EL PARAÍSO, Guatemala — The smugglers advertised on the radio as spring bloomed into summer: “Do you want to live better? Come with me.”
Cecilia, a restless wisp of a girl, heard the pitch and ached to go. Her stepfather had been murdered, forcing her, her mother and four younger siblings into her aunt’s tiny home, with just three beds for 10 people. It was all they had — and all a smuggler needed.He offered them a loan of $7,000 for Cecilia’s journey, with the property as a guarantee. “I gave him the original deed,” said Jacinta, her aunt, noting that the smuggler gave them a year to repay the loan, with interest. “I did it out of love.”
The trip lasted nearly a month, devolving from a journey of want and fear into an outright abduction by smugglers in the United States. Freedom came only after an extra $1,000 payment, made at a gas station in Fort Myers, Fla., as her kidnappers flashed a gun.
Now in Miami, Cecilia, 16, is one of more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors who have come to the United States illegally from Central America in less than a year. Though the number of new arrivals has been declining, the Obama administration says it is determined to “confront the smugglers of these unaccompanied children,” and the “cartels who tax or exploit them in their passage.”
But breaking up these networks will be difficult. Behind the surge of young migrants showing up for a shot at the American dream is a system of cruel and unregulated capitalism with a proven ability to adapt. The human export industry in the region is now worth billions of dollars, experts say, and it has become more ruthless and sophisticated than ever, employing a growing array of opportunists who trap, rape and rob from the point of departure to the end of the road.
Thousands of migrants are believed to be kidnapped and abused every year while going through Mexico. Others, like Cecilia, are held for ransom in the United States, and officials across the region lament that the ugly business of human smuggling keeps getting uglier. Especially here in Guatemala, smugglers, or “coyotes,” have grown increasingly adept at marketing themselves to poor families, drumming up hopes with false depictions of American immigration policy, then squeezing their prey with death threats, demanding payment through bank loans or property titles.
The result, visible throughout mountain villages like this one, is a relentless cycle with departures that ebb and flow but never seem to end. In this self-perpetuating system, the seeds of future migration have already been sown in the debts of the past and present. Cecilia’s inability to send money home right away led her pregnant mother to try to make the journey herself a few weeks later in a desperate bid to save the house, only to fail. Now she owes a coyote, too.
Other family members will follow, her relatives say, repeating the pattern of debt, extortion and additional risk. One relative’s failure to cross the border or earn enough money up north prompts another departure, then another.
“It’s a pyramid scheme,” said David Stoll, a sociologist at Middlebury College who has studied migration in Guatemala. Once coyotes and families realize they are about to lose money or a house, he added, “the only way they can recoup their losses is by passing the game on to those below them.”
A Marketplace for Leaving
Nebaj, the municipality that includes El Paraíso, sits in a small green valley deep in the Guatemala highlands, an eight-hour drive from the capital on rough roads that zigzag through lush canyons. This is the land of the Ixil, indigenous Mayans famous for weaving bright red skirts — and for being the victims of a scorched-earth militarycampaign that killed thousands in the 1980s during Guatemala’s civil war.
The region has been sending people north for years, often with loans. In the hillside villages all over Nebaj, stories of land lost to coyotes and banks are common. Many families spend years struggling, with debts passed on like poisoned inheritances.
Local lenders often lay out the initial payments. But if they are not paid back right away, they often threaten violence, forcing many families to borrow from Banrural, the main bank in rural Guatemala, or from cooperatives and credit unions, all of which happily advertise credit on billboards above the rural area’s muddy roads.
Many families have come away with nothing more than regrets.
“Sometimes I think my father just wasn’t thinking through the consequences of leaving,” Magdalena Raymundo, 25, said in a dirt-floored shack she shares with her husband in Acul, a village outside Nebaj. She and her mother still owe nearly $13,000 for a trip her father and brother took in 2006.
Threatening to evict the family, “bank collectors come by every few weeks asking for money,” she said.
Everyone here seems to know that going to the United States is a gamble with dangerous odds. But many go anyway because some win, and they tend to show it — like the owner of a new concrete house with an enormous American flag painted on the front, just a short walk down a muddy path from Ms. Raymundo’s home.
The banking system encourages the risky behavior. Jorge Gúzman, the manager at one of two Banrural banks in Nebaj, said loans are more likely to be approved if the family applying has a relative up north sending back money. The loans are supposed to be for construction or farming improvements, but Mr. Gúzman said “most people are not honest about why they are borrowing.”
He acknowledged that a lot of the money had been used to pay for additional journeys north. During the recession a few years ago, that led to more losses for the bank. But in the past year or two, he said, the bank’s portfolio had stabilized, allowing for more lending.
And with more money in play, coyotes have come calling. Their ranks have multiplied, many here say, because it’s the best job around. One trip often pays more than a teacher’s annual salary.
“This migration was prompted by a growing business, of the coyotes,” said Luis Fernando Carrera Castro, Guatemala’s foreign minister. “They saw a business opportunity, and they convinced people in Central America that somehow the laws of the United States were going to allow them to stay.”
Their advertising in Nebaj could be heard openly on the radio. It could be seen in the market, where women in jeans handed out business cards with phone numbers for coyotes who came to town once or twice a week.
Cecilia, who did not want her full name or the full names of her relatives used — to avoid trouble with American authorities and the people her family owes in Guatemala, knew the journey was risky. Her cousin, Ana, 21, who lives in the same house, had already tried and been deported, twice.
But Cecilia and her family believed the smuggler’s proposal. “I thought when I got to the United States they would give me papers — the coyote said that,” she said.
So early one morning in May, Cecilia put five pairs of pants and five shirts in a backpack and set off, walking up the dirt trail leading away from the home that paid her way. The coyote or one of his lackeys — they were all strangers, reachable only on cellphones that were shut off after two weeks — picked up Cecilia later that day, along with a half-dozen others.
What followed, Cecilia said, was a five-leg, three-week journey with a rotating cast of opportunistic guides. First, she rode a bus to the Mexican border. Then another set of coyotes took them through Mexico, again by bus, often failing to give them any food — a common tool to maximize profit — until they reached the town of Reynosa, just across the border from McAllen, Tex.
There, for about a week, she said, she was kept in a warehouse with as many as 100 people until they crossed the Rio Grande in a small boat and eventually landed at a house in or near McAllen. About 85 people, most of them men, squeezed into three bedrooms. The shades were drawn, and the new guides were gruff, rummaging through the migrants’ belongings while they slept.
“They took all our money from us,” Cecilia said. She handed over her last 500 Mexican pesos (about $38).
After about a week, another coyote took a small group to begin the treacherous walk through the desert in Brooks County to avoid the Border Patrol checkpoints on the roads. The thorns stuck to her legs. The dry air sapped her strength.
“I saw two dead people in the desert,” she recalled. “There was hardly any food or water. The coyote had food for himself, but not for us.”
At one point a car came and picked them up. They squeezed in, seven of them, and drove for an hour, following signs to Houston. The new coyote started calling her biological father, Jacinto, who had only recently reappeared in her life.
“Where’s the money?” the coyote asked. Jacinto was confused. He had gone to the United States as a young man, working as a gardener in Miami, but had been back in Guatemala with a second family for more than a decade.
“The man said if they don’t pay they are not going to let us out,” Cecilia said.
Migrants as Commodities
It is a common scheme. Even as thousands of children have presented themselves to American border officials in recent months, many smugglers are holding onto others for extortion. In July, a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy was rescued from a Central Florida motel after a smuggler decided he wanted more money from his uncle and took off with the children in a van. The smuggler was later arrested.
In March, 115 migrants were rescued from a stash house in Houston after a woman said she had paid a smuggler $15,000 to bring her daughter and two grandchildren to Chicago, but that they were being held against their will until an additional $13,000 was paid, according to a federal indictment.
American law enforcement officials note that the culprits in these cases and others probably had nothing to do with the original smuggler the migrants signed up with. While a generation ago coyotes were typically local figures with trusted employees, smuggling is more decentralized now, making it easier to expand and harder to stop.
“If this was hierarchal, you could take out the top, target the leadership, and it would be simple to take out the organization,” said Brian Moskowitz, the special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Houston. “Because it’s loose affiliations of cells and networks which form, break up and change alliances, it’s very difficult.”
Kidnapping has become systemic. A 2011 report from Mexico’sNational Commission of Human Rights cited 10,000 abductions in six months, leading many advocates to estimate that 20,000 people a year are abducted in Mexico on their way to the United States.
In some cases, women are used as currency to pay for passage through areas controlled by drug cartels. The cartels generally require each coyote to sell at least one woman into prostitution every two months in lieu of his monthly fee, according to Óscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist who investigated smuggling rings for his book“The Beast.”
And in the United States, the exploitation continues. Smugglers sometimes buy migrants for $100 or $200 each, then extort relatives to make the money back.
“They rent a house, gut it, throw down a few mattresses, and then when aliens get there, take their shoes, clothes and put them in a room,” said Sean McElroy, assistant special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Houston. “And usually, you will walk into a bedroom and see 20 people sitting on hands and knees, sometimes tied up with zip ties and with burlap sacks over their heads.”
In June, Homeland Security began Operation Coyote, leading to 540 smuggling-related arrests and the seizure of more than $950,000 in suspected smuggling payments from 504 bank accounts, as well as 56 vehicles. Experts welcomed the effort, but said that it had touched only a tiny piece of the trafficking industry. In most cases, especially in Central America and Mexico, smugglers still operate with impunity.
$1,000 for Her Freedom
Few migrants or their families ever call the police. In Cecilia’s case, her mother, frantic after not hearing from her daughter for weeks, took cash from a lender, hoping to make it to the United States to find her daughter and repay the original loan. But she lost everything at the Mexican border when a coyote robbed her and refused to bring her north because she was pregnant.
Jacinto was now considered responsible for the debts, but he said he had no way to pay. Cecilia said her captor became more aggressive, prompting her to play her final card: a telephone number in her pocket.
Before she had left, her father had given her the home number of a Miami human rights activist whose lawn he had occasionally cut as a teenager in the United States. He had not seen the family — the Maríns — in years.
“I get this call, and it’s a girl saying, ‘It’s Cecilia. Can you help me? They won’t let me out unless we pay money,’ ” said Ms. Marín, who did not want her full name published because of security concerns. “I said, ‘Who is Cecilia?’ ”
The coyote got on the phone and made the terms clear: He wanted $500 immediately, and someone had to come to Houston to retrieve the girl.
Flabbergasted, Ms. Marín explained to the coyote that she did not know her. A series of calls later, Ms. Marín realized that Cecilia was her former employee’s daughter.
She eventually agreed to pay the $500, and the man agreed to drive east. But every time he crossed another state line, he called and demanded more, raising the price for Cecilia’s release to $1,700 by the time he reached northern Florida.
“It was clear that if we did not comply, she would wind up in a brothel,” said Ana Reyes, Ms. Marín’s family friend who fielded most of the phone calls.
The more Ms. Marín thought about the proposition, the angrier she became. “It’s vile blackmail,” she said. But she agreed to meet in Naples, about two hours’ drive from Miami. Ms. Reyes, her toddler, Ms. Marín and Ms. Marín’s sister and niece all piled into a car to rendezvous with the smuggler.
On the ride to Naples, the women rehearsed what they would tell the police if they were arrested. “I had no choice,” Ms. Marín thought. “They would prostitute her. What was I supposed to do? Leave her?”
Along the way, they exchanged several phone calls with the man, who needed directions. He could not spell the names of the street signs and kept calling an unknown conspirator seeking authorization for price changes.
The trip ended off Interstate 75, near a Circle K convenience store, where Ms. Marín and her entourage encountered a red Jeep Cherokee with temporary license plates. There were two men in the car. The driver was middle-aged and wore glasses. He lifted his shirt to show the firearm tucked in his waistband.
He wanted $1,500, but Ms. Marín had brought only $900. Her sister scraped together another $100 from her purse.
“When he showed the gun, I was so mad,” Ms. Marín said. “I said, ‘Look, sir, I don’t know her. I did not hire you. Take her!’ When he saw my rage, he said, ‘You don’t know her?’ ”
“ ‘No, I don’t,’ ” she answered.
“ ‘I am going to lose money on this, but O.K.,’ ” he said. He took the $1,000 and let Cecilia out of the car. She carried nothing. Her bag, her clothes were gone. All she had was lipstick, in her front pocket.
Over the next few weeks, Cecilia’s father would be threatened by the lender; her mother would give birth, adding another child to the crowded house that might soon be seized; and Cecilia would learn that her dreams of sending home $1,000 a month were unrealistic.
But by the smuggler’s accounting, there on the side of the road, Cecilia had been well served.
“You have to be thankful,” he said. “We treated her well.”