Washington is addressing the problem of coyotes — human smugglers who are largely responsible for illegal immigration across the Southwest border — with a huge buildup of manpower and equipment to make the border less permeable.
One of those coyotes is "Paula" — 29 years old, divorced, pretty, petite, with a gold-rimmed incisor and penciled eyebrows. She sits after church in the border city of Piedras Negras, across from Eagle Pass, Texas. You wouldn't think that what she does for a living is to guide people through rattlesnake-infested thorn brush country, evading U.S. federal agents.
Paula was described by a reputable source as a "good coyote" — one who takes care of her clients. Most coyotes you hear about in the news are ruthless opportunists who would just as soon leave thirsty, lame immigrants in the desert to die. Paula says she doesn't operate that way.
"At times, there are chubby women who can't keep up, and we have to tell them, 'Come on! Hurry up! Walk!' " she says. "But somehow, thank God, we always arrive. If they're really fat and I see they won't make it walking, I leave them here with my boss. I won't take children either. I only take men and women. No kids."
'I Feel Like I'm Helping Them'
Paula says she's been a coyote since she was 17 years old. In 12 years, she says she has been caught by the Border Patrol four times. Every time, she says, her clients have agreed to tell the federal agent that she is just another illegal immigrant. She gets released instead of being prosecuted as a human smuggler.
She makes a very good living. Clients pay $1,500 to San Antonio; $1,800 to Houston. Paula gets $300 to $400 for each client she smuggles. She usually makes a couple of trips a month.
"I feel like I'm helping them. Things are rough here," she says. "They can earn a lot better living there, and then send money back to their families in Mexico."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that apprehensions of illegal immigrants are down 24 percent this year across the Southwest border because of more agents, better technology, tougher prosecutions and fewer immigrants trying to cross.
When asked about this trend, Paula says, laughing, "No, we move them across the way we've always crossed them. This work never ends; there's always demand."
Making The Journey
Her group walks through the night. After doing this for a dozen years, she knows the trails, the fences to jump, the stock tanks where they can refill their water bottles and the cell phone towers to use as directional guides. But inevitably, some clients get tired and start complaining.
"When they get tired and say they don't want to walk anymore, there are the bad coyotes who say, 'I'm not going to argue with you. You stay here. We're leaving.' They don't want to stop the trip because of one or two people. I won't leave my clients. If they're tired, I wait, let them rest a little, let the pain go away. Then we keep walking," she says.
When they have finished the nine-hour hike beyond the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 57, she calls her patron on her cell phone and he sends vehicles to pick them up and take them to San Antonio or Houston.
When all the money has been collected and all the immigrants have left, the smugglers go out for a celebratory meal — to a Mexican restaurant with rounds of beer and tequila shots. The next day, Paula takes a bus back to Piedras Negras, walks into her house, blows out the candle next to the saint to whom she prayed for safe passage, and waits for her next trip.