When Jorge began taking immigrants from El Salvador to the U.S. some 15 years ago, he was just joining the family business. Long before the most recent flood of child migrants made headlines this summer, Jorge lead his first journey north, with seven immigrants. He called his father every so often for directions.
We met this guide—also known as a “coyote” or “pollero”—in a home in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, during the shooting of Fault Lines’ latest investigation, “No Refuge: Children at the Border.” (The episode airs Saturday, September 13 at 7 pm Eastern/4 pm Pacific on Al Jazeera America.)
Jorge—not his real name—agreed to speak to us under the condition of anonymity. The following are excerpts from our conversation with him.
Fault Lines: How do people find you? Do they call you saying, "I need someone to take me?”
Jorge: When someone calls me, they say someone recommended me to them. I tell them:"It's a tough journey, but if you want to do it I will explain to you how things are. If you get caught, I can take you back if the mistake was made by the guides. But if things go wrong because you ran away or you did something stupid, I won't take the responsibility. If you agree with these terms I will do it. If not, then find someone else."
So they are told the deal ahead of time. Up to this day nobody has complained about me.
Why do you think that the amount of children leaving doubled in just one year?
They are taking advantage, because they are granting them permission in Texas. If they get you, they call your relatives, they get you a plane ticket and send you over to them just like that. And you don't have to deal with walking through the desert. I don't know why they created the law, but it's convenient for children.
Everyone took advantage and sent them over. Some coyotes charge less because they know if you turn yourself into immigration, there is no problem. You will always go through.
But others take advantage and charge them the normal rate and they deliver them to immigration. When they realized they could do that, everyone took advantage and left. But they only grant permission to mothers with children.
Some people have said that the coyotes told them to go because they would be able to stay. Do you think that is what happened?
In parts, yes. But only in the case of children and women or minors accompanied by an adult. All the coyotes know that, and they are making money from that. They are all in the game.
I imagine there are good coyotes and there are others who throw you wherever and don't care. There are all kinds. There are good ones, and there are bad ones. Some are corrupt and others are honest. It's like with every kind of business.
Some are like rats. They take your money and they leave you wherever.
In the past ten months, 66,000 kids have entered the U.S.—not just from El Salvador, but also from Honduras and Guatemala.
Do you think more kids are leaving because of the violence in El Salvador?
Moms or fathers or uncles, they know that here there is a load of gangsters, and they are recruiting kids to turn them into gangsters. They don't want their kids to end up in a gang. That's why they are sending so many children away. Because when the gangsters find out you have family in the U.S., they write you notes and tell you if you don't pay them a certain sum of money, they will screw you over.
Gangs are everywhere. Who says anything? Nobody. It needs to stop. They beat people up, steal from them, charge them fees.
So it's a lot of money to get to the U.S.?
Ten thousand dollars, $8,000—it depends how much the person is willing to give. They pay a part here, a part on the way and the rest at the end.
You get to keep $2,000. And that is a good amount. With three, you make $6,000.
Yes, but it's a tough journey.
Have you been put in jail or detained?
Yes. I was caught with immigrants in Mexico. But I asked the commander of the county how much we had to pay. He said 100,000 pesos (around $10,000 dollars). "No one has that much money,” I said. “We can give you 20,000 pesos."
So you begin to negotiate, 30,000, 40,000 pesos. At the most 35,000 pesos, and they let you go. It's all negotiable when there is money involved.
So I'd send the money to the little commander. And that dude would get the money and let them through saying, "No one was here, no one saw this. It's done.” They give you one hour or two at the most to pay them, to deposit the money and get your people.
And in the U.S., are things negotiable?
No. Not there. There, you are screwed. If they catch you there, you go to jail. There is no way to fix that.
How do you deal with cartels and criminal organizations so they let you through?
No one can cross the border unless they have a pass and they have paid for it. You pay the rent. If you go there, you have to pay and report to them. If not, no one passes. They rule there.
The moment you get to Puebla [city southeast of Mexico City] you have to report and tell them you are on your way to the border and you are coming on this day. You get there, and they have vigilantes. They receive you and they count the "merchandise" you are carrying. You need to report you are carrying five, four, eight, 15 or whatever.
If you don’t report to them, they get you on their truck, lock you up in their warehouse and charge you the amount they please. But if you pay them, there is no consequence. They let you pass through.
And this is recent? Or has it been going on forever?
Perhaps they've got a bit meaner. But it's pretty much the same. We've always paid our rent. Before it was cheaper. That's the difference. We paid $100 per immigrant. Now we have to pay $400 to $500 dollars.
Drugs are worth more than illegals. Drug traffickers use illegals—turn them over to immigration and while the police is dealing with them, they get to pass their merchandise on the side.
Sometimes they tell people that they have to carry one kilo each. And if they don't want to do that, they leave them behind or beat them up and leave them.
"Jorge," a coyote
What precautions do you take when you take people to Mexico?
I’ve known the way since I was young. You get to know people on the streets that are honest and that are corrupt. So I go with the people I know who are loyal. I get in touch with them and tell them I want to take these people from here to there.
They do everything. If they need to pay immigration, they tell you, "Yes, this is doable, but the police are charging this much, the feds are charging this much.” I give money to that guy, and he pays the authorities, and they let them through. Nobody stops them because the authorities get paid to let them through.
Do you take precautions when you take unaccompanied children? Or is it the same?
Everyone takes care of children. Even if they are drug dealers or whatever.
Some people are not good to them and treat them as if they were cattle or poultry.
Do people still call you to travel?
It has gone down. Because it's got tougher. Because the Zetas are killing people in Mexico. There are people who still want to leave, but it's not the same as before. And it's not convenient to us anymore. Now everyone wants to charge a fee and people don't want to pay more.
The U.S. is now asking all the countries to be tougher and to not let people leave. What do you think about the U.S. putting pressure on Mexico here and there to stop?
There is no pressure from the U.S. on Mexico. That is a lie. Anyone can go through Mexico—whoever carries money. They probably catch two or three, so they say they are working. But how many buses leave here every day?
Today we saw 60 or 70 people that were stopped.
How many do you think leave every day? Too many leave every day. One bus line leaves filled with illegals. They all take immigrants. Perhaps three of them come back. The rest are all going by bus. And there are some that take other paths, cross at other points. Everyday people cross the border.
Go to Arriaga, in Chiapas, Mexico, which is where the train to Ixtepec, Oaxaca leaves. Tell me how can only 60 people leave every day here if, in that train, all the wagons are filled with people—2,000 people go on top of the wagons. Go there and you are going to see the train. That train is big business.
Republicans in the U.S. are accusing the Obama administration for being too soft on immigration. They say that the issue with children surrendering to immigration is something new.
As long as they have relatives and they are adults in Texas, they are granted permission. Everyone says, "Let's take them to La Grulla [a border town in southern Texas] and turn them in there." That's where they used to turn them in. But they would always grant permission to them. Immigration would get them and take them to court or to a judge. They would call their relatives. And that has always happened.
Obama’s the same thing. And they are never going to be able to stop it. They will stop it for a while but in a year from now things will calm down and more people are going to migrate.
You say that the market adapts and whatever they do in the U.S., this will continue?
Yes. Everyone finds a way. Everyone needs money and is hungry. If the drug traffickers didn't find ways, they wouldn't be able to send drugs to the other side. Arrangements can be made. There has to be another way. So it is never going to stop.
In "No Refuge: Children at the Border," Fault Lines examines the recent boom in child migrants traveling to the U.S. from Central America. The film airs on Al Jazeera America Saturday, September 13, at 7 p.m. Eastern time. It will air again that evening at 10 p.m. Eastern and Sunday, September 14, at 2 a.m. Eastern.