Stopping the flow of illegal immigration from Central America to the U.S is a cornerstone of the Trump administration’s policies. In recent years, immigration has become a third rail topic in American politics. However, migration from Central America to the United States is not a new phenomenon, despite the heavy focus on border security at the U.S-Mexico border. The Trump administration has called illegal immigration at the border between the U.S and Mexico a crisis. With the aim to gain a better understanding of the rationale behind illegal immigration from Central America, DevTech has carried out a case study on human smugglers (known as coyotes) in Guatemala on behalf of the U.S. Department of State.

The study captured the structure, organization and marketing strategies of coyotes in three Western Highland regions of Guatemala. The DevTech team interviewed active and inactive coyotes, families with migrants in the United States, and migrants who recently returned to Guatemala from the United States. The team also captured radio and social media advertisements promoting coyote services to the U.S. The demand to migrate, whether it be for a better life, escaping violence, or family reunification, is a difficult and personal choice that many families in Guatemala and across Latin America make. The high demand to migrate to the U.S, is reflected by limited opportunities in Guatemala and few mechanisms of migrating legally, leading to a prosperous illegal migration market.

Although most Americans see coyotes as heartless, the study’s respondents had mixed feelings. On the one hand, coyotes can be heavily connected and knowledgeable about the safest routes to travel and will deliver migrants to their destination unharmed. And on the other hand, some coyotes may use their power to take advantage of their clients putting them at personal and financial risk. Nevertheless, most respondents interviewed did not know how to travel to the US legally through a visa program. If respondents had heard of a temporary visa, visas were seen as unattainable and expensive. Meanwhile coyotes, although expensive, are available in communities and are perceived as more likely to be successful in helping migrants reach the United States.

Even though human smuggling is illegal in Guatemala, coyotes still market their services, often publicly. Respondents claim coyotes can be contacted through personal references or radio ads. Coyotes in small communities will advertise their services on local radio stations or at a greater scale on social media, masked as U.S tourism ads.

Curtailing illegal immigration involves a closer look at reasons why individuals migrate. If demand drops for migration services, then the supply of coyotes may decrease as well. By improving opportunities in Guatemala and other Latin American countries, citizens may not have to make the difficult choice of leaving their country.

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Research Team (left to right): Phil Church, Mario Moreno, Atilio Aguilera, Meredith Kerrigan, Alfonso Arrivillaga