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By Omar, as told to David Bacon

Omar was a high school teacher, and then worked for the education ministry in Guatemala until he retired. That made him a well-known figure in the tiny mountain community of Santa Eulalia, half of whose families now have members working in the US. He is also part of the network of people -- recruiters, coyotes, guides and others -- who send people to the US. He explained to independent journalist David Bacon how the coyote system works. His name has been changed, because he has daughters in the US who he still visits.


The coyotes are ones who are really winning in the emigration of people from Guatemala to the US. Eight or ten years ago, coyotes were receiving 8,000 to 9,000 quetzales for the trip. Nowadays, they charge up to 45,000 [8 quetzales = $1]. In Guatemala, this is enough money to start a serious business. In order to come up with it, people have to give their houses as security and sell their land.

There are usually two ways people travel. One is through Mexican territory, overland, in a van or a car. Sometimes this has terrible consequences, and people have died, because the vans are completely closed. But the majority of people leaving Guatemala come from the high plateau, where it's very cold. For them, crossing the border through the desert alone is a sure death.

They take groups of 60 or even 70, and it's a good business. Even U.S. Immigration helps people pass the border in exchange for a high fee in dollars.

Today there are also coyotes who take people by air. They rent a plane in Mexico, and don't take many people -- eight or ten. The first stop is Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in Chiapas, and then several other stops on the way, since you have to refuel to reach the border. Some coyotes make what we call dirty papers to enable you to cross Mexico. In Tijuana, they turn the people over to a Mexican pollero, who brings the people without papers across. There must be always a relative on the other side waiting, because that's where the coyote really receives his payment.

Here in Guatemala people pay enough to cover the expenses of the trip through Mexico. At the other end, another payment of $2000-2500 is made in dollars. That's where the work of the coyote ends. He just takes a plane back to Guatemala, and prepares another trip with his people.

This is an open business. Pretty much any person can point out someone they think is safe to take you to the border. Nothing illegal is being done. What's illegal is to cross the Guatemalan border -- inside the country there's nothing illegal. Sometimes people look for me and ask me for a safe contact to reach the border. I give them a telephone number, and they make the contact, talk, and reach an agreement. And before you even notice, they're gone.

Living here, after a while you know that if you want to find a coyote, you go to so-and-so. They can tell you what the trip costs, the travel conditions, and if they're taking you by land, or by air. You usually take a change of underwear, which is going to be the only one for the whole journey. There's no time to take a bath or change clothes, and you eat just whatever and whenver you can.

You're taken to hotels, perhaps not of very good quality, but you survive.

People devote themselves exclusively to this job, just like a real state agent. They give you telephone numbers to call wherever you are, and they know who to make arrangements with. After people know he can produce results, the coyote gradually increases the price. At first he charges a lower amount. Then he raises his price 1,000 quetzales, then another 1,000 and another.

The coyotes communicate and decide on the price. They say, "now it's more difficult to cross, so let's ask for more." Nowadays, it's very difficult to get a visa. Perhaps out of 1,000 people only 20 get one. Many people never get one. So this is the law of the market: when there's more demand, the prices rise. They compete against each other to a certain extent, and some people here in Guatemala look for Mexican polleros because they think it will cost less. But in the long run, the price is the same. There are always a lot of people who need to go north, so they keep setting the prices higher.

Normally, here in Guatemala the coyote charges 15,000 quetzales ($2000), and explains that this will cover all the expenses for the trip from Guatemala to the U.S. border. On the other side, there has to be someone waiting for them, to make the second payment in dollars. That's where the profit comes from, and everybody gets some of that -- the coyote, the recruiter of interested people, and the guide who travels with them.

This system has changed things a lot. When people see that a coyote has a two or three story hotel, good cars, and lives in luxury, then they get the desire to have the same things. They take the road to the U.S. In 15 days a coyote can make something like 5,000 quetzales per person. Taking 10 people, that's about 50,000 quetzales ($6000). For the average person here, it takes more than a year of work to earn such an amount.

Simply, a coyote is a business man. There's no need for him to buy the authorities in order to be able to operate freely. He's simply doing a job, and he's paid legally. There are consequences he can suffer outside our country, but not here. With his money he may have some sort of decision-making power in his own community, and can even finance a political group so that nobody bothers him and he can continue without interference. That's like any other business.

This is very different from drug trafficking, which is illegal. Someone dealing drugs can be incarcerated for many years. What the coyotes do is a legal business. It's like buying cigarettes.

Any boy here in Guatemala can buy one and smoke it. In other countries this is prohibited because you cannot sell tobacco to a boy under 18. A coyote's business might be illegal abroad, but in Guatemala it's legal.

If terrible things happen to the emigrants, like the recent case of 17 people who drowned while traveling through Mexico, there's no applicable law to sanction him in Guatemala. If he's caught there, outside Guatemala, he has to accept what the law in that other country stipulates. Here in Guatemala, it's simply an incident, or an accident, and they died. The person who left without papers must take a risk, the same way the coyote does. They accepted the risk, so they have to accept the reality.

I definitely don't feel guilty because I'm not causing harm to anyone. On the contrary, I've been helping people to get out of this bad economic situation. I simply orient people. If they're interested then it's up to them. Inside our country, no one is breaking any law. Now, outside of our country, a coyote is indeed breaking the law, of course, because there are immigration laws.

Even the government is happy because in the long run, the immigrant in the U.S. is solving a problem the state should have solved. The Guatemalan economy is really in bad shape. The price for what it takes for a family to survive has been increasing sharply, and a normal salary is 2000 quetzales or about $250 US.

The basic reason people emigrate to the US is the socio-economic situation. As a result of the armed conflict, poverty got worse in our country. In Guatemala some people don't have anything to eat, while others have three cars parked in front of their house. We have more than 5 million people without housing. Over time, when people go north they save money and build houses. For the state, immigration is beneficial. The government says that people are remitting close to 500,000 million quetzales. There are close to a million Guatemalans already in the U.S, and people keep leaving.

Of course, for people living in the North, in the U.S., this phenomenon may have been harmful because they have been displaced. The migrants don't know English, so they earn less for their work.. But for us here it's a lot. Let's say an immigrant gets five dollars an hour. If he works five hours, or $25 a day, this is the equivalent of 200 quetzales daily. Here in Guatemala, many people earn 25 quetzales per day, working from 7 a.m until 5 p.m. So here people are working double and earning eight times less than a person working in the U.S. This is the reality of economic necessity.

Money from the north has changed us. Now money means much more to us, and people have adopted a consumer mentality. They talk all the time about how much they'll earn in the north. The price of land has increased too much. In many places now a small piece of land costs 200,000 quetzales ($25,000), the equivalent of a lifetime of work. This causes huge economic inequality. And if people sell their land so someone can go north, what are they going to live on? With what people earn, it's not possible for them to survive. So going North has become a necessity, not a luxury.

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