The Corridor of Death: How smuggling and human trafficking intersect in Mexico

By Alice Raymond


Whilst people smuggling and human trafficking are both crimes according to international law, they are not the same. Individuals who employ the services of a smuggler generally do so of their own volition. Due to restrictive immigration policies and increasingly militarised border zones, smugglers are often the only hope for migrants wishing to gain entry into certain countries, with only the most desperate choosing to risk the journey without the aid of a guide. Victims of human trafficking, on the other hand, are often tricked, threatened or coerced by traffickers for the purposes of exploitation. Exploitation includes forced labour, slavery, and prostitution (UNODC, 2008). Smuggled migrants are particularly vulnerable to this kind of exploitation, and as such the two crimes, though distinct, inevitably overlap. Smugglers deal in human cargo for financial gain, charge extortionate fees, and often operate within complex criminal networks. Traffickers may disguise themselves as smugglers, and smugglers may make deals with traffickers. Employing a smuggler, therefore, does not guarantee safety, and migrants must make the crucial judgement of who to trust with both their money and their lives.

Mexico: a violent transit state

It has been argued that criminal violence in Mexico constitutes a humanitarian crisis (Albuja, 2014). Mexico sees high levels of internal displacement and emigration to the US amongst Mexicans, but also acts as a corridor, or transit state, for thousands of Central and South American migrants. Whilst travelling through Mexico, undocumented migrants represent a particularly vulnerable group. The Mesoamerican Migrant Movement estimates that since 2006, 70,000 Central American migrants have disappeared on their journey through Mexico (2014). Extortion, sexual violence, kidnappings and forced disappearances are common. In one case in 2010, 72 undocumented migrants were executed by Los Zetas, a powerful drug cartel reportedly angered by the migrants’ refusal to work for them as hitmen (“Migrants killed,” 2010). The discovery of mass graves is disturbingly commonplace, many filled with migrants murdered by gangs that control profitable migrant smuggling routes (“Mexican mass graves,” 2014).

Mexico’s geographical location makes it an unavoidable stretch of the journey for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing desperate poverty and seeking safety and economic opportunity in the US. Despite the obvious dangers outlined above, along with rampant state corruption, thousands of migrants from countries like Honduras and Guatemala continue to make the journey. “Coyotes”, or migrant smugglers, are paid to deliver migrants safely to the US, and now operate in ever more dangerous contexts in response to increasing border militarisation (Martínez, 2016). Cartel members, or human traffickers, may masquerade as coyotes, using threats, unpaid debts and extortion to force migrants into labour, sex work and crime.

Migrants, including unaccompanied children, are therefore tasked with negotiating complex networks of criminal and kidnapping gangs, in which state enforcement regimes and Mexican authorities are often complicit. Their “undocumented” status along with the lack of effective protection mechanisms and culture of impunity in Mexico (GSI, 2016) leaves them highly vulnerable to exploitation and violence.


Smugglers versus human traffickers

The help of a smuggler, or coyote, is often considered essential for migrants wishing to cross the US border. Those wishing to go it alone face a greater risk of kidnapping and must navigate not only increasing security measures but also the organised criminal network of cartels operating on the Mexican side of the border. Hundreds die every year trying to cross the border, and hiring a coyote can help to reduce migrants’ vulnerability (Martínez, 2016), increase the chance of crossing successfully, and for some is a matter of basic safety and survival. Choosing whether to hire a coyote or make the treacherous journey alone is a critical decision, and this in part explains the high fees coyotes are able to charge. One Guatemalan housekeeper in Los Angeles paid $5,000 dollars for each of her two children to be smuggled into the US (Vogt, 2016).

Long_border_fence crop

In 2014, Obama pled to Central American parents: “Our message is absolutely don’t send your children unaccompanied, on trains or through a bunch of smugglers… If they do make it, they’ll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it” (Dwyer, 2014). Smugglers are painted as the evil face of the problem, money-grabbing extortionists who deal in human cargo, and are often conflated with human traffickers. There is talk of the need to crack down on unscrupulous smugglers, not just in Mexico but also as seen in the response to the European migrant “crisis”. This narrative, however, denies the complexity of the migrant/smuggler relationship. Not all smugglers are traffickers, and not all traffickers are smugglers.

Many migrants who cross the US border successfully do so thanks to the assistance of smugglers, who they wilfully pay for their help. Vogt (2016) suggests that smugglers provide a necessary service, offer protection, and she argues that the nexus may be viewed through a lens of intimacy, rather than the traditional binary narrative of criminals and victims. The framing of the “evil smuggler” by international news media and governments obfuscates the reality that there exist many different kinds of smuggler. Some, it can be assumed, genuinely care about the lives of the people they are assisting. López Castro identifies three types of coyote in Mexico: local-interior, local and border, and border business (1998, p.966). “Local-interior” and “local and border” coyotes operate on an occasional basis, recommended to migrants through friends and family members. They provide local knowledge and expertise, and many have successfully crossed the US border many times. These coyotes, Martínez argues, are more likely to be socially motivated to protect their clients from harm (2016). Thompson points out that the coyote/migrant relationship can be positive: “Jessica describes her coyote as ‘hospitable. He fed us, he even bought us clothes because he gave us shoes… And he rented us a hotel. In other words, we didn’t suffer on account of (our guide)’” (Thompson et al., 2017 p.11).


Of course, not all coyotes are so kind. “Border business” coyotes, on the other hand, live near the border and smuggle people on a full-time basis. They don’t know their clients or operate through a referrals system (López Castro, 1998). Martínez suggests that border business coyotes are not bound by trust or communal bonds, like the other types that López Castro identifies, who are more inclined to protect migrants from exploitation, abuse and abandonment. Rather, they are less risk averse and purely motivated by business concerns, competing with other smugglers for their share of profit (2016). Spener (2009) describes how aberrant forms of coyotaje (smuggling) can include those who never actually intend to offer safe passage to migrants, but rather “extort them and leave them stranded… as well as those whose real goal is to transport drugs and not people” (ibid.). There can be a heavy price to pay for those who put their faith in the wrong person. Thompson describes how Maria’s guide used her as bait to draw the attention of border control away from other clients, and “Luisa (14) from Honduras described a ‘horrible’ segment of her guided journey in which she was packed in the back of truck with 30 other people. They travelled in a standing position for 15 hours in extreme heat with no food or water” (2017, p.11). It’s easy to see how misplaced trust can lead to tragedy.

$3_Million_Marijuana_Bust_Leads_to_Discovery_of_Sophisticated_Smuggling_Tunnel_(16024375313) red

Quite simply, as Slack and Campbell note, for migrants, “the goal is to find a guide who will not kidnap or abuse them” (2016, p.1389). Migrants exist in a state of reliance on their guides, but remain vulnerable to the possibility that a coyote may choose to sell them into slavery, or hold them in debt-bondage once they enter the USA (Servan-Mori et al., 2014). For smugglers, they too must navigate a complex, high-risk landscape of increased state enforcement and organised crime rings. This only serves to elevate the risks faced by migrants in turn, leaving them more vulnerable to being abandoned mid-journey, robbed, kidnapped or sold where external forces may profit from such practices (Vogt, 2016).

Organised crime and forms of slavery

According to the Global Slavery Index (2016), up to 70 percent of modern slavery cases in Mexico are related to organised crime groups. Cartels, such as Los Zetas, demand that migrants pay “taxes” to pass through their territories. Those who refuse, or cannot afford to pay, are kidnapped, forced to work for Los Zetas in transporting drugs, weapons and people, or in some cases, killed. Mexico’s Human Rights Commission (CNDH) documented over 11,000 kidnappings of Central American migrants over a six-month period in 2010. In their report, they detailed the stories of several migrants. Some spoke about how kidnappers masqueraded as guides, offering to transport them to the US for a fee. One described how he and his wife grew to distrust their heavily armed “guides” and managed to escape, later learning they were known kidnappers in the area (2011, p.85). It’s clear that putting faith in the wrong person can have disastrous consequences.

Untitled-21Another migrant detailed how he had first encountered Los Zetas on a train travelling through Mexico. The gang tried to force him to work for them, and when he refused they stabbed him in the arm: “If you don’t want to work for them, they kill you, but that time I managed to escape” (CNDH, 2011, p.94). He explained that they threaten the guides too, and if the guides don’t pay, they kill them as well (ibid.). Fortunately, this individual was able to get away, but others are not so lucky. Thousands of Central American migrants have become trapped in a nationwide slavery network run by the cartels on the US border states of Mexico, forced to work as hitmen, lookouts, and in the production, transportation and sale of drugs (Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, 2015).

Increasingly, drug cartels are branching out into other criminal activity in addition to kidnapping and extorting migrants for ransom money. The Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons reported in 2015 that the groups also profit from sex trafficking, and do so with the complicity of state authorities. According to Grayson and Logan (2012), where Los Zetas used to supply women to organised networks, they now run their own prostitution rings. A Honduran woman spent seven years as a sex slave for Los Zetas. Forced to work in brothels, she experienced and witnessed horrific violence: “I saw lots of people die, and die in horrible ways” (Balderas, 2016).


In a country where drug trafficking is the dominant criminal activity (Slack and Campbell, 2016), other forms of crime inevitably intersect and become indistinguishable from it. Smugglers occupy a role alongside and in relation to drug cartels and human trafficking. Identities are not static and fixed, but rather fluid and changing. A once trusted coyote might switch to kidnapping when that venture becomes more profitable, or when smuggling becomes too risky (Slack and Campbell, 2016). As Vogt notes, smugglers can play a “dual role as both perpetrator and protector” (2016, p.367).

Employing the help of a coyote does not guarantee safety, that much is clear, but does have the potential to mitigate a certain amount of risk. The smuggler/migrant relationship is complex and should not be seen as solely one of extortion and human cargo. It is ultimately up to migrants to make decisions about what risks they are or aren’t willing to take. Calculated risks may pay off, or they may end in disaster.

However, the situation is not as simple as campaigns such as “Smuggling of Migrants: #ADeadlyBusiness” (UNODC, 2016) might have you believe. This campaign argues that the violent smuggling business supports organised crime in an effort to warn migrants away. However, smugglers and traffickers are not the root of the problem, but rather a symptom of wider forces at play (Vogt, 2016). Demand for smugglers is created through increased militarisation and border enforcement as well as the dangers posed by cartels. Cartels like Los Zetas, who engage in trafficking and forced labour, are able to do so because they operate with impunity and the complicity of state authorities. While Mexico fails to address this corruption and fails to adequately address undocumented migrants’ protection needs, migrants will remain vulnerable to human rights violations perpetrated by smugglers, traffickers and immigration forces alike (Galemba, 2017).

A simple solution is not the answer to a complex problem, and scapegoating smugglers does nothing to address migrant vulnerability or the violence they face.


Related Articles

For a broader look at the way the US and Mexico deal with Smuggling and Trafficking

Reference List

Headline picture adapted from
Dan Sorensen Photography

Albuja, S. (2014). Criminal violence, displacement, and migration in Mexico and Central America. In S. Martin, S. Weerasinghe & A. Taylor (Eds.), Humanitarian crises and migration: causes, consequences and responses (pp.113-137). Abingdon: Routledge.

Balderas, O. (2016, August 11). My seven years as a sex slave in Mexican drug cartels. Vice News. Retrieved from

CNDH. (2011, February 22). Informe especial sobre secuestro de migrantes en México. Retrieved from

Dwyer, D. (2014, June 26). Obama warns Central Americans: ‘Do not send your children to the borders’. ABC News. Retrieved from

Galemba, R. B. (2017). ‘He used to be a Pollero’ the securitisation of migration and the smuggler/migrant nexus at the Mexico-Guatemala border. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 0(0), 1-17.

Global Slavery Index. (2016). Country study: Mexico. Retrieved from

Grayson, G. W. & Logan, S. (2012). The executioner’s men: Los Zetas, rogue soldiers, criminal entrepreneurs, and the shadow state they created. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Martínez, D. E. (2016). Coyote use in an era of heightened border enforcement: New evidence from the Arizona-Sonora border. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42(1), 103-119.

Mexican mass graves yield dozens of bodies. (2014, June 19). Al Jazeera. Retrieved from

Migrants killed for refusing to be assassins, teen says. (2010, August 26). NBC. Retrieved from

Movimiento Migrante Mesoamericano. (2014, November 15). Comunicado de la X Caravana. Retrieved from

Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. (2015). Trafficking in Persons Report: Mexico Country Narrative, pp. 243-244. Retrieved from

López Castro, G. (1998). Coyotes and alien smuggling. Binational Study: Migration between Mexico and the United States, 3(0), 965-74.

Servan-Mori, E. et al. (2014). Migrants suffering violence while in transit through mexico: factors associated with the decision to continue or turn back. Journal of Immigrant Minority Health, 16(1), 53–59.

Slack, J. & Campbell, H. (2016). On narco-coyotaje: illicit regimes and their impacts on the US– Mexico border. Antipode, 48(5), 1380-1399.

Spener, D. (2009). Clandestine crossings: migrants and coyotes on the Texas-Mexico border. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Thompson, A., Torres, R. M., Swanson, K., Blue, S. A. & Hernández, O. M. H. (2017). Re-conceptualising agency in migrant children from Central America and Mexico. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 0(0), 1-18.

UNODC. (2008). What is human trafficking? Retrieved from

UNODC. (2016). #ADeadlyBusiness: regional conference adopts UNODC’s campaign against smuggling of migrants. Retrieved from

Vogt, W. (2016). Stuck in the middle with you: the intimate labours of mobility and smuggling along Mexico’s migrant route. Geopolitics, 21(2), 366-386.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s