AGUACATAN, Guatemala – These are lean times for Hugo and others in his time-honored profession.
He hasn’t worked regularly in weeks and is back in college studying accounting, which he took up after ditching criminal science as unsuitable considering his full-time gig.
“It’s just too hard to do the job right now,” said Hugo, who makes his living as a people smuggler, or coyote, guiding migrants on the often-perilous journey from Guatemala through Mexico to the U.S. border.
A crackdown by Mexican authorities – acting at the insistence of President Donald Trump – has dramatically reduced the flow of Central American migrants this summer.
“The Mexicans put the National Guard on the roads, and those guys love their country,” said Hugo, 31, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that his last name not be used. “It’s not like the immigration guys; you can buy them for some pesos. But you can’t buy the National Guard.”
As a tiny cog in the illicit, multibillion-dollar people-smuggling industry, he offered a defense of a profession that he says has been unfairly maligned.
A small number of coyotes have given the trade a bad name, he said, by abandoning their charges or selling them to Mexican gangs that subject them to extortion.
But most colleagues, Hugo said, understand that they are in a competitive business, and that customer service is paramount.
Though some coyotes advertise on local radio or social media, boasting that they can facilitate the “American dream,” migrants typically choose smugglers whom they have used before or who have been recommended by friends or relatives.
“This is a business based on trust,” Hugo said. “People could denounce us, they could burn us. But they don’t.”
He started in the industry 11 years ago and in that time has earned enough to support his wife and two children in this sprawling agricultural hub, known for its production of onions and garlic – and is itself a major source of U.S.-bound migrants.
Hugo, 31, wore shorts and sandals and spoke in the kitchen of his home, which doubles as a shop where his wife and sister sell colorful, handwoven garments favored by women here in Guatemala’s western highlands. His sons, ages 2 and 7, came and went to cavort with their father.
Before the current crackdown, Hugo said, he made about two trips north each month, leading as many as 30 customers at a time.
He and his clients cross the largely unguarded Guatemalan-Mexican border in private cars or trucks, and then use Mexico’s regional bus fleet to travel more than 1,000 miles to towns on Mexico’s northern border. Migrants ride on the buses like other passengers.
The price of $1,800 per person – down from $2,200 in early 2019 because of intense competition – includes transport, food and overnight accommodation in hotels and safe houses during a journey that usually takes eight days.
Hugo offers no discount for children, who in recent years have been making the trip in rising numbers. Under U.S. law, traveling with children can spare migrant parents from long-term detention while waiting months or years for courts to rule on political asylum claims.
“The child is the treasure,” Hugo said. “It’s not the adult who takes the child, it’s the other way around: The child takes the adult.”
There are cheaper options with other smuggling operations. Before the Mexican enforcement buildup, migrants could pay $1,200 each to cram into the back of a tractor-trailer with up to 300 people, reaching the border in as little as three days – but at far greater risk.
On the other end of the spectrum are packages that cost up to $12,000 a person and include false documents, a flight to northern Mexico, transportation across the U.S. border and travel on to Los Angeles, Atlanta or other destinations.
In Hugo’s case, he said he works for a smuggling boss, who pays him about $100 for each day he spends on the road. Crucially, his boss also coordinates with corrupt Mexican officials and border gangs in Mexico to facilitate a smooth passage.
He said bribes to Mexican immigration personnel generally run about $50 for each migrant, a problem the government has recently acknowledged, firing hundreds of agents suspected of corruption.
Gangs in Mexican border towns charge smugglers about $500 for each migrant.
As he approaches the U.S.-Mexico border, Hugo said, he alerts gang lookouts – who are posted along roads, watching for incoming groups of migrants – that he has permission from their leaders to enter their turf. Coyotes and lookouts communicate in code to shield their intent from authorities and others.
“I have 20 cajitas,” Hugo might say.
Each cajita, or small box, represents a smuggled migrant.
The border capos go by handles such Tlachuache, or possum. With their approval, Hugo checks his charges into hotels catering to the trade.
At that point, his journey north is over. Mexican coyotes deposit migrants at the Rio Grande and instruct them to give themselves up to U.S. Border Patrol agents to claim asylum.
As for the current enforcement buildup, Hugo said he’s not angry with Trump or Mexican authorities. Periodic clampdowns come with the territory.
Instead, Hugo directs his ire at the thousands of Central Americans who began traveling in caravans last year, forgoing coyotes, and became political fodder for Trump.
“They drew a lot of attention, burned a lot of routes,” Hugo said.
However, Hugo said he is confident that, eventually, pressure will ease – as it has during past Mexican enforcement spikes – and the cross-border traffic will resume.
In the meantime, he has been able to spend time with his family and rest his ailing back, chronically sore from years of road trips.
“For now, people are waiting to see what happens,” Hugo said. “But eventually they won’t be able to wait anymore, and they will have to go.”
(Los Angeles Times special correspondents Claudia Palacios and Liliana Nieto del Rio in Guatemala and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.)