How Immigration Policies Create Smugglers

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This blog was originally published on the Allegra Laboratory website. Find the original post here.

By: Rebecca Galemba

In the spring of 2007, when I was driving with Ramón (all names have been changed), a Mexican man who lives along an unmonitored road that crosses the Mexico-Guatemala border, we passed one of the newer, two-story homes. I commented that the house had its outdoor lights on all day. Ramón shrugged. “He won’t care. He’s rich”, he said. “He doesn’t care about the lights”. Ramón told me that the owner – Gerardo – used to be a pollero, or a human smuggler, who brought many people to the United States. But he stopped, according to Ramón, when “things became more complicated” and Mexico intensified immigration surveillance in the mid-2000s.

Other border residents also whispered that Gerardo used to be a pollero or coyote, another term used to refer to migrant smugglers. The whispers were usually followed by an assertion that he was no longer a smuggler. Now he just raised cattle. Prior to the late 1990s and early 2000s, many border residents provided Central Americans with rides into Mexico with little fanfare.

Mexico’s intensification of border policing and concerted securitisation of migration can be traced to the US-backed Plan Sur in 2001 to support US security concerns. The escalation of the drug war in Mexico in 2006, and Mexico’s implementation of the Southern Border Plan in 2014 in response to Washington’s outcries of a “surge” on the border in 2014, further intensified migrant policing.

Mexico has concentrated border surveillance on select, modernised border points of entry, as well as on ad hoc highway roadblocks to establish ‘belts of control’. However, migrant desperation, continued demand for cheap labour in the United States, and widespread official corruption and impunity has meant that heightened securitisation has not deterred migration. Instead, migrant smuggling at the Mexico-Guatemala border has shifted from more informal networks and local guides to higher-priced smugglers and criminal groups as human rights abuses against migrants increase.

How Gerardo became a smuggler

The first border residents, whether from the Mexican or Guatemalan side, who went to the United States in the 1990s all went with Gerardo. Miguel, a Guatemalan border resident, joined other young men from the Mexican side of the border. “We all went to the United States with Gerardo before he was a coyote”, Miguel said. They went to work on pine tree plantations in Alabama. Since Gerardo was the first to work at the plantation, he found work for others. At first each man used his own money to travel to the northern border, where they hired coyotes to help them cross the US-Mexico border.

Gerardo did not charge any of them and also worked on the plantation. Subsequently, Gerardo recruited his friends more formally under work visas through his employer in Alabama. The ironic twist was that the visas were for Guatemalans, and so the Mexicans purchased false Guatemalan papers in La Libertad or Guatemala City. Border residents believed that work visas were easier to acquire in Guatemala than in Mexico, after the end of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war in 1996. Due to fewer applicants, visas were also less competitive in Guatemala. When the visa process expired, people were still able to go north without documents, as the cross-border migration and work networks were by this point established. Later, Gerardo brought the same people from the same places to the same location. This time he charged, making him a coyote.

Yet the stories surrounding Gerardo’s role shift depending on the point in time and the interlocutor. “No, he wasn’t acoyote…they are from bigger cities”, one Mexican border resident said. “Some people say he is, but he was acontratista [contractor], since his boss in the US would send him here to bring others … they went with visas, which they bought in Guatemala”. Others mentioned Gerardo’s role as a labor contractor and coyote as one and the same; the only thing that changed was how he could bring people to the employer in the US. In other words, Gerardo was converted from a fellow migrant to a labour broker to a smuggler depending on changes in US immigration and visa processes, all the while continuing to provide his Alabama employer with Mexican and Guatemalan workers.

Some residents wonder how Gerardo made so much money, but others see him as someone who helped others regardless of whether they called him a fellow migrant, smuggler, or contractor. “He is the one who helped many people from here go to the US”, Gerardo’s cousin noted. “He helped the majority from this region. Since he was one of the first to go, he helped others to go with visas and then others as a coyote. But then he stopped … when it got more dangerous”.

When smuggling becomes a profession

As Mexico enhanced immigration surveillance and criminalised smuggling, and drug cartels expanded into human smuggling and preying on migrants, smaller-scale smugglers like Gerardo left the business. It became more dangerous to crossing through Mexico and more expensive to evade corrupt officials, checkpoints, and criminals. Locals preferred to go with local border guides and brokers since they trusted people with whom they shared social and kinship connections.

In recent years, border residents have had to search for smugglers in larger cities, those who may specialise in, or have deeper connections to, smuggling networks. Smugglers are increasingly necessary to helping locals navigate Mexico’s proliferation of immigration checkpoints.

Eduardo, a Mexican border resident, referred to how migrant smuggling transformed from a networking service to a more lucrative and risky business that locals increasingly associate with drug trafficking regardless of actual overlaps. He mentioned that Gerardo probably never made much money bringing people. Eduardo also used to “deliver” migrants to smugglers locally and occasionally to the northern border as a teenager. But, he told me, “[in those days] it was very little and it was different…easy…I barely made anything”.

Eduardo confided suspicions about Gerardo and his earnings that led locals to collapse migrant and drug smuggling together. Gerardo had a small horse track on his property in a region where horse races are often associated with drug exchanges. “That is where they do exchanges … it is all narcos”, said Eduardo. Eduardo suspected Gerardo was collaborating with people working in drugs and pollos”. But, he said, “do not tell people where you heard that”.

Prior to Mexico’s intensification of migrant surveillance, smuggling migrants may have still been illegal, but it was a mundane, relatively benign aspect of border life.

Previously an activity that most residents engaged in to some degree, they have been pushed out of migrant smuggling by its increasing risk, price, and criminalisation under Mexico’s intensification of border policing since signing Plan Sur in 2001, and most recently, under the 2014 Southern Border Plan. In turn, the increasing criminality and corruption surrounding migration make border residents not only avoid it, but also fearful to even talk about it. Once a fact of border life, they no longer spoke about migrant smuggling, or talked about it as something they did in the past, or spoke about it quietly.

Just like the drug traffickers they knew passed through their community, they knew migrant smugglers used this route, but did not see or hear anything. As one border resident told me, “if drugs come through here, we don’t realise. They don’t bother us”.

At this particular juncture, border talk around human and drug smuggling alternates between silence and rumour as the landscape shifts. Rumour can help people living in a constant state of fear navigate uncertainty while it also serves to govern the movements of the vulnerable. At the Mexico-Guatemala border, alternating silences and rumours protect local residents while they also enhance the illicit aura around drugs and migration and perpetuate silence and impunity.

As Gerardo’s narrative demonstrates, the profile of the human smuggler is shaped by fluctuations in migration policy and policing. Nicholas de Genova critically examines immigrant illegality by pointing to how changing laws, rather than migrant and smuggler actions, produced “the legal production of migrant illegality”. By extension, to understand the evolution and fear of the criminal smuggler, we must become attune to the criminalisation of human mobility. The criminalisation and uneven policing of boundaries has shaped and structured the strategies of those seeking to evade them, as well as created and altered the constellations of actors who serve as brokers at the disjunctures between borders, their incomplete enforcement, and human mobility.

Rebecca Galemba  (PhD Brown University), is an anthropologist and has been a Lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies since 2012. Learn more about the Latin America Center. 


Obama in Havana and Buenos Aires: Realism Confirmed or Idealism Revealed?

By: Tom Farer

Meditating a few months ago on President Obama’s refusal to intervene in Syria’s slaughterhouse, Steve Walt, a notable academic Realist, declared to his self-professed surprise that Obama had proven himself as much of a realist as Walt.

A defining policy reflex of academic realists is their insistence that hard power be reserved for the defense of core national security interests. As for democracy and human rights, the generality of academic realists urge that we be guided by John Quincy Adams’ dictum: However much we sympathize with other people’s oppression, we should not go abroad to slay dragons.

Despite his politically shrewd embrace of caution when addressing a war-weary electorate during the 2008 Presidential campaign, Obama’s professional history as an organizer of poor people, his manifest disinterest in grasping the immensely lucrative career open to a President of the Harvard Law Review, bespoke an idealist. And he was, after all, a liberal albeit not an exclamatory one and by the late Twentieth Century Liberalism and the defense of human rights as an end in itself were virtually synonymous.

Some of his first moves as President seemed to confirm my impression that we had elected a champion of human rights. I think, for example of Obama’s appointing the once iconic critic of American passivity in the face of overseas slaughter, Samantha Powers, to a senior position on the National Security Council and his creation of an interdepartmental unit tasked with putting cases of looming massive violations of human rights on the President’s radar screen. Nevertheless, until Omar Qaddafi sent his troops racing toward Benghazi with the stated purpose (stated by Qaddafi) of exterminating the opposition in the rebellious city, there remained the question of whether Obama’s concern for human rights would ever move him to defend them with hard power. He resolved that question by raining a brief but paralyzing barrage of US air and missile power on Qaddafi’s forces, then stood off while NATO allies, working with disparate anti-Qaddafi militias, finished the job of what proved to be regime’s end.

Meanwhile Syria erupted and it became evident, even before Libya turned into a fiasco, that for Obama Libya rather than being a precedent was a bridge just short of being too far. He clearly saw Syria as miles farther. Writing two years later I concluded “that people facing death at the hands of tyrannical governments who have the misfortune to live in countries where core national interests of the United States are not at stake, will find that prayer will do no less for them and possibly even more than the indispensable nation.”

I did not, however, conclude like Walt that Obama had become a Realist, much less that deep down he had always been one. Rather it seemed to me that the Iraq war had persuaded him that however pristine US intentions, for myriad reasons US military interventions in large complex countries without long-established democratic traditions or anything resembling a rule-of-law culture were likely to enhance the target population’s misery at great cost to the United States. The aftermath of Libya merely confirmed Obama’s conclusion.

On that premise a President committed to the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad would have to rely primarily on soft power, the power exemplified by his Easter trip to the Cuban-Argentine antipodes of Latin America. His visit to Havana culminates a two-year process of reversing a sixty-year American policy of facilitating totalitarian government 90 miles off the coast of Florida. Yes, I said “facilitating”.

Think of the effort North Korea invests in isolating its population from contact with the outside world and persuading its people that the country is under constant threat from the US and its southern neighbor. Leaning up against merely authoritarian and friendly China has helped. As he sought total control of Cuban lives, Fidel Castro faced far more serious obstacles than his North Korea counterpart, since he presided over a country so very close to the liberal democratic capitalist United States. In order to isolate his people, silence dissent and rationalize poverty, Fidel needed help and Washington conveniently provided it by cutting off both economic and human contact with the island and by declaring the intention of overthrowing its government.

All Obama really had to do was refuse to continue the policy of giving Fidel and his fellow oligarchs a helping hand. Its internal contradictions no longer softened by Chavez’s fraternal gifts of Venezuelan oil, to the end of self-preservation the regime was already beginning to loosen its quotidian grip when Obama made his first moves. But those moves are helping accelerate the process.

Obama in Havana did more than drive a final spike into the government-cultivated narrative of a country under siege from its giant neighbor. He also opened a window on what accountable government could mean by maneuvering grizzled old Raul into the alien experience of a press conference with independent journalists asking disagreeable questions. Chalk one up for soft power.

Cuba won’t be a free country tomorrow, but its long-suffering people already have more scope to realize a personal vision of the life they want to lead. Somewhere down the road Cuba will become a normal country where, as a conservative philosopher once put it, every person has the dignity of living his or her own potty little life.

From shabby Havana Obama flew to elegant Buenos Aires. Lying six thousand miles from Washington, rich in resources and human capital, although poor in the capacity for rational self-government, Argentina unlike Cuba has lived much nearer but still within the margin of US Government influence. Why Argentina and why now? Here too it seems to me Obama’s real concern for human rights helped shape the choice. The choice implied a celebration of democracy reaffirmed and quiet penance for the long years during which Washington supported state terror in Argentina, Chile, Salvador and other Latin countries.

Obama was meeting with a President, Mauricio Macri, who had won a fair election revolving around well-defined policy choices. And he would attend a popular gathering on the banks of the Plate River to memorialize the men and women murdered by the military government which ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

Shortly after that government seized power and began disappearing into its torture centers anyone suspected of left-wing subversion, the then US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had met with his Argentine counterpart, Admiral Guzzetti, and, according to a Memorandum of Conversation extracted from State Department files in 2004 through the Freedom of Information Act, Kissinger had said: “Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. . .. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood in the United States is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights problems, but not the context. . .. The quicker you succeed the better.”

The U.S. Ambassador to Argentina at that time, Robert Hill, hardly a liberal himself but concerned about the cruel intensity and indiscriminateness of the repression, had arranged the meeting in the expectation, apparently, that Kissinger would underline the Ambassador’s concerns already communicated to the military junta. When after the Kissinger-Guzzetti meeting Hill met with Argentine President Jorge Videla, a just-retired General, the latter dismissed Hill’s concerns according to a cable Hill subsequently sent to Washington. “The President,” Hill reported, “said he had been gratified when Guzzetti reported to him that secretary of state Kissinger understood their problem . . .”

Videla died in Prison. Prosecutions of lower-level killers continue to this day. Macri’s predecessors in the Presidential Palace, the Kirchners husband and wife, consolidated civilian control of the military by shrinking the armed forces and purging their hard liners.

Henry Kissinger reflects the hard-guy Jacksonian facet of American foreign policy culture and personifies the so-called “grand strategist” who observes humanity from so great a distance that individual faces are obscured. In his brief trip south Obama demonstrated that he is a very different sort of man.

Tom Farer is a University Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver (2010-present) and former Dean of the Josef Korbel School (1996-2010). Learn more about the Latin America Center.