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Coyotaje is a colloquial Mexican-Spanish term referring to the practice of people smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border.[1] Smuggling should not be misinterpreted to mean human trafficking. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) define smuggling as the "Importation of people into the United States involving deliberate evasion of immigration laws. This offense includes bringing illegal aliens into the country, as well as the unlawful transportation and harboring of aliens already in the United States."[2] In short, human smuggling centers on the willful, illegal transportation of migrants into another country.

Autonomous migrants pay coyotes a fee to guide them across the border. Fees are normally collected once the migrant arrives to a pre-determined destination— most likely border cities in California, Texas, and Arizona. In recent years, the proportion of migrants hiring human smugglers— "coyotes," also known as "polleros," has increased drastically as a result of intensified surveillance along the border.[3]


Early system: 1882-1917

Since the end of the nineteenth century, coyotes have been a part of the illegal migratory process for many Mexican migrants. From 1882-1917 a series of U.S. legislations contributed to the rise of the coyote in illegal border crossings. The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and Immigration Act of 1885 cut the flow of foreign labor force dramatically and created labor shortages in the southwestern and western regions of the country. U.S. employer demand for Mexican workers rose and supply was guaranteed by the 1884 completion of rails connecting El Paso, Texas with Mexico. The illegal migratory crossings were largely unregulated and accepted as de facto acceptable practices.[4]

"Enganchadores," Spanish for “hookers,” verb “to hook,” were Mexican individuals hired by U.S. employers as labor recruiters. "Enganchadores" would persuade Mexican peasants to travel the rails in acceptance of American jobs. The "enganche" system was not a novelty in Mexico. It had been established to recruit southern peasants for work in northern industries within the country. U.S. companies effectively used the system to satisfy their labor needs. It can be argued that "enganchadores" are an ancestor of the modern-day coyote.[5] Like today’s coyotes, they acted as middlemen between migrants and the United States.

Explicit restrictions on Mexican immigration during the late 1910s and early 1920s caused U.S. labor-seeking migrants to increasingly rely on middlemen for labor-brokerage with American companies.

Labor-brokerage coyotaje: 1917-1942

The U.S. Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 required foreign individuals crossing the border to take literacy tests, undergo medical exams, and pay head taxes and visa fees.[6] The new requirements “combined with the creation of the Border Patrol in 1924, prompted thousands of Mexican migrants to cross the Rio Bravo surreptitiously to enter the country.”[7] As a direct result, demand for coyotaje grew exponentially. The U.S. Commissioner of Immigration observed the trend commenting, in a Congressional report, that a “new and thriving industry…having for its object the illegal introduction into the United States of Mexican aliens on a wholesale scale by means of organized efforts” had emerged.[8]

Cuidad Juarez became a hub for coyotaje during the mid-1920s. In his study on Mexican migration, anthropologist Manuel Gamio details the process. Coyote fees were considerably less than those needed for visitor’s visas; an approximate $100 to $150 difference (based on today’s exchange-rate). Working individually, or with others, a coyote would lead his client across the Rio Bravo via automobile, boat, or by swimming. Crossings were widely successful as Gamio notes: “These people know their ground thoroughly…and sometimes even have an arrangement with some district official.”[9] The prevalent use of false documents, or “leased” legitimate documents, contributed to the success.

Upon arrival to the United States, coyotes were paid their fees and migrants were delivered to their employers. Competition for Mexican workers grew so high among labor contractors, that it inspired a short-lived coyote system in the United States. For a fee, “man-snatchers” would kidnap Mexican workers from one company and deliver them to a competing firm. The threat of losing money, on account of a stolen employee, “led labor contractors to keep workers en route to employers locked up and under armed guard to prevent their theft.”[10]

Labor-brokerage coyotes continued to profit despite the Great Depression. Texas demand for cotton harvesters used coyotaje to recruit about 400,000 migratory workers by the end of the 1930s, two-thirds of which were Mexican. Coyotes would load trucks with fifty to sixty workers to be delivered to different Texas companies. The practice received international attention in 1940 when a “delivery” truck got into an accident, resulting in forty-four Mexican migrant injuries and twenty-nine fatalities, including eleven children. The U.S. and Mexican governments worked together to end labor-brokerage coyotaje, by implementing the Bracero Program in 1942.[11]

The Bracero Program: 1942-1965

The popularity of the Bracero Program resulted in a greater Mexican demand for guest-worker contracts than there were contracts to give. Consequently, thousands of Mexican laborers unable to participate in the program sought the help of coyotes to enter the United States. "Clandestine-crossing" coyotaje saw a rise during this period.

By 1950, the U.S. Border Patrol relied on approximately 1,000 agents to patrol the border.[12] Mexican migrants seeking entry relied on the coyote. Crossing the Rio Grande became the route of choice. This was achieved mostly by boat with the help of a “patero.” boatman, or more dangerously, by swimming. Thus, creating the slur “wetbacks.”

In 1953, Border Patrol reported to have detained 1,545 “alien smugglers” along the border. The end of the Bracero Program would lead to greater illegal crossings.

Clandestine-crossing coyotaje: 1965-86

The Hart-Celler Act, passed in 1965, set strict quotas on the number of annual visas it issued.[13] More than ever before, Mexican workers in search of American jobs were dependent on the coyotaje system to accomplish their goals. A study reports that by the 1980s, “do-it-yourself” border crossings were rare and “virtually everyone” was paying a coyote.[14] The coyotaje industry’s prosperity garnered the attention of the U.S. and Mexican governments. U.S. authorities continued to expand Border Patrol, while the Mexican government enacted laws penalizing individuals convicted of aiding illegal entry into the United States.

Coyotaje strategies evolved during this period. Some Mexican cities witnessed the spring of smuggling rings. Larger organizations had expansive networks with contacts across Latin America. Several of these rings were capable of moving an estimated, annual eight to ten thousand migrants into the United States. The use of tractor-trailers to carry passengers across national lines proved to be extremely effective. Hidden compartments were built in the floors of truck beds to hide “cargo.” Furthermore, coyote leaders strategically chose juveniles as drivers or guides, so as not to be tried in the U.S. if caught. That way they could then be recycled into the system.[15]

The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA): 1986-1993

The IRCA was passed in 1986 under the Reagan administration. It created an amnesty program allowing currently undocumented immigrants the opportunity to legalize their status in the U.S. and eventually obtain citizenship, and established employer sanctions against individuals hiring undocumented workers. In order to obtain amnesty, migrants had to demonstrate they had been continuously living in the U.S. since 1982.[16] Documents of proof included “pay stubs, rent receipts, bank statements, and affidavits from persons who knew them during the period they had resided illegally.”[17] The IRCA also required employers to ask potential employees for documents confirming their authorization to work in the U.S. As a result of both provisions, a black market of counterfeit documents emerged catering to the demand. Shortly after, the media covered numerous stories revealing a coyotaje network of document-falsification. The Houston Chronicle reported that “flea markets, grocery store lots, even the more secluded corners of Hispanic restaurants, are increasingly the scenes of blatant wheeling and dealing of phony documents at premium prices.”[18]

Present-day Strategies

Post 9/11 Border Patrol

Since 9/11, the U.S. government has taken numerous measures to tighten security along the southern border. Part of the Border Patrol’s mission statement declares “an ever-present threat exists from the potential for terrorists to employ the same smuggling and transportation networks, infrastructure, drop houses, and other support and then use these masses of illegal aliens as “cover” for a successful cross-border penetration.”[19] Increased surveillance makes clandestine-crossing a lot more difficult, but not impossible. In reality, as economic conditions in Latin America continued to deteriorate, the motivation to come work in the U.S. only rises, leaving potential migrants one realistic option— engaging in coyotaje.[20]

Migrant fees and Coyotaje start-up costs

Because anti-smuggling legislation, such as the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), hardened the civil and criminal penalties for alien-smuggling and expanded the use of the IDENT database (fingerprint recording system), coyotes increased their fees to match the risk. According to experts like sociologist Douglass Massey, coyotaje grosses more than $5 billion a year. Crossing fees can range from $1,500 to $2,500 in Mexico. Police note that on a “good day” large coyote organizations can transport 500 people into the United States.[21] This suggests that on a “good day,” larger enterprises can earn an average of $1 million, while “mom and pop” rings can earn $780,000 annually.

“Mom and pop” coyote businesses do not require exorbitant amounts of funds to get started. It depends on the type of coyotaje an individual, or group of, chooses to direct. Most methods require a mode of transportation, including automobiles and rowboats, while other more “sophisticated” and expensive options require cash to purchase documents, scanning and graphics equipment to forge said documents, and real estate in the form of “safe-houses.”[22]

All coyotes need social capital “in the form of social connectedness to trustworthy collaborators willing to assume the risks of engaging in extralegal conspiracies.”[23] The construction of a good reputation is also significant to the success of coyotajes in an ever-growing competitive market. Reputations are defined by competency, trustworthiness, and decent customer service. They are primarily achieved by word of mouth amongst migrant social networks. Migrants prioritize the success rate of border-crossings, the treatment received during trips, and for female clients, the respect shown to their gender, when considering a coyote.

Media Portrayals and Controversy

Generally, negative connotations are associated with coyotaje. International media coverage tends to highlight stories of coyotaje human rights violations. In the last decade, stories have permeated society to help develop the vilified coyote stereotype.

- New York Times, 2002: Since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994, increasing policing in major border cities, has pushed migrants to the “most severe terrain, with the most extreme climates, winter and summer,” raising the migrant death toll, between 1994–2002, to 2,000. Besides the harsh terrain, the article argues that “possibly hundreds of migrants have died because they have been abandoned by smugglers.”

- Coyotaje’s growing associations with drug cartels have added to their vilified character. U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Special Agent Joe Romero argues “the Mexican drug cartels have merged human smuggling with drug trafficking, forcing immigrants to act as ‘mules’ in transporting drugs as the price of passage.”[24]

- On May 14th, 2003, Victoria, Texas police authorities found the bodies of 17 people, including a seven-year-old boy, inside a trailer truck used to smuggle them into the United States. Later, the death toll reached 19, as two more victims died in the hospital. The tragedy makes it “among the largest losses of life in any immigrant smuggling incident.”[25]

The trailer was packed with approximately 100 people, mostly migrants from Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Health officials determined close quarters, combined with Texas’ 100 degree temperatures created a deathly environment prone to death from asphyxiation and heatstroke. Upon investigation, the trailer showed desperate signs of “the trapped people [trying] to punch holes through…so air could come in.”

Asa Hutchinson, of the Department of Homeland Security, remarked “The grim discovery is a horrific reminder of the callous disregard smugglers have for their human cargo...These ruthless criminals, who but profit before people, will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

- In January 2005, the Mexican government published Guia del Migrante Mexicano,"Guide for the Mexican Immigrant." The pamphlet, containing tips and warnings on the dangers of illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, cautions migrants not to trust coyotes. It reads "They may try to fool you with assurances that they will take you across in a few hours...This is not true! They can risk your life...If you decide to resort to "coyotes" to cross the border, consider the following precautions: Do not let him out of your sight; remember that he is the only one who knows the terrain and, therefore, the only one who can lead you across."[26]

- Most recently, there was police speculation that a coyote was responsible for the death of Robert Krentz, an Arizona rancher, on March 27, 2010. The death induced great pressure on Arizona's state government and is thought to have contributed to the passage of Arizona SB1070 on April 19, 2010.


  1. David Spener, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press: 2009
  2. ,, retrieved 2010-05-07
  3. ,, retrieved 2010-05-07
  4. Lawrence A. Cardoso, Mexican Emigration to the United States, 1897-1931, University of Arizona Press: 1980
  5. David Spener, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press: 2009
  6. ,, retrieved 2010-05-07
  7. David Spener, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press: 2009
  8. Ibid.
  9. Manuel Gamio, Mexican Immigration to the United States: A Study of Human Migration and Adjustment,University of Chicago Press: 1930
  10. David Spener, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press: 2009
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. ,, retrieved 2010-05-07
  14. Harley L. Browning and Nestor Rodriguez, "The Migration of Mexican Indocumentados as a Settlement Process:Implications for Work." Hispanics in the U.S. Economy, Academic Press: 1985
  15. David Spener, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press: 2009
  16. ,, retrieved 2010-05-07
  17. David Spener, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press: 2009
  18. Lori Rodriguez (March 23, 1987) "Employers, Illegal Aliens Trapped in a Dilemma." Houston Chronicle.
  19. ,, retrieved 2010-05-07
  20. Tim Padgett (August 12, 2003) "People Smuggler's Inc." Time.
  21. Ibid.
  22. David Spener, Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press: 2009
  23. Ibid.
  24. "Guns flood Jamaica from U.S., officials say", The San Francisco Chronicle, 2008-03-31,, retrieved 2010-05-07
  25. Simon Romero and David Barboza (May 15, 2003) "Trapped in Heat In Texas Truck, 18 People Die," New York Times.
  26. ,, retrieved 2010-05-07


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