Judging by the dramatic increase in the number of minors apprehended in the United States in recent months, it seems the human smuggling business from Central America is booming. The vast majority of migrants who enter the U.S. illegally do so with the help of a network of smugglers known as "coyotes," so named for the scavengers that prowl the border.
It is a high-risk, often high-yield business estimated to generate $6.6 billion a year for smugglers along Latin America's routes to the U.S., according to a 2010 United Nations report. The migrants pay anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 each for the illegal journey across thousands of miles in the care of smuggling networks that in turn pay off government officials, gangs operating on trains and drug cartels controlling the routes north.
The exact profit is hard to calculate. One expert who wasn't authorized to speak publicly put it at $3,500 to $4,000 per migrant if the journey goes as planned. Smuggling organizations may move from dozens to hundreds of migrants at a time.
"We're talking about a market where chaos reigns," said Rodolfo Casillas, a researcher at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico who studies migrant trafficking.
The surge in unaccompanied minors and women with children migrating from Central America has put new attention on decades-old smuggling organizations.
More than 57,000 unaccompanied minors, the vast majority from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, were apprehended at the U.S. border from October to June, according to the Border Patrol. That's more than double the same period last year.
The smugglers are profiting from the rising violence in gang-ridden cities of Central America, and the yearning of families to be reunited; parents often head north to find work and save money to send for their children, sometimes years later.
Many of the children and teenagers who travelled to the United States recently said they did so after hearing they would be allowed to stay. The U.S. generally releases unaccompanied children to parents, relatives or family friends while their cases take years to wend through overwhelmed immigration courts. That reality gave rise to rumors of a new law or amnesty for children.
Some say coyotes helped spread those rumors to drum up new business following a huge drop in Mexicans migrating to the United States. Arrests of migrants on the southwestern U.S. border dropped from about 1.1 million annually a decade ago to 415,000 last year.
Immigrants' rights advocates in the U.S. say they are seeing more children from Central America who are not only fleeing gang recruitment and random violence, but who have been targeted themselves.
"We deal with torture victims in the Congo and some of these kids have similar stories," said Judy London, a lawyer with the Public Counsel's Immigrants' Rights Project in Los Angeles. "Kidnappings on the way home from school, being held for ransom, sexual violence. We hadn't seen the numbers of girls before."
Because of that, some smugglers say they are in the service business.
"The most important thing is to help these people," said another smuggler in Ixtepec, a town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca where many migrants board the northbound train known as "La Bestia," or The Beast.
The smuggler goes by the name of Antonio Martinez, which is most likely a pseudonym, though one that appears on an arrest record, he said. He wears Nike sport shoes, jeans and a pressed blue Oxford shirt, the two top buttons open to reveal a tattoo of Jesus Christ on his left breast. After spending 12 years in U.S. prisons for drug possession, he said, he converted to Christianity and fell into the coyote business.
"The coyote is essential," he said. "If you don't have a compass, you can get lost."