Inside The Hidden World Of Immigrant Smuggling Though specific statistics are hard to confirm, it is believed that a large percentage of immigrants illegally crossing the border into the U.S. have done so with the help of what's commonly known as a coyote — a smuggler or smuggling group.

Inside The Hidden World Of Immigrant Smuggling

Inside The Hidden World Of Immigrant Smuggling

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Though specific statistics are hard to confirm, it is believed that a large percentage of immigrants illegally crossing the border into the U.S. have done so with the help of what's commonly known as a coyote — a smuggler or smuggling group.


Lenny Sanchez, commander, Palmview Police Department
Rey Koslowski, professor, State University of New York at Albany
Luis Alberto Urrea, author, Devil's Highway


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Earlier this month, nine immigrants suspected of being illegally smuggled into the United States were killed in a car crash. That journey came to a violent and sudden end. But there have been, and there will be others bent on crossing the Mexican border north to the U.S. who will make that very same journey and with a similar setup.

They will pay someone, a smuggler, a coyote it's called, to get across. The immigration debate nowadays centers on what happens when the immigrants get here, but today we want to zoom in just on this part of it, how these smuggling operations actually work. Who are these coyotes? Why do people go to them? What do they have to pay them? And why is the journey that they lead their human cargos on so often so dangerous, like that accident with the truck?

What happens out there in those last few miles when the border is just up ahead? Illegal immigration is a crime, but the smuggling is the crime within the crime. That is our focus. And if you have experience in this world, we'd like you to call us and tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Crawford Kilian and the ten most harmful novels for aspiring writers to read. But first the hidden world of immigrant smuggling. Lenny Sanchez is a commander in the Palmview Police Department and was one of the law enforcement agencies responsible for investigating this month's crash. He joins us now by phone from Palmview, Texas. Commander, thanks very much, and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

LENNY SANCHEZ: Yes, sir, thank you.

DONVAN: So you have nine suspected illegal immigrants dead. Six of them are injured. How often do you see this kind of thing? Is this an extraordinary event?

SANCHEZ: Well, the accident, well, very extraordinary. The accident itself, (unintelligible). As far as the illegal smuggling across the valley here in South Texas, it's a very common area for illegals to come from Mexico, Central America, Chinese, other countries, also. They're using the Mexican border to cross into the U.S.

And do - we were talking about this being a very violent ending. Do you see things like this happening more often than...?

Well, at this time, like, you know, law enforcement is putting their efforts as far as the front lines of defense when it deals with, of course from terrorists and illegal smuggling coming from the Mexican side and also even the high-crime area as far as (unintelligible) smuggling. And that's why it's very important for us to actually - you know, working these cases, when we're working these cases, obviously we're putting a dent into their pockets. Obviously they get into a violent (unintelligible), yes, sir.

DONVAN: And when you say a dent into their pockets, that's an interesting way to put it because you're talking about, I guess, a cash transaction taking place there. A dent into whose pockets? Who's running this stuff?

SANCHEZ: The illegal smuggler, or the crooks, basically, you know, once you take down their narcotic loads or even their - some type of illegal smuggling operation, (unintelligible) human trafficking. Somebody's taking a hit as far as pocketing illegal money.

DONVAN: And in the case of this accident that we mentioned at the beginning of the program, do you know who was driving? Do you have the driver? Was that the coyote, or was he himself...?

SANCHEZ: At this time, during the investigation we did come up with a 15-year-old driver.

DONVAN: Fifteen.

SANCHEZ: And we do have him in custody. He got transported to the Hidalgo County Juvenile Detention Center. Obviously, he's a juvenile. So there's very minimal things I can say about him and where he lives and stuff like that. But other than, we've been seeing that they have been recruiting youngsters, you know, for X amount of dollars to do their dirty work.

DONVAN: So I understand you can't talk about that suspect because of his age, but tell me about this van. How is it - how many were fitting in this van? How many people are supposed to fit in this van? And how is it tricked out to get so many people into it?

SANCHEZ: Well, this van is equipped to - it's an eight-passenger van, and it's equipped with seats. Obviously, the crooks actually gut this vehicle out so they can fit more undocumented immigrants in there. There are approximately I believe 19 immigrants in the vehicle, which is...

DONVAN: How many? Did you say 19? My gosh.

SANCHEZ: Nineteen, and that's including the driver, obviously. And this van is not equipped for that heavy load or the capacity that the van was carrying.

DONVAN: When you have an incident like this where you know that you have a group of illegal crossers, and you also have somebody who's organizing them, the coyote, and you apprehend them all, does the coyote come in for any sort of different treatment? Is there a prosecution as opposed to just a deportation?

SANCHEZ: In this particular case, we got - we were assisted by - the investigation was assisted also by the Homeland Security investigations. And basically what they did, they took care of the coyote and the higher-ups rather than the driver, and they went federally in cases. So they actually work on federal cases. We don't work federal cases. So they took over the federal aspect, and we took the juvenile aspect.

DONVAN: Yeah, so what I'm trying to actually understand, and I think you're telling me this, that it's a different level of crime to be the smuggler than to be the smuggled person.

SANCHEZ: Yes, obviously yes, as far as being smuggled, as far as us, we are - initially we don't have jurisdiction to ask the nationality of people. So therefore, we all just do - all we do follow is the penal code, which is Texas state law statutes, which does not give us authority to check nationality on individuals.

DONVAN: And what sort of insight do you have on the scale of these operations? In other words, and again realizing that the one that just happened, we're talking about, is under investigation. But in a more broad sense, do most of the smugglers, most of these coyotes, operate as small operations? Are they one- or two-person operations? Or are we talking about a large organization here?

SANCHEZ: Well, it's a lot of drug organization. Obviously, we can get again to the Mexican side. But, you know, they operate from actually crossing from whatever country they come from, and then they just trickle down, down into the U.S., which is now you have the person who actually coordinates here in U.S., the person that gets them out of the bus or from the river. And then you have the one that actually, that actually takes the person further up north so they can pass checkpoints and so forth.

So you're looking at about maybe four or five people deep in the U.S. that actually take, that work in this operation to get people across into the checkpoints here in the U.S.

DONVAN: So they have a lot of moving parts.

SANCHEZ: Obviously yes, sir. They have it coordinated so basically they have their - the top end to the low end and who's going to do it at the end the dirty work, which in this situation it ended up being a juvenile.

DONVAN: All right, well, Commander Lenny Sanchez with the Palmview Police Department, he joined us by phone. Thanks very much for your time, Commander.

SANCHEZ: Thank you, sir.

DONVAN: Thanks for joining us. Well, we want to hear from you, our listeners. If you are familiar with this world from any aspect of it, whether you, perhaps a family member, have been a customer of a coyote, let us say, or whether you are in law enforcement or have some other insight, sort of firsthand insight from the experience, we'd like to hear from you to help us see this process and this operation in more detail, up close, if you will.

I want to bring in now Rey Koslowski. He is a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany, and he directs the program on border control and Homeland Security and co-edited a book called "Global Human Smuggling." Rey Koslowski, thanks very much for joining us.

REY KOSLOWSKI: Thank you for having me.

DONVAN: To pick up where I just left off with Commander Sanchez, in terms of these things being a large-scale organization or more mom-and-pop operations, which is it? Is this organized crime, or are these freelancers out there?

KOSLOWSKI: I think it varies widely. It depends on the country, the source country, the destination country. It depends on the timeframe you're talking about here. But with respect from the southern border, the U.S. southern border to the United States, I would say that we had much more - let me put it to you this way.

You say organized crime, there's also crime that organized, i.e., that it is networks that are operating and not necessarily this hierarchical, you know, mafia imagery that we often utilize but different networks of illicit businesses that are cooperating on a project-by-project basis. So you can think of it that way.

And for the most part, much of the smuggling that took place over the southern U.S. border back in the early 1990s, for example, in the mid-1990s, this was small-time operation. The fees were relatively low, in the several hundred dollars. But really in the last 10 years, what we are seeing is more and more involvement of larger organized crime, organizations that are also smuggling drugs and other contraband.

We want to also get some insight into who goes into the business, let's say. And we've asked listeners to give us a call at 800-989-8255 if you have experience in this world. And I want to bring in Royce(ph), who's calling us from Denver, Colorado. Hi, Royce, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. What do you know?

ROYCE: Hello.


ROYCE: Well, my experience comes from about five years ago. I went to school in Las Cruces, New Mexico, which is a town about an hour from El Paso, which is a major Mexican border there. And I didn't live the normal sheltered life on campus or anything. I lived in not the nicest part of town. And I got to know a coyote very well.

His part of the organization, and it was very much a mom-and-pop type of deal, it was him and his two brothers, would handle the secondary crossings, after they had gotten into the States but getting past the secondary crossings, getting further into the state.

There's a couple different levels that you have to pass through. It was really a matter or knowing where the water holes were so that they could walk from one to the other. But I remember one time they said something that was so striking and so scary to me that he no longer would take older women or children because they're far too likely to die on the trail. And almost that was - the business model was making sure - because you don't get paid unless they get there and having to be selective about which people could make it with them without passing away.

DONVAN: Are you saying, Royce, that this man had a conscience, or are you saying that this man had a - was making a business calculation?

ROYCE: No, he had a business conscience. It wasn't a matter of not wanting the people to die. It was a matter of wanting to make sure he got paid.

DONVAN: All right, Royce, thanks very much for joining us. And that brings me back to Rey, a question I was going to ask you about what we know about the character, if there's any sort of generalization about the people who are involved in this field. Is there a missing compassion gene, or are there actually people who do this who believe in it as they're helping people out?

KOSLOWSKI: Yes, it's very much - it's very gray. In some cases, people who help people cross the border, you know, they're considered heroes. They've helped people escape poverty. In some cases, when you think about the smuggling of refugees, they help people escape from persecution. So it can be viewed very differently depending on your perspective.

I also just want to point out, though, there's something very important because we heard this term trafficking. There's a distinction, a legal distinction, too, between human smuggling and human trafficking. And human trafficking occurs when there is coercion, that is when somebody isn't just paying somebody to cross illegally into another country.

DONVAN: Rey, I'm so sorry to do it in the middle of a sentence. We're coming right up to a break, and we'll be back in just a minute and can continue. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


DONVAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan. We are talking about coyotes, and those are people, people who smuggle illegal immigrants across the border. And there have been a number of cases in recent weeks that have focused attention on the risks involved. And we want to look now a little bit more at the reasons that people continue to turn to coyotes in spite of these dangers.

If you have experience in this world, we want you to ask us - to tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We've been speaking with Rey Koslowski. He directs the program on border control and Homeland Security at the State University of New York at Albany, and Rey, you were telling us about this distinction between smuggling and trafficking and that they're not the same thing. So continue that thought.

KOSLOWSKI: Yeah, again trafficking involves coercion, And typically we hear a lot about trafficking of women and children into forced prostitution, for example. But it also can be coercion to work. So we have had cases where people who might have been smuggled across, just simply smuggled across the border to the United States, but then hijacked and taken to work places where they didn't intend to go or held for ransom because oftentimes they are being - the smugglers are being paid by relatives, for example.

It costs roughly now, the fee to get into the United States across the southern border, you know, $2,500, roughly. And, you know, a lot of migrants don't have that kind of money. And so they have to finance it, and these are the ways in which this happens.

And then there are, if you will, loads of smuggled migrants that are hijacked. And this happens also in Mexico, as well, with the Central Americans who are coming north.

DONVAN: Well, let me bring in Luis Alberto Urrea. He is the author of "The Devil's Highway." This was a stunning book, which came out a few years back, in which he told the true story of a group of Mexican immigrants who did cross the border into the U.S. Some of them made it, and some of them didn't. And he joins us now from his home in Chicago. It's nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION, Luis. Thanks for joining us.


DONVAN: So the story you tell, and once again I want to give the title of this book because we were all talking about it in the office today, "The Devil's Highway," is part reporting and part imagining by your going out and seeing what the conditions in which a group of basically abandoned crossers didn't all make it.

And you tell very movingly of the story of a father watching his 15-year-old son die of heat exhaustion in front of him, in the middle of nowhere. And given episodes like this that you wrote about, and given what we've just heard from Rey Koslowski about the opportunities to be ripped off in your most vulnerable moment, why do people go to coyotes in the first place?

URREA: Desperation. You know, there's - there was a very telling moment for me hanging out at a municipal garbage dump on the south side of the border where people had come from the interior to pick trash, not necessarily to cross a border, just to be close to it because they felt that there would be better pickings close to the United States.

That's all you have to do is get within the shadow, and your life will change. And the person I was speaking to said, you know, at least here you have garbage. At home, there wasn't even garbage left.

DONVAN: So it's desperation.

URREA: It is desperation. I know there's a lot of, you know, political traction to portraying welfare chiselers and blah, blah, blah. But the fact is, you know, it's someone trying desperately to survive. And the numbers are down. You know, if you talk to the border patrol, they'll tell you that the numbers are down precipitously. But that doesn't mean that the horror and the death has diminished at all. It's getting more and more brutal out there, and partially I think it's because those mom-and-pop operations are vanishing.

And, you know, criminal organizations are running the border, particularly narcos are really taking over a lot of it, as well. And when that happens, the human being becomes monetized, and it becomes product. You're no longer a person. You were asking about a compassion gene, but in a way, they're product, and they're moved like product, and they're stolen like product. So there isn't a whole lot of compassion left in these professional groups that run it now.

DONVAN: Among the immigrants who decide to take this risk, you know, number one they know that they're legally already walking into no-man's-land because when they get to the other side, they're immediately illegally present in the U.S.

URREA: However, however, however, if you interview that population, many of them will tell you I didn't even know we were illegal.

DONVAN: Really.

URREA: It's not against Mexican law to leave Mexico at any time without papers. You know, I was talking to one of the custodians at my university just this week, and she said: You know what's so funny? I got here, and I had no idea I was illegal until somebody told me.

And I thought: Is that possible? But when you think about it, a lot of the folks coming are very rural people from the deep south, you know, many of them illiterate, many people who - they don't have access to the news. They're just trying to get here. And they're used to getting the better of their authorities because their authorities are out to get them.

So they feel - you know, I think in some minds, it may be a little more of an even playing field than it really is. That's been my experience from talking to people.

DONVAN: So they're ripe for the picking when they run into these...

URREA: Oh completely, yeah.

DONVAN: Let's bring in Amanda(ph) from St. Paul, Minnesota. Hi, Amanda, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.



AMANDA: I called in because you wanted to hear experiences. I can tell you a little about my husband's. He came to the United States, he was smuggled in from Mexico. And he told me that it took him two times to get in. The first time they came, he said they walked across the desert, it was him and his brother, and - with a group, you know, with a coyote, and he said it started to rain.

And everybody got soaking wet. And then it started to snow. And everybody was freezing. And he said they thought they were going to die. His brother happened to carry some rubbing alcohol with them because he was afraid of barbed-wire fences. Nobody was planning on snow in the desert. So they were able to start a fire.

And he said when the fire was burning, they were just waiting for the immigration helicopters to come and pick them up because they were freezing. But the helicopters never came. But he said in the meanwhile, all the Guatemalans, people from Central America, they ran off because they had more invested because they had already come across a few borders, you know, they don't want to go back.

But he said all the Mexicans were just waiting to pick us up and take us home because they thought they were going to die. But they didn't get picked up. So they made it all the way to Arizona, and then they got stopped in a car and deported after all that. So then - sorry.

DONVAN: I'm sorry to interrupt, but I'm just curious about a few of the details. What did your husband pay? Does he recall what it cost him?

AMANDA: I'm trying to remember. I think - it was 10 years ago. It was probably a few thousand dollars.

DONVAN: And the way he tells the story, is the coyote to him a good guy or a bad guy? Was that his business partner for the moment, or was that a guy who was ripping him off?

AMANDA: Neither. I think it's just business. Yeah, it's just this is what the rate is, this is what it costs, and I don't think he thinks of him as either good or bad, just that that's - like you were saying just earlier, it's a little bit mainstream there. There's people who can come to the United States with papers, and there's people who come without papers, and that's how they see it.

DONVAN: All right, Amanda, thanks very much for sharing your story. I want to bring in Caroline(ph) from Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Caroline, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

CAROLINE: Hi, I'm a taxi driver in Tucson, and I got innocently pulled into a smuggling operation. A call to pick up someone in Nogales, Arizona, came over my radio. I went down to Nogales to pick them up. I was offered $50 to take them to the next town. I didn't think twice about it, but I didn't make it to the next town. I was pulled over by immigration officials, Homeland Security, all different kinds of departments.

They had eight SUVs and 12 agents all pulling over a single senior citizen carrying one who turned out to be illegal. When I checked later with Western Union, which is how they said they would pay me the $50, it turned out they had paid me $399, and I didn't - for just a five-mile ride. I did not pick up the money because I didn't complete the job.

But they - I was interrogated for maybe three or four hours. I was threatened with prison. I was threatened with arrest. They dangled handcuffs in front of me. And I just tried to stay calm, and ultimately I was let go.

DONVAN: So they thought you were in on it for sure, it sounds like.

CAROLINE: I'm sorry?

DONVAN: It sounds like they really thought you were in on it.

CAROLINE: Yes they did, yes they did. And I was - after that I was contacted again by the coyotes and asked to bring up more people, and I said no, I have no desire to die in prison, I don't. But something I did find very interesting while I was - I thought about it while you had me on hold. It was that the Homeland Security people asked me if the coyotes contacted me again to please call them and let them know, act as if I wanted to do it but not do it and give them the addresses, names and phone numbers, et cetera, et cetera.

And no activity was ever taken on this, nothing. I have never been contacted. I have contacted them several times, have never been contacted back. So I have gotten rid of all those numbers because I assume that Homeland Security has absolutely no interest in picking up these people at all.

DONVAN: Caroline, thanks very much for sharing that story. I want to ask Rey Koslowski, and I also would like, Luis, would like to see your view on this, is whether, you know, you've talked about the notion that people - there are some people who don't even really realize that they're going into an illegal situation. But what's the reputation that the coyotes have, and how far south do they circulate? In other words, is a transaction perhaps actually arranged as far south as say, Guatemala or Honduras, or does everything take place in Mexico? And in that marketplace, isn't word out that these guys aren't necessarily the most ethical people around?

KOSLOWSKI: Yeah. Well, again, remember, desperation is moving people, and people know they're taking all sorts of risks. You think of the two - there's the crossing the border from Guatemala into Mexico, which was very dangerous and an opportunity for people to get ripped off. And then people would take this train north where they would fall off or get crushed. I mean, terrible things happened on the way up north. If they make it to closer to the border, then they could, you know, potentially hook up with coyotes near there.

Sometimes, for example, this group that you spoke about, many of these were folks from Oaxaca, it looks like. So there may be, you know, people have contacts, you know, through people who they know already made it to the United States, oh, this is someone who we used before. Networks are established that way going back to the villages. So it really varies...

DONVAN: But, Luis, when...

KOSLOWSKI: ...where that people, you know, make the contact.

DONVAN: Luis, when some - when - typically, when somebody hands their money over in this situation, and you've gone out and looked at this at a very atomic level. Are they mistrustful? Are they thinking I hope that this is not one of the guys who's truly one of the bad guys who's going to abandon me out there?

URREA: Oh, I'm sure you do. You know, it's the ultimate test of faith...


URREA: ...right? That you get this shadowy figure and - but there, you know, they've gotten very slick. You know, when I was younger, it was an ad hoc kind of an experience, and one could get across for a couple of hundred dollars. But this criminalized operation, you know, as I point out in "Devil's Highway," you know, it has layer upon layer upon layer. And they have recruiters that they call enganchadores - hookers. And the hookers is a very warm and interesting character who makes himself present and buys drinks and coffee and chats these guys up.

And part of the plan is to purchase these people. I think somebody had mentioned earlier you talked about that $3,000 fee. It seems to be holding steady around $3- or $4,000. But those people don't have that money. So you sell yourself to the company store. You have accidentally sold yourself into white slavery, essentially. And they put things in place to keep you trapped. And again, you become product that must be moved. And now that I think some of the narco operations have moved laterally and are taking over human flesh, as well as drugs. You know, it's a very dicey situation, because the least provocation, you'll be abandoned or worse.


URREA: And that is including, including the trafficking of children and so forth. There's a lot of very bad business happening with young women, with children, you know? You remember the...

DONVAN: These are not cases where...

URREA: ...a year or two ago with the massacre of 72 people in Mexico, you know?

DONVAN: And this is...

URREA: Bad news.

DONVAN: This is apart from the issue of people on their own trying to get to the north. I just want to say this: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I want to bring in Nick(ph) from Cypress, Texas. Nick, you're on TALK OF THE NATION. Hello.

NICK: Hey.

DONVAN: Hi. Nick, you're on the air.

NICK: OK. I'm on the air. OK. Now, I was saying that I was a Border Patrol in the '70s. And in 19 - that was from '74. In 1975, I got fired because I wrote a letter to the commissioner of immigration in Washington. That was General Chapman at that time. I wrote a letter to him indicating what was going on in the unit where I was. And the chief was involved, and many of the senior agents were involved. Many of those guys would go to Mexico and recruit coyotes to organize a group to cross the border because see, at the time, we had sensors on the border.

And only the Border Patrol agents knew where the sensors were located. And those agents went - they would know exactly what time to tell those groups to come in. And they would make them bypass those sensors. If (unintelligible) I was a junior partner. If my senior partner was involved in that particular organization, I - we would at night only two people - two people per car would work at night. And my senior partner would see the group coming. I would say hey, hey there, hey there. We would apprehend the group, but my senior partner would know who the headman is among those people.

DONVAN: Wow. So they're - that you're saying they had people on the inside definitely. Yeah.

NICK: Yeah. Oh, yeah. They have Border Patrol making money. A matter of fact, they was a major investigation about this thing after I left the Border Patrol because a book was written called "The Tarnished Door." That book won a Pulitzer Prize because everything was verified about the Border Patrol taking money. And at the time the coyotes were charging $1,500 per head. I don't know how much they charge now. I don't - I'm not saying that same thing is going on at this time because I don't know what's going on in the Border Patrol...

DONVAN: All right.

NICK: ...because I left, went to law school and...

DONVAN: All right. Nick...

NICK: ...became a lawyer and all that.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much for sharing that story. And I also want to share an email we've received from Antonio(ph), and it's interesting. He says you get what you pay for. A friend paid $3,000, and the coyote brought my friend's wife in a four-by-four truck with only two other people. And she didn't even get dust on her shoes. Then he says another friend paid $1,000, and it took her four days to cross the desert. So it sounds like there's a menu card out there, I'm guessing, Luis.

URREA: I would say there is a menu card. I know somebody who paid $2,600 to be taken from the Tijuana area to Washington state. And ironically enough, I've told this story of the Border Patrol. His first job was guarding for the Border Patrol station on the Canadian border. So when you see that kind of stuff happening, you can't help but develop an ironic eye because you'd realize that it's chaotic at best.

DONVAN: Well, I want to thank you, Luis Alberto Urrea, for joining us. You're the author of the "Devil's Highway" and...

URREA: My pleasure.

DONVAN: ...the new book "Queen of America." And you're also the judge of this year's round of NPR's Three-Minute Fiction contest, which...

URREA: Yeah. That's been wild.

DONVAN: on the weekends on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED with - that's with Guy Raz.

URREA: (Unintelligible).

DONVAN: And you joined us from your home in Chicago. Thanks for your time, Luis, very much.

URREA: See you later.

DONVAN: And Rey Koslowski, the director of the program on border control and homeland security at the State University of New York at Albany, joined us by phone from his office in Albany. Rey Koslowski, thanks very much for joining us.

KOSLOWSKI: My pleasure.

DONVAN: So coming up, a word of advice for aspiring novelists: Do not read "Catcher in the Rye," do not read nine other modern classics. Crawford Kilian, who is himself a writer, warns these books are more hazard for you than inspiration. He joins us next. I'm John Donvan. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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