Mario Rosales is organising travel arrangements for his latest clients, a Honduran woman and her two primary school-aged children hoping to reach the United States.
Rosales, 47, a coyote, or people smuggler, sends their photos via WhatsApp to his contact in the Mexican National Immigration Institute (INM) in order to obtain fake identity cards – all part of the family’s travel package, which costs $1,800 per person to traverse about half (1,750km) of the region’s most dangerous migration route.
Rosales (not his real name), is one of 10 or so coyotes operating in La Técnica, a tiny border town in north-west Guatemala, where hundreds of migrants from Central America and the Caribbean cross into Mexico every week, despite a crackdown orchestrated by the US.
Seeking to avert crippling trade tariffs threatened by Donald Trump, Andrés Manuel López Obrador has deployed a newly created national guard across the country to stop the migrant flow. Checkpoints have sprung up along major roads, and immigration officials have raided migrant shelters.
This week, Mexico’s president declared the plan a success after apprehending around 108,500 migrants during the first half of 2019 – a 70% increase compared with the same period last year.
Migration always drops off in the hot summer months, but US figures also showed a dramatic fall: in August, 50,693 migrants were apprehended at the US/Mexico border – an 88% drop from June’s figure.
Meanwhile in Guatemala, US federal authorities including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) and intelligence agents are being deployed to dismantle smuggling networks, as part of the controversial “safe third country” agreement with the US.
But despite the clampdown, huge numbers of people continue to travel north – aided by Mexico’s booming migration industry, a multi-faceted array of networks including coyotes, corrupt officials, crooks and concerned citizens.
Local aid workers estimate that 70% of migrants crossing the porous 871km Mexico-Guatemala border travel with coyotes – or “guides”, as they prefer to be known – but the quality of service varies wildly.
Rosales prides himself on providing a safe passage and says he sympathises with the migrants’ plight: he previously lived as an undocumented migrant in Los Angeles, and along with his girlfriend was once kidnapped in Veracruz, trying to reach the US.
He works with a tightly knit group of associates, who move small groups of people by car and plane, providing – he claims – three decent meals a day. (Other coyotes guide larger groups and subcontract out dozens of short journeys to truck, bus and taxi drivers.)
With his latest clients, Rosales will accompany the Honduran family across the River Usumacinta in a small motorised boat, to Frontera Corozal in Chiapas, Mexico. He’ll then drive them 300km to Villahermosa airport in the neighbouring state of Tabasco.
Mexican migration and security forces – including state and local police, the navy, army and national guard – patrol the highways which Rosales will drive, but the group will not be stopped. Rosales sends his contacts the travel schedule, and photos of the car and his clients, to guarantee a blind eye.
“Everyone gets paid, so I never have problems,” said Rosales, who claims to spend 70% of what he earns on bribes. “The national guard are the same agents in different uniforms, still willing to make a deal.” (An INM spokesperson said corruption was not tolerated and every allegation investigated).