SUNLAND PARK, N.M.— The scrawny teenager boasted he was the best option for migrants heading north from Mexico to this small border city just west of El Paso.
He was a self-described old-school coyote, a smuggler of human beings benefiting from a surge in popularity in a decades-old trade.
“Here we do things the old-fashioned way: We run like hell,” said Saul, known in this treacherous terrain as a coyotito, a juvenile smuggler. Saul asked that his last name not be used because of his work zig-zagging across both sides of the border. He sneaks migrants to a large gap near the 30-foot border fence or coaches them to use flimsy ladders to jump over.
Business has spiked since a pandemic-linked health policy known as Title 42 was lifted May 11. The health rule had allowed border agents to quickly expel migrants back to Mexico.
Human smuggling is flourishing, prices are jumping and confusion reigns over what legal pathway a migrant might try.
“I see a rise in smugglers, the old cat-and-mouse game,” said Howard Campbell, border anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso. “As someone who has studied the border and Mexico for the last 40 years, I am stumped. No one knows what the hell is going on. It all depends on the whims of U.S. and Mexican policymakers.”
Border smuggling fees can cost $1,500 to $5,000 just to cross the Rio Grande or the land border in New Mexico, migrants and authorities interviewed in the last two weeks told The Dallas Morning News.
The other choice for migrants: a glitchy smartphone app run by the U.S. government for crucial appointments that could lead to legal entry, especially for asylum. Appointments are priceless on the government app CBP One, named after U.S. Customs and Border Protection, with about 1,070 slots available daily.
In the tense days leading up to the lifting of Title 42, encounters with migrants leaped to more than 10,000 a day, U.S. government officials said. The encounters have plummeted to 3,000 in recent days.
Why the decline? Toughened enforcement with consequences, officials said.
Under Title 42, immigrants didn’t face legal consequences and were quickly expelled. Now, with the pivot to existing immigration laws, certain immigrants could be barred from reentering the U.S. for at least five years. The U.S. has also placed tougher conditions on asylum-seekers.
But the U.S. government also created other legal pathways for immigrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua. Under that measure, up to 30,000 people monthly from those countries can get special U.S. travel authorization, if they pass background checks and have a financial sponsor.
Homeland Security officials also credited stronger enforcement by the governments of Mexico and Guatemala. On May 22, Mexican police cleared out a migrant camp in downtown Ciudad Juárez, a location favored because of the WiFi access needed for the CBP One app.
Smugglers remain a challenge for governments. It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game across this desolate stretch of border in New Mexico across the sands of the Chihuahuan Desert.
Three juveniles, self-described smugglers, asked a reporter and photographer to leave the area so “we can do our job.”
Saul said he and his partners had two families from Central America who needed to try to cross into the U.S. at the intersection of New Mexico, Texas and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, a popular area used by smugglers. His partners kept an eye on U.S. Border Patrol agents who hid about 300 yards away. A train rolled by with wheels screeching under a scorching sun.
The coyotitos waited. Patience was key. It can take minutes, or sometimes hours, Saul said, again urging journalists to leave.
Days later, Saul and a youth named Elias, who also looked underage, guided a group, including a mother and three sons. Elias declined to give his surname.
“Over the last week, we’ve been contacted by more families who want to evade authorities and get to their destination in the United States,” Elias said.
The smugglers peered across the New Mexican landscape and didn’t like what they saw. They rushed back to the Mexican side. A U.S. government helicopter hovered over Mount Cristo Rey, an iconic shrine in Sunland Park. A Border Patrol van left a trail of dust.
It’s a scene that one of the Mexican neighbors sees replayed often. Rick, a former Mexican immigrant, lived in Kansas City for 36 years before being deported back to Mexico. For the past 12 years, he has lived in Anapra, Mexico, on the outskirts of Ciudad Juárez and directly across from Sunland Park.
“I tell them the United States is not the country it was once,” said Rick, who asked that his full name not be shared because of fears of persecution by gang members in the area. He spoke through a 30-foot-wall border barrier. “They still need you, but there is too much hatred. I tell them it was hard for me to come back, too, but somehow I have made it work.”
He pointed to a small shack behind him. “I used to make about $800 in construction in the United States,” he said. “I now make $80, but I have been able to buy my own piece of land and slowly build my little house. It’s not much, but it’s mine.”
Rick said he lives there with his wife. He has children and grandchildren back in Kansas City. He points to Border Patrol agents, U.S. drones and a helicopter hovering above. “All the deterrence will not stop desperate people from trying to get across,” Rick said.
“Desperation can also be deadly,” he said, pointing at the U.S. barrier and sprawling desert, explaining he’s seen men and women fall to their deaths when they jump from cheap ladders to the New Mexico soil.
In the past two weeks, with temperatures rising, the Sunland Park Fire Department has recovered five bodies “believed to be migrants,” said Chief Daniel Medrano, adding the number of fatalities is “unusual” as the region has yet to hit triple-digit temperatures.
Decades of boom times
Boom times never really faded for smugglers, immigration experts say.
“Smugglers have always used any change on the border or any new policy, whether it’s in effect or only a remote possibility, or still blocked in court, as opportunity to make the case for their services,” said leva Jusionyte, a Brown University associate professor of international security and anthropology and author of the book “Threshold: Emergency Responders on the U.S.-Mexico Border.”
“It is no wonder that the end of Title 42 and the confusion over what that means for which category of migrants make it a good selling point for smugglers,” she said, adding that prices also depend on what criminal organization controls what portion of the border.
In Dallas, at a migrant day shelter at the Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, the Rev. Isabel Márquez attends to newcomers from Venezuela, Colombia and other countries. If you ask about smugglers and rising prices, the pastor just shakes her head.
“They said they paid $3,000 to $5,000 for coyotes to [help them cross], and some abandoned them,” she said.
That’s just to cross the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo, as it’s known in Mexico. One desperate migrant told her he forked over $7,000 for such a crossing. “They are willing to pay, because the coyote said they will get them to their family,” Márquez said. “They say, ‘You just walk two minutes and then you’ll be in Houston.’ ‘’
In the past two weeks, migrants at the day shelter told their stories on condition their surnames not be used, because they planned to file difficult asylum cases. A 42-year-old Venezuelan man named Jean said a smuggler in Ciudad Juárez wanted $1,500 to take him across the river to El Paso. Then the smuggler asked to take a video of him and other migrants individually.
This was a kidnapping set-up with potential extortion to his family back in the homeland, he suspected.
He made a dash for the border gates without smuggler help. “We entered illegally,” he said. “The Border Patrol grabbed me.”
Soon, he was processed by U.S. authorities and released on May 9 with a notice to appear in federal immigration court next year in Houston. That was two days before the lifting of Title 42.
Now, he wants to get his wife to the U.S. But first he must find a job. He ticks off all the things he can do, including construction work and cooking. “Nothing in life is free,” he said.
A gaunt Salvadoran man named Melvin said smugglers in Juárez asked for $3,000 to get him across the river. He said he balked at paying.
Another Venezuelan named Jefferson said he was threatened to pay the smuggling fee by men with guns “of all sizes.” Trim and athletic, Jefferson said he opted for running toward the El Paso bridge.
That was the first of May. Today, he clutches precious documents like a trophy. The documents detail his court date, Sept. 27, 2023, in New York, his final destination.