Human Smuggler Dismisses U.S. Efforts On Border 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. But one coyote says her methods haven't changed — and there's always demand.
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Human Smuggler Dismisses U.S. Efforts On Border

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Human Smuggler Dismisses U.S. Efforts On Border

Human Smuggler Dismisses U.S. Efforts On Border

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The U.S. is sending more money, more agents and more equipment to the border with Mexico, all to help fight rising drug violence. But all those resources won't make it any harder for human smugglers or coyotes to do their work, at least that's the opinion of one smuggler who spoke with NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT: We'll call her Paula. She's 29 years old, divorced, pretty, petite with a gold-rimmed incisor and penciled eyebrows. She's sitting here after church in Piedras Negras across from Eagle Pass, Texas. You wouldn't think that what she does for a living is guide people through rattlesnake infested thorn-brush country evading U.S. federal agents. Paula was described to me by a reputable source as a good coyote, one who takes care of her clients.

In the news, most coyotes we hear about 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.

PAULA: (Through Translator) At times there are chubby women who can't keep up, and we have to tell them, come on hurry up, walk. Somehow, thank god, we always arrive. If they are 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.

BURNETT: Paula says she's been a coyote since she was 17 years old. In 12 years she says she's 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 immigrant. She gets released instead of being prosecuted as a human smuggler. She makes a very good living.

The mojaditos, little wetbacks, she calls them, 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. And how does Paula feel about what she does?

PAULA: (Through Translator) I feel like I'm helping them. Things are rough here. They can earn a lot better living there and then send money back to their families in Mexico.

BURNETT: U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports this year apprehensions of illegal immigrants are down 24 percent across the southwest border because of more agents, better technology, tougher prosecutions and fewer immigrants trying to cross. When asked about this trend, Paula smiled and shrugged.

PAULA: (Through Translator) No. We move them across the way we've always crossed them. This work never ends. There's always demand.

BURNETT: Her group walks through the night. After doing this for a dozen years, Paula 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. Inevitably, some clients get tired and start complaining.

PAULA: (Through Translator) 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 fight with you. You stay here. We're leaving. They don't want to stop the trip because of one or two people, but I won't leave them. If they're tired, I wait. Let them rest a little, let their pain go away, then we keep walking.

BURNETT: When they finish the nine hour hike beyond the Border Patrol checkpoint on the Highway 57, she calls on her cell phone for a pick-up. In 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.

John Burnett, NPR News.

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