Running with coyotes
8 mins read

Running with coyotes

I’ve never seen a coyote. I’ve seen more people called coyotes than animals,” thinks nine-year-old Javier Zamora when he comes across a rotting coyote carcass in the California Book Club’s June selection: Alone. After grueling days of fighting thirst and fatigue in the dry desert heat, Zamora, known as Chepito, and his fellow Salvadorans, called the Six in the book, encounter a wild dog, the animal that gives the immigrant smugglers their name.

Although some believe that human coyotes are named for the cunning and deception they use to smuggle migrants across national borders, the name actually refers to the territories frequented by smugglers and where animal coyotes regularly roam. Zamora gives human coyotes nicknames: Nice Coyote, Mean Coyote, Old Coyote, Bearded Coyote and Mexican Coyote. The nine-year-old version of Zamora couldn’t have described them better. Where the kind coyote’s voice is calm and calms the child’s mind, the mean coyote unleashes cruel insults, at one point shouting, “Jump in! Don’t be a bitch!” at a man who is afraid to jump into the ocean because he cannot swim.

Alone describes Zamora’s 5,000-mile trek from his hometown in El Salvador to where he now lives in the western United States. One thing has remained constant throughout these difficult weeks: coyotes control his and Six’s fate, for better or for worse. Throughout the diary, perceptions of and reactions to smugglers shift from positive to negative, sometimes settling on a varying mix of both emotional valences.

Before Zamora sets off on her journey, local fruit seller La Chele Gloria discusses Don Dago – known as “the best coyote on the central coast of El Salvador”, but also a person who has experienced sexual harassment in the past. This is the same smuggler who initially refuses to accept children under the age of 10, but does not hesitate to get through to criminals for a price.

In addition to the events described in the book, our country implements a restrictive immigration policy that controls who can enter through which port, and finding an intermediate port is where smugglers arrive. And these real smugglers often disagree with the stereotypical image of the coyote.

“It is often a very gendered and racist image of the smuggler. Often it’s a Mexican, and if you go back historically, it’s, for example, that furtive Mexican along the border who’s transporting people,” says Stephanie Leutert, director of the Central America-Mexico Policy Initiative at the University’s Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law Texas in Austin. “And this is not what smuggling looks like nowadays. There are many different actors, especially on the American side. Most people are U.S. citizens.”

In 2021, 75 percent of people caught and convicted in federal court for the crime of human smuggling were U.S. citizens, and their demographics ranged from men experiencing homelessness to single mothers traveling with children.

People smuggling is not unique to Mexico’s border with the United States (although this region is the largest migration corridor in the world). Smugglers are employed all over the world: including Afghanistan, Syria, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. And most of their work goes almost unnoticed. A good coyote is one that is well-connected and has contingency plans in place for the territory it is traveling through: has a boat manned and ready to depart from shore, knows a bus driver who is willing to travel with migrants, is aware of what cartel controls what area (and pays it off), locates the safe box, and knows which border agents are happy to look the other way.

On the U.S.-Mexico border, the better the coyote (and the easier the trip), the more expensive the trip may be. For example, $8,000 can buy a smuggler a ride through the desert heat, but more luxurious means of transportation – say, in a secret compartment of a vehicle where US immigration officers are already paying to look the other way – cost around $20,000. Prices for these services are skyrocketing: Last year, the average trip ranged from $12,000 to $14,000. It’s a profitable business, which is why the number of coyotes ready to provide their services is not decreasing.

“There are people who are willing to take that risk,” Leutert says. “There will always be someone else who will try to get in on the action because money is important. And people are in a situation where they need money.”

Even though migrants pay this much, there is still no guarantee of a safe journey. The reality of these illegal activities means there is no legal channel to report mistreatment, abuse or harassment – and such incidents do happen. The difference between a people smuggler and a human trafficker is only whether the people being smuggled are willing or not. Many expeditions end in kidnapping, extortion and even death.

There are few steps migrants can take to mitigate the risks. Because smugglers like Don Dago often find work through a friend of a friend in a small town, they have more incentive to get someone from their hometown safely across an international border than to get someone who has joined them on the final leg of the journey. The farther from home a migrant renting a coyote is, the greater the risk he or she is taking.

Nobody actually decides to go on such trips. In most cases, it is desperation that leads people to take huge risks and ask their children to take them. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing borders has increased in recent years. In 2022, almost 130,000 migrant children entered the country, most from Central America: thousands of Chepito experience their own journeys and their own traumas.

“Why would people do this? Well, you’re lucky you’ve never been in a situation where your reality seems like a good option. My dad told me he left because he couldn’t listen to his child telling him every day, “Can I eat something?” Can I get food? They didn’t have enough to eat. It’s about violence, it’s about political issues, it’s about a number of factors,” Leutert says when asked why someone would make this trip. “It’s hunger.” •

Join us on June 20 at 5 p.m. PT when Zamora will join CBC host John Freeman and special guest Ingrid Rojas Contreras to discuss Alone. Register to participate in the Zoom call Here.


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Shot in the head by Elizabeth Casillas

Elizabeth Casillas is an associate editor at Alta Journal. A graduate of California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, she previously wrote for: Poly mail AND Enspire Magazine.