Episode 675: The Cost Of Crossing : Planet Money Sneaking people across the U.S.-Mexico border is a well established, booming business. Today on the show, we meet a businessman and a client in the evolving industry of human smuggling.

Episode 675: The Cost Of Crossing

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DAVID KESTENBAUM, HOST:

Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world. Gangs are everywhere, and it's extremely poor. But you would not know that from the names of the places there. There's one place called Progress, another one called Hope. One is named Thank God.

JASMINE GARSD, HOST:

And the woman you're going to hear from today is from The Future. In Spanish, that's El Porvenir, right on the Atlantic Coast. Her name is Pati (ph), and Pati says The Future is beautiful.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

LIZA FERNANDEZ: "The weather is delicious. The beach - imagine, the ocean is right there. All the fishing boats land there."

KESTENBAUM: It was pretty, but, you know, Pati's family was pretty poor. And one day - she was just a teenager when this thing happened - she found herself having to make this huge, life-changing decision. She was out with a friend after school.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "At the corner of the school, there was a store we always went to to drink a coffee. One night two boys arrived. They said hi to me and my girlfriend, no big deal. We said hi to them."

KESTENBAUM: The guys flirt with them and then the conversation takes this turn. The guys say hey, we can smuggle you into the United States, and when you get there, we can even give you a job.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "He said at a packing facility for clothing, underwear and T-shirts."

KESTENBAUM: The money, these guys said, would be amazing. They told Pati you could make 20 times what you'd make here in Honduras, just putting T-shirts into boxes.

GARSD: But it also seemed super dangerous. A lot people in Central America know someone who has slipped into the U.S., and everyone knows it's really risky. People just disappear on the road.

KESTENBAUM: The trip is dangerous, and it is also expensive. There is a whole elaborate business built around smuggling people into the United States. You want to cross the border? There are people who will help you do it, but it costs a lot and the risks are many.

Hello and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm David Kestenbaum. Jasmine, introduce yourself.

GARSD: I'm Jasmine Garsd, and I'm a reporter with NPR. I cover a lot of immigration stories.

KESTENBAUM: Today on the show....

GARSD: The price of human smuggling.

KESTENBAUM: The actual price, how much it costs to get smuggled into the United States. We talk to one expert who knows because that is his job. He's the man who will slip you across the border.

GARSD: And also we tell you the rest of the Pati's the story.

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KESTENBAUM: Jasmine, is it hard to find a human smuggler?

GARSD: Dude, it's not that hard at all (laughter). You just have to...

KESTENBAUM: Is there a lot of them?

GARSD: Yeah. You just ask the right people, which is what I did. And I ended up being hooked up with a guy in Matamoros, Mexico. And I just drove down to meet him.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

KESTENBAUM: Is that the car radio there?

GARSD: Yeah, that's Nortena music. It's typical of that region.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).

GARSD: Matamoros is this part of Mexico that I'm always slightly nervous to work in because there are shootouts. There is violence. It's right on the U.S. border, and this dude, he's like - can we meet at my house? You know, I was, like, no. Let's go to your favorite restaurant. So we picked him up on the street.

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: He's this really big guy, both rows of teeth plated in gold. He goes by the name Matalote, which is this really big fish found in Mexico, Big Fish. And I ask him - why do people call you Big Fish?

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

FELIX SOLIS: "Because I'm fat."

GARSD: A name, which, by the way, he hates.

(Speaking Spanish).

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

SOLIS: "No. But everyone calls me that now."

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

So we get to the restaurant. We sit down, and Matalote - Big Fish - recommends the frog legs. I go safe and order a quesadilla.

KESTENBAUM: What'd you guys talk about?

GARSD: Well, I don't want to just jump into it, so we talked about music. The dude has super good taste. He likes old-school hip-hop - Dr. Dre, Kid Frost, Ice-T. So then the food came, and we actually started talking about smuggling. And I asked him, you know - can you tell me how this whole thing works? And he said sure. He says it's a business, and there's even this thing called the package deal.

MATALOTE: Package deal - (speaking Spanish).

SOLIS: "Well, it includes your stay, your walker, where you're going, your destination."

GARSD: He says if you're looking to get smuggled into the United States, there's three stages. And the first person you're going to deal with is called a (speaking Spanish).

KESTENBAUM: Can I just say coyote?

GARSD: You can say coyote.

KESTENBAUM: OK (laughter). So the coyote is like the manager or the travel agent. He is the person whose job it is to drum up business, to go around, find people who want to go to the United States.

GARSD: Yeah, he's like the broker, and he's not actually the dude who's going to take you from where you are to the United States.

KESTENBAUM: Who's that?

GARSD: That is someone called - well, they have a lot of names - el guia, or the guide; el pollero, the chicken herder; and also they're known as caminadores or walkers.

KESTENBAUM: That make sense because you do a lot of walking.

GARSD: Oh, yeah. You're going to do a lot of walking and a lot of getting on buses and hopping on trains.

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

SOLIS: "The walker is a person who is going to leave you where the coyote tells him to. You follow them, OK? And he will drop you off."

KESTENBAUM: He says there's never just one walker. It's like you get passed from one walker to another to another. And each of them has to get paid. They get something like $200 per person that they are leading, which can add up.

GARSD: And the reason it costs so much is that each of these walkers has to pay bribes to local law enforcement, local government officials, and they have to pay tolls.

KESTENBAUM: These are not, like, tolls like you pull up to a official toll booth and pay a toll.

GARSD: No. This is not like a tollbooth. This is like cartel tolls. These are dudes with weapons who are demanding money for you to pass through. The whole route is controlled by these cartels.

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

SOLIS: "If you come by yourself alone, and the cartel finds out you are trying to come here alone, things can go badly for you. You can't travel alone. You have to come guarded by someone who speaks for you - as we say in Spanish, someone who opens the checkpoints for you. Go. Go until you get to your destination."

KESTENBAUM: This is, like, a huge operation.

GARSD: Yeah. Dude, this was like a really long lunch.

(LAUGHTER)

GARSD: He kept ordering - he ordered, like, this huge chicken and then he kept ordering chips and more beer and then finally a shot of tequila. I cut it off before dessert.

KESTENBAUM: All right, there's really just one more step. It's actually the big step, though. This is the final one. There's someone who has to take you across the border. And the job title for this, sensibly enough, is the crosser. This is actually Matalote's job. He says it costs $5,000 just to get across the Rio Grande into the United States. And he explained to how this final leg works. Basically, you get taken to the safehouse he has in Matamoros, in the city. And he keeps you there until he decides it's OK to cross. This part, he says, is actually kind of boring. You spend a lot of time just hanging out and, frankly, watching television because you can be stuck there for weeks.

GARSD: OK. And side note - Matalote and I have the same favorite TV show.

KESTENBAUM: What show?

GARSD: "Law And Order."

KESTENBAUM: (Laughter) He's a criminal, yeah.

GARSD: Yeah, it's a little weird that his favorite show is about police work (laughter).

KESTENBAUM: Anyway - so they watch TV until Matalote tells people it's time to cross. And then he has this little speech he gives.

GARSD: He tells people - don't bring bright clothing.

KESTENBAUM: Don't carry a lot of stuff.

GARSD: Be on the lookout for snakes.

KESTENBAUM: And bring some water.

This part is risky, and it is also exhausting. There's a long, long walk in the desert. And then you have to cross this big river, the Rio Grande.

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

SOLIS: "Some people get tired, and they don't want to keep going. But you came for the American dream. You have to cross."

GARSD: So here's how organized this whole thing is. You know how when you buy airplane tickets...

KESTENBAUM: Yeah.

GARSD: You can buy a travelers' insurance, right?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah, like, in case something goes wrong, they refund the ticket.

GARSD: Yeah, I never get it. But smugglers kind of have something similar. There's something called los tres intentos, the three-try rule. And - so basically, if you're crossing the border and, like, border patrol catches you and sends you back, you get two more tries - tres intentos, three tries.

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

SOLIS: "It's a guarantee. You didn't get in the first time around, you go back, given the name of the person who crossed you. You talk on the phone. They cross you again. You don't get in again, they cross you again. There's no fourth chance."

GARSD: So I asked him to tally it all up - the food, lodging, tolls, salaries. Like, if you're coming from Honduras, how much would the package deal cost?

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

SOLIS: "Well, about 17, 18 - $19,000."

KESTENBAUM: Eighteen, $19,000 - that is just an enormous amount of money, especially if you consider someone coming from Honduras. I mean, this is the kind of thing where, to raise the money, people just sell everything they have. Like, you drive a bus, you sell the bus. Your furniture in your house - you sell the furniture. You borrow money from your friends, whatever you can do to scrape it together.

GARSD: And even that might not be enough. So what a lot of smugglers offer is like a kind of installment plan that you can pay off once you're in the U.S. Half of your paycheck goes to the smugglers until you pay off the cost of coming to the U.S.

KESTENBAUM: And if you don't pay?

GARSD: Well, it's really bad for you.

KESTENBAUM: Like, they go after your family or something.

GARSD: Yeah, it's bad.

KESTENBAUM: Matalote says it did not used to be so expensive. Like, 16 years ago, he says, he would charge 50 bucks to get somebody across the river. Back then, he says, it was mostly Mexicans crossing, so there was no, like, package deal. You just came up to the border and you got crossed.

GARSD: But what happened in the last decade or so is that migration started coming from Central America - from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador - people so desperate to escape the violence and the poverty that they were willing to pay more.

KESTENBAUM: And the drug cartels caught on. They started seeing these people as huge business opportunities. Also, the U.S. border got tighter. Put all that together, and you have this perfect storm. In the last couple decades, he says, the prices have just shot up.

GARSD: So we finished our meal. And it was getting dark, so I picked up the check, said goodbye to the Big Fish, and I drove back to Texas.

KESTENBAUM: OK. So, back to Pati, the woman you heard from at the beginning. This is the really difficult decision she was facing. Do you spend some enormous amount of money and hope that you make it to the United States? Here's the rest of her story. And just a warning - this part gets - it gets rough. Also, Pati, is her middle name. We are not using her full name here.

GARSD: Pati tells those guys at the coffee shop no thanks - I am staying in Honduras. But her friend is considering it. And later in the week, those guys show up again.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "One of them came over and started flirting with my friend. And he started telling her to convince me to go to the U.S. - that it was for a better future, this and that. They started saying very sweet things to us."

KESTENBAUM: In the end Pati decided OK. Let's do it.

GARSD: Pati doesn't have any money, of course, to pay for this. And the guys say no problem - we're going to put you on one of those installment plans. When you get to the U.S., you're going to work and you pay it all off.

KESTENBAUM: The guys told her - look, we are leaving tomorrow. So Pati went home. She packed a suitcase, told her mom what she was planning to do, said take care of my daughter, please. Her mom got really worried, started crying. But Pati said, look, look - it's OK. I'm going to be talking to you real soon.

GARSD: Pati told me she made it OK to Mexico, but she had a bad feeling the whole way there.

KESTENBAUM: Her walkers were always whispering to each other. They didn't give them any food to eat.

GARSD: And then in Mexico, one of them - this guy with a big, poorly sewn-up gash across his eye turns to Pati and to her friend and says I want my payment for the trip right now.

KESTENBAUM: And Pati's, like, wait - that is not the deal. We agreed to pay the trip off by working in the United States. We don't have any money.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "And I tell him - how am I going to pay you? I mean - how? With what? Well, he says - I think you're not a little girl, are you?"

GARSD: Pati and her friend were told they each owed $3,000, and they were going to have to work it off as prostitutes. The guy who said he was the walker locked them in a brothel and put them to work.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

KESTENBAUM: Pati says her friend just refused to become a prostitute, and she disappeared after that. She's not sure what happened to her. She thinks she might have been killed. Pati was told that she now had to pay off her friend's debt also, which meant that she owed $6,000.

GARSD: So it's hard to know how often this happened, but I did reach out to the lawyers who told me they see a lot of cases like Pati's.

KESTENBAUM: There is the smuggling business, and there is also the sex trade business. They can start off looking really similar, but they end up in very different places. She ended up in a brothel.

GARSD: Pati told me at the brothel, she kept track of how many customers she had.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "I made a mark with a stick on the wooden part of the wall each time, each one. I never forgot."

GARSD: I asked her how many marks she made on the wall, and she says a lot.

KESTENBAUM: This went on for about six months. And then one day, Pati was sold to another trafficker who finally smuggled her into Texas. But then they held her at another brothel. This one was in Houston. She thinks she was there for about four months.

GARSD: At that brothel, Pati befriended the madam, who eventually started giving her money here and there. And of course, the money was useless to Pati because she wasn't even allowed to leave the house. She was locked up, so she would store it away in this jacket that the madam had given her.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "A blue jacket because sometimes it gets very cold, she told me."

GARSD: And then one day the madam asked Pati for a favor.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "Do you want to go to the store? - she said. Yeah. Sure, I said. This is my escape I said to myself."

GARSD: The madam asked her to buy some stuff - a gallon of milk, some juice. And she says, you know, while you're at it, buy yourself a little skirt and a blouse with some cleavage. And Pati is a super nervous. She puts on the blue jacket.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "And she tells me they match your shoes. I told her - yes, don't they?"

GARSD: But before Pati leave, her madam tells her this one last thing.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "She told me not to take too long. And she told me don't talk to anyone. Here in the U.S., even if you look a little funny, they call immigration police. And you're going to get sent back there to your country, and you know they aren't going to wait for you back in Honduras. They're just going to kill you."

KESTENBAUM: Pati walks outside, and there she is - in America on her own with a jacket filled with money. She remembers it being cold.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "That was in December. I cannot forget. On December 23, I escaped from that house."

GARSD: Pati goes to the store, and her plan is - buy new clothing, change into it, run away. But instead she has a panic attack. She has this total breakdown. And one of the employees, a woman, walks over to her and asks her if she's OK. And Pati insists - please, leave me alone. Please don't talk to me. Do not talk to me. And the woman pushes and says - where are you from? And Pati says I'm from Honduras.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "And if you call the police, they are sending me back. And she said no one is going to take you back."

GARSD: The people in the store are incredibly nice to her. One of them even gives her a place to sleep. And that's how she finally escaped. Pati lives in Houston now, and she works cleaning houses.

KESTENBAUM: Pati, though, is facing this whole difficult decision all over again right now because her daughter is still back in Honduras. She's 14 years old, and she really wants to come to the United States to be with her mom.

GARSD: Now, the idea of her daughter coming to the U.S. and making this trip is a terrifying to Pati, but things have gotten a lot worse in Honduras since Pati first came. And Pati also thinks if she's going to do this trip, her daughter should come soon because Pati thinks her daughter's more likely to get amnesty if she comes as a minor.

KESTENBAUM: Pati has been looking into it, and she's been quoted a price for how much it would cost to get her daughter smuggled into the United States, and it is low.

GARSD: Way less than what Big Fish said it ought to be. He said a minimum of 15,000. And the price of Pati has been quoted is $8,300. Matalote says no way does that sound legit.

KESTENBAUM: It is just really hard to know. This is, like, the opposite of a transparent marketplace. It is really hard to get good information about what you're getting.

GARSD: I've spoken to some people who have told me they paid in the neighborhood of $8,000 to be smuggled into the U.S. recently, but there's no way to know. Pati says she trusts this smuggler, who's a family friend. And she says he's giving her, like, a special discount.

KESTENBAUM: So maybe things would be OK. You just don't know. Pati says she is still not sure what to do. Even if she decides that her daughter should not try to come, she's not sure she can stop her.

PATI: (Speaking Spanish).

FERNANDEZ: "She's crazy for me to bring her here. She's crazy. She says she no longer wants to be there."

GARSD: Pati has never told her daughter what happened to her.

KESTENBAUM: Which, you know, I get. I mean, that is a hell of a conversation to have with your 14-year-old daughter.

GARSD: Yeah. It's also a hell of a conversation not to have.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KESTENBAUM: Let us know what you think. You can send us email. We are planetmoney@npr.org.

Special thanks today to Felix Solis and Liza Fernandez who did the voiceovers for us. Our show today was produced by Nick Fountain.

Oh, and let's mention your podcast, Jasmine.

GARSD: Yeah, Alt.Latino. It's a music show about Latin music.

KESTENBAUM: We're always supposed to say something else about - something jungle rhythms.

GARSD: Oh, psychedelic cumbia?

KESTENBAUM: Yeah. What is that?

GARSD: (Laughter) It's like these - this, like, mix of surf rock and Amazonian cumbia.

KESTENBAUM: That sounds awesome. I'm David Kestenbaum.

GARSD: And I'm Jasmine Garsd.

KESTENBAUM: Thanks for listening.

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