may be influenced by the increased demand. In competing with one another, do smugglers lower prices, lie about services, or continue to rely on referrals to generate business? While these questions have not been answered, changing smuggling approaches also factor into the mix.  In earlier periods, when the majority of people crossing the border illegally were single adults seeking to enter the United States in search of jobs,  smugglers’ services involved helping their clients evade capture by hiking through the desert, being hidden inside a vehicle, or some other method. Once past the border, smugglers would transport their charges into the U.S. interior, sometimes keeping them in safehouses. These were complicated and costly operations.

In recent years, the flows arriving at the border have changed, with Mexican adults, typically men, replaced by the arrival of greater numbers of Central American asylum seekers and other migrants, either children traveling unaccompanied or families together. With many requesting asylum when arriving at the U.S. border, smugglers faced a simpler task: Getting people through Mexico and to the U.S. border to turn themselves over to a Border Patrol agent. As a result, they are paying for a different product.

Cautious Conclusions

Whether delivering migrants over the last mile of their journey, providing fake documents, or connecting friends and family to a large and complex network overseas, smugglers have the lives of their clients in their hands. And regardless whether the journey originates in Kabul or San Pedro Sula, it is a process fraught with complications and fear on the one hand, expectations and opportunity on the other.

For those desperate enough to leave behind everything they know, often selling their assets or mortgaging their futures to pay the necessary fees, taking steps into the illegal world of smuggling represents a logical path away from danger or towards a better life. Drawing broad-brush conclusions about the nature of the migrant-smuggler relationship and whether it is on balance a positive or exploitative one ignores the complexities of the varied shapes the relationship can assume.

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