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Coyotes: The lynchpin to human smuggling operations

By Bethany Blankley
The Center Square

A coyote, a colloquialism for a human smuggler, is critical to Mexican cartel human smuggling operations. Combined, they cover thousands of miles primarily guiding foreign nationals first through Central America into Mexico, then through Mexico and into the U.S. They also operate along the U.S.-Canada border.

Like a 4x400 meter track relay race with four athletes racing to pass a baton without dropping it, coyotes cover different parts of a dangerous journey to the U.S. Instead of passing a baton, they smuggle people, including children and babies. Instead of running 100 meters, they can cover several miles.

Similar to a relay race where the fastest and strongest runner often runs last to ensure the race is won, the most important coyote is the last one tasked with smuggling people across the finish line, the Rio Grande River, into the U.S. without getting caught.

Unlike some athletes who may have financial scholarships or sponsors, coyotes are paid through a global, organized criminal multi-billion-dollar enterprise profiting off of people.

Before foreign nationals ever arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, many are robbed, kidnapped, raped and abused. Those who aren’t kidnapped, and willingly hire coyotes to help them illegally cross into the U.S., are engaging in organized crime, law enforcement officials have explained to The Center Square. They pay or pledge to pay thousands of dollars per person to be smuggled into the U.S. knowing that smuggling is a crime.

Nearly everyone who illegally enters the U.S. between ports of entry coming through Mexico relies on coyotes, law enforcement officials have explained to The Center Square.

Once in the U.S., illegal foreign nationals become what many describe as indentured servants or modern-day slaves, because they are then trafficked into forced labor conditions. Human smuggling and human trafficking are two different crimes.

As The Center Square previously reported, modern-day slaves are forced into horrific labor conditions; cartels control their movements, living arrangements and hold their identification documents. A large portion of them, including children, are forced into the multi-billion-dollar sex trafficking business.

Coyotes cannot operate without the permission of Mexican cartels that control access to the entire U.S.-Mexico border, law enforcement officials have also explained to The Center Square. The Gulf Cartel, for example, controls access into Texas from Brownsville, west to Starr County, through the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

The Los Zetas and Cartel del Noreste control access to nine Texas counties from Starr to Val Verde, through the Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. In specific areas in the U.S. and Mexico, Zeta, Sinaloa and Cartel Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) cartel members are fighting to control smuggling routes.

The Sinaloa Cartel, believed to be one of the most ruthless criminal organizations in the world, controls the majority of the southern border: from California to Brewster County in west Texas. The Sinaloans also control access through, and all operations in, six Mexican states directly south of 15 U.S. border counties in all four U.S. border states, according to law enforcement reports and maps shared with The Center Square.

In a 2016 Univision News interview, a coyote explained how he smuggled “people from practically all of the world. Not just Latin Americans. People from Asia, Africa,” into the U.S. Initially, he started smuggling with other coyotes. Within a few years, he started his own smuggling business to prioritize the most important part of the journey: illegal entry to the U.S. without getting caught.

“It's money. It pays well. You don't work hard. There's a lot of risk, but the pay is good,” he said. He also said if the cartels don’t get paid, “They will kill us.”

Those being smuggled owe between $7,000 and $10,000 a person, the coyote said at the time. Today, estimates are higher. Chinese nationals who’ve been apprehended have told officials they paid or owed more than $50,000 per person.

A Border Patrol agent working in the Rio Grande Valley told The Center Square coyotes aren’t just in Mexico. They’re in the U.S. In border towns, the agent said, coyotes are men and women, minors, mothers and even grandmothers. The majority are U.S. citizens, the agent said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

“Our own citizenry, your own neighbor is working against you to destabilize your neighborhood,” the agent said. The agent has encountered middle and high school students in Starr County, Texas, for example, who have smuggled people from Mexico. One was as young as 11, the agent said, a sixth-grader.

Texas DPS officers also recently apprehended minors when they caught a notorious coyote in Laredo using boys in his smuggling operation.

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