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02/12/2012 | Mexico: Migrants - Part III: The Gauntlet*

Steven Dudley

According to Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights (CNDH) — the only Mexican government entity that has released data on kidnappings of migrants — 9,758 migrants were kidnapped in 33 different "events" between September 2008 and February 2009.1 In a 2011 study the CNDH estimated that 11,333 migrants were kidnapped between April and September of 2010 in 214 different events.2 Extrapolating the CNDH's 2011 findings suggests that around 20,000 migrants are kidnapped per year in Mexico.


The CNDH estimates are based on hundreds of visits to refugee shelters, churches, and other areas where migrants concentrate. Still, government analysts dispute the numbers, saying they are anecdotal and come from unreliable and biased sources. Some observers argue that the methodology used by CNDH can be easily manipulated — for example, if the same migrant told one story to different commission investigators, who registered it as a new incident each time. However, the CNDH figure is the only estimate available, and even as they disagree on the exact numbers, all experts and government officials agree that the dangers are increasing for migrants crossing Mexico, especially with regard to kidnapping for ransom.

Yet many migrants continue to undertake the journey. Most of them seek the assistance of traditional intermediaries, popularly known as "polleros" or "coyotes," and their networks of smuggling operations that operate throughout the region. The coyotes vary in professionalism and price. Some of them cross over into other enterprises, including drug trafficking.

The ability of coyotes to operate has become contingent on their skill in navigating the new criminal landscape. This means dealing with two major actors newly involved in migrant smuggling and a third, more traditional actor. The new players are street gangs and large, diversified criminal organizations. As described in Part I and Part II of this report, these two have different roots and different ends, but both cross over into the human-smuggling business. The more traditional actor is the public sector, notably corrupt government officials and members of security forces.

Criminal Organizations

At the top of the new migrant-smuggling hierarchy are criminal organizations that collect "piso," or a toll, from any actors moving merchandise (in this case, human cargo) through their territory. The most famous of these in Mexico is the Zetas. At its core are former public security officers who defected in the late 1990s to become part of the private security team of the Gulf Cartel. For the first few years, their main job was to protect the cartel boss, Osiel Cardenas Guillen, and his primary product, cocaine. They proved extremely effective, especially at taking and occupying territory from enemy cartels, and over time they were tasked with expanding the Gulf's business interests in other parts of Mexico. (The Gulf Cartel is involved in a wide range of businesses beyond drug trafficking and human smuggling, notably insurance fraud.)

[See InSight Crime's Zetas profile]

As protection forces grew, the Zetas took advantage of new business opportunities and began collecting piso from those who sold drugs and contraband on the local market, or operated illegal bars or brothels. They used the money from this tax to contract and train more soldiers. Soon, the Zetas were large enough to challenge the Gulf Cartel itself. The first signs of a break came after Cardenas was arrested in 2003. By the time Cardenas was extradited to the United States in 2007, the Zetas had formed their own, independent organization. Although technically they still answered to the Gulf leadership, the Zetas were now an open threat. The Zetas split definitively from the Gulf Cartel in early 2010, after the cartel murdered a Zeta commander and refused to hand over the assassins.

Throughout, the Zetas have remained true to their core mission: taking and controlling territory where they collect piso from other criminal organizations and, increasingly, legitimate businesses. In most instances the Zetas do not set up infrastructure to operate these illicit businesses, though they do provide "security" services. Their singular focus on the military side of the equation is both a strength and a limitation. Their income stream is diverse and their ledger complicated, which is perhaps why they are known to have a strict accounting system that works completely separate from the military arm of the organization.

The Zetas have adopted the Gulf Cartel's strategy of granting autonomy to contract workers -- the lieutenants, the assassins, and the hawks. Some of these contract workers are part of gangs, which occasionally results in messy and complicated situations on the ground. Most are part time (locals in Monterrey call them "zetillas," or little Zetas), but they use their connections to the Zetas to commit other crimes such as car theft and armed robbery. Delineating Zeta crime from locally motivated crime is difficult, if not impossible.

It is not clear exactly when the Zetas began collecting money from the coyotes, but by 2008, the group was entrenched in areas along the border with Guatemala (particularly in Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, and Quintana Roo), from which they could launch surprise assaults on migrants. Their areas of operations have since spread to places such as Veracruz, San Luis Potosí, and, most notably, Tamaulipas. Tamaulipas has become a particularly difficult part of the journey for migrants as the fight between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel has intensified. In August 2010 suspected Zetas killed at least 193 migrants in an abandoned farmhouse for reasons that are still not clear.3 By early 2011 the war had engulfed hundreds more, who were pulled from public buses and forcibly enlisted as "soldiers," or killed as suspected collaborators with the Gulf Cartel and then buried in mass graves.

The Zetas are not the only large criminal organization victimizing migrants. Factions of many engage in similar activities, either directly or indirectly. The Gulf Cartel appears to be the most active, and works with both the Mexican police and Mexican migration officials in order to capture its victims. Factions of the Juarez and Tijuana cartels also collect piso from local smugglers and may, in the case of Juarez, be directly involved in trafficking. Portions of the old Familia Michoacana, now called the Caballeros Templarios, and the Sinaloa Cartel have also reportedly displaced coyotes operating in their territories and have attempted to take over this business.

There are also large independent and semi-independent groups operating throughout the US-Mexico border region. The author was given access to a file documenting a case in which a Baja California kidnapping ring tricked Mexican migrants passing through the neighboring state of Sonora into believing they would be taken across the border near Tijuana. Instead, the group kidnapped the migrants and had their relatives deposit money into accounts controlled by the ring. They also physically abused the victims, raping the women and severely beating the men.

Street Gangs

Street gangs' participation in the human-smuggling business is not uniform across the region but seems to be divided into two broad categories: predators and informants. There are numerous reports of gang members harassing, robbing, and raping migrants moving north. Gang members who travel or lodge alongside migrants, sometimes in refuge houses established by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) along known routes, gather information on potential victims. These informants then pass the information on to larger criminal organizations or corrupt security forces, who corral the migrants en masse to systematically rob or extort money from them or their families. In general, the gangs appear to be contract workers in such schemes.

Different gangs appear to control different lengths of a route. However, despite the massive presence of street gangs in the Northern Triangle, there is no evidence that they play any role until migrants cross into Mexico. Their presence in Mexico is especially strong along the railroads frequently used by migrants. Their targets, like the larger criminal groups, are most often Central American migrants attempting the journey without the services of a coyote.

Gangs continue to harass migrants in the United States, where they appear to have more autonomy than in Mexico and often replicate the activities of groups like the Zetas. This is because the Zetas do not control the territory in which the gangs operate in the United States. In one recent case in Houston, gangs demanded piso from a smuggler and held his human cargo until he met their demands.4 US authorities call this a "coyote rip": a gang commandeers a group of immigrants and then holds them for ransom or payment. According to US law enforcement, numerous kidnapping cases in Phoenix are connected to similar "rips" or to smugglers demanding more money from their clients. There were close to 300 reported kidnappings per year in Phoenix between 2006 and 2009, according to the US Department of Justice (DOJ).5

Throughout this chain, corrupt state officials and public security forces seem ready to take advantage of migrants who have succeeded in eluding criminal organizations. This includes portions of the National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM), who last year reportedly handed over at least 120 migrants to members of the Gulf Cartel to be held for ransom. Six INM officials were eventually arrested for the crime.6 Some local and national police have reportedly set up dragnets for migrants as well. In some cases, the police appear to be working with the criminals. In Reynosa four police officers were arrested after 68 migrants were rescued from suspected members of the Gulf Cartel.7 Army checkpoints are also notoriously tricky passage points for coyotes and migrants, and army personnel have been connected to extortion and mass kidnappings.8

Successfully navigating this gauntlet requires some combination of money, experience, and luck. Migrants tend to be categorized into three groups:

• Those who can afford to arrange for travel by air, using either a coyote or some other specialized service;
• Those who have to travel by some combination of air, water, and land, using a coyote;
• And those who travel by land and cannot afford a coyote.


Drawing upon anecdotal evidence only, those who pay a specialized service or coyote to arrange the journey and those who do not are both at risk, although the perception is that contracting a coyote greatly lowers the chances of being victimized. (This report does not examine the first category of migrants listed above, focusing instead on the second two categories, since air travelers do not face the same risks as land travelers.)

For those who travel alone, without coyotes, the dangers begin almost the minute they start. Their enemies are often their fellow passengers. Both gang members and other migrants working as informants obtain information about their compatriots as they travel and then pass this on to corrupt officials, gangs, or criminal organizations. Criminal groups stop independent travelers and take them captive en masse by arresting or kidnapping them. They then use the information obtained from informants to obtain a ransom or an extortion payment.

These "detentions" can last for hours, days, or even weeks. The most sophisticated criminal groups have developed an extensive infrastructure to accommodate numerous victims. There are anecdotes of dozens of kidnapped victims being held in large warehouses or apartments until they can arrange for a payment to their captors.9 The payments are made to US or Mexican bank accounts, or are wired directly through services such as Western Union.10 The amounts vary but can run into the thousands of dollars.

Even those who have the money to use coyotes are not guaranteed a safe and incident-free journey. Who they contract and how much they pay in order to navigate the criminal landscape can be the difference between life and death. The process usually begins in the migrants' home country; a coyote collects money at the start of the journey, and sends a representative to accompany the migrants. The fee generally ranges from $2,000 to $10,000 and can include transportation and lodging for small and large groups. In the best of circumstances, this fee also includes bribes to private company personnel (bus drivers, hotel managers, and others) and security forces (police, army, customs), and a commission for gangs and criminal organizations en route.

Exactly how the coyote guarantees a safe journey is particularly complex. According to one source familiar with the arrangement, the coyotes pay $30,000 a week to the Zetas, who ensure safe passage for a specific number of migrants crossing their territory during that week.11 Another coyote told an investigator that he paid $500 per head once he had arrived at a designated area (in this case, the city of Monterrey, Nuevo León) where he knew large criminal groups held control.12 Which group he paid depended on what was happening in the area. Responsible coyotes, therefore, may carry extra cash on hand for any unforeseeable circumstances. No matter the system, confusion about who has paid whom and when remains a strong possibility. Moreover, in a shifting landscape, it is difficult for coyotes and their representatives to properly identify a given criminal group's role and informants.

Criminal Crossover

There is evidence that numerous criminal organizations in Mexico profit from human movement, but most appear more interested in collecting piso than in smuggling people across borders. However, in Central America, some criminal organizations appear to have broadened their activities to include human smuggling.

The clearest example of this is Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, also known as "Chepe" Luna, a Salvadoran national who operates in the Northern Triangle. Luna began his career moving dairy products from Honduras to El Salvador during the 1980s. These exploits earned Luna and his collaborators the nickname Cartel de los Quesos (the "Cheese Cartel"). Luna then branched into human smuggling before finally moving into drug trafficking.

Luna remains one of the region's foremost traffickers of both legal and illegal goods, specifically pirated goods, stolen cars, and cocaine. Like his counterparts, he moves his products via a series of transport companies that operate throughout the isthmus. His legal infrastructure has allowed him to take advantage of numerous business ventures, using them to co-opt portions of the police, judicial, and immigration systems. The result is a vast, multinational, and multidimensional criminal network that includes human smuggling.

Other organizations fill smaller roles in the human-smuggling chain. Former military personnel in Guatemala use their contacts or control over certain governmental offices to supply legitimate documentation for migrants, mostly high-end travelers that use the country as a landing pad. These individuals can obtain documentation from corrupt officials before starting their journey north.

There do not appear to be many Central American-based street gangs involved in human smuggling, but some are reportedly connected to human trafficking, specifically forced prostitution. The Zetas have also been connected to human-trafficking activity in the Northern Triangle countries and in Mexico. According to the Honduran consul in Chiapas, the Zetas have forced numerous Honduran women into prostitution in southern Mexico.13

There are some reports that migrants are being used to traffic small quantities of drugs. The Department of Justice (DOJ), in its assessment of the southeastern Texas–Mexico border, said that smugglers used "shark boats" to move drugs and migrants, although it is not clear if migrants and drugs are transported on the same journey.14 Other DOJ security assessments also note this crossover.15

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials would not provide the author with specific data on this matter, and most intelligence reports from the DOJ do not mention or go into any great detail about the connection between human and drug smuggling. There may also be some confusion since drug-trafficking groups hire migrants to take backpacks full of drugs across the border, particularly in deserted areas such as the Arizona border.16 This, however, appears to be another kind of operation. In other words, smuggling large numbers of humans, some of whom may be carrying small amounts of drugs, and using an individual to smuggle a backpack full of drugs are different.

Reports from Mexico also appear to substantiate the theory that migrants are used to smuggle narcotics, although, again, it is difficult to assess how prevalent the practice is. One theory regarding the August 2010 massacre in San Fernando, for instance, was that the migrants had refused to carry drugs into the United States. While there is little evidence in this case, Mexican intelligence officials told the author that drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) use migrants to move small quantities of drugs. Mexican intelligence officials also noted that migrants are recruited into Mexican criminal gangs in high numbers. Some of these go willingly, they said; others are forcibly recruited. Those who refuse face execution.

Migrants also appear to be connected to bulk arms purchases and the movement of weapons across the US-Mexico border. Networks of arms traffickers often have families on both sides of the border, many of whom have dual citizenship and connections to criminal operations in Mexico. The traffickers use "straw buyers" (usually individuals with no criminal records) to buy multiple weapons, which are then trafficked across the border in bulk to Mexico and sold to large or small criminal organizations. Migrants can be used as buyers, although they do not actually move any bulk product in either direction. However, the necessity of finding "clean" buyers and movers for weapons makes the use of illegal immigrants less likely.


Migrants' journey north from Central America through Mexico to the United States, always perilous and unpredictable, has gotten several new obstacles in recent years. These are the result of a transformation in the region's criminal organizations. In Mexico what were small, family-run DTOs have morphed into large, criminal operations with military prowess and a large portfolio of criminal activities, including that of kidnapping migrants for ransom. At the same time, street gangs have proliferated in the region, providing "eyes and ears" for these larger criminal organizations to seize large numbers of migrants en route.

These criminal actors, often working in tandem with security forces and government officials, are preying on migrants by the thousands. The estimates of how many are victimized are unreliable, but all those consulted by the author over a two-year period agree that the risk of being kidnapped for ransom has increased exponentially. Many of those who could not or would not pay this ransom have been killed. Again, there are no reliable statistics, but there are mass graves, specifically in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas where the Mexican Zetas operate.

For their part, the Zetas provide the clearest example of a Mexican criminal organization that has diversified its portfolio. The group, once an armed wing of the Gulf Cartel, has become a multifaceted criminal operation that is focused on controlling territory and wields superior training and tactics. Other criminal organizations operating in Zeta territory must pay a hefty toll. Zeta territory encompasses the routes most frequented by migrants moving north and crossing into the United States.

Groups like the Zetas have changed the game. Coyotes moving migrants must arrange payment to the Zetas (or the other controlling criminal groups) or risk losing their cargo. Migrants without coyotes run the highest risk of being victimized, though paying a coyote does not ensure safe passage. The semi-autonomous and amorphous nature of today's criminal groups makes the migrant's journey more unpredictable than ever. Meanwhile, ransom money keeps the stakes high and, in some cases, the profiteering is stretched into the United States. For example, US street gangs victimize migrants after arrival.

The human-smuggling business crosses over into other criminal activities as well. Some smugglers also traffic humans, many of whom are forced into prostitution; other smugglers have branched into trafficking drugs. Migrants themselves are forcibly recruited by criminal gangs, especially in Mexico. Some of these migrants have become "soldiers" for large criminal operations, while others are forced to move small quantities of drugs by land.


[1] Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos (CNDH), Special Report of the Human Rights National Commission over Kidnapping Against Migrants (Mexico City: CNDH, February 2011).

[2] Ibid., 26.

[3] Initially, only 72 cadavers were discovered, but upon further investigation the total body count was found to be 193.

[4] Steven Dudley, “‘Coyote Rips’ in Houston Give Migrants Another Headache,” InSight Crime, May 2011.

[5] US Department of Justice (USDOJ), National Drug Intelligence Unit (NDIC), US Southwest Border Smuggling and Violence (Washington, DC: USDOJ, 2010).

[6] Geoffrey Ramsey, “Migrants Accuse Mexico Immigration Officials in Kidnap Case,” InSight Crime, May 2011.

[7] Dudley, “Coyote Rips' in Houston Give Migrants Another Headache.”

[8] Amnesty International, Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico (London: Amnesty International, 2010).

[9] Óscar Martínez, “Somos de los Zetas,” El Faro, November 2009.

[10] In 2010 Western Union paid $94 million to state authorities to help settle a 10-year investigation into its practices. Part of the money went to anti-money-laundering initiatives in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and California. See Jonathan Stempel , “Western Union to Pay $94 million in Laundering Probe,” Reuters, February 2010.

[11] Author interview with former Salvadoran consulate officials, May 2011.

[12] Southern Pulse, “Inside Illegal Entry — From San Salvador to Houston,” InSight Crime, March 2011.

[13] Geoffrey Ramsey, “Trafficking, Forced Prostitution Denounced in Chiapas,” InSight Crime, April 2011,

[14] USDOJ, NDIC, Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis (Washington, DC: USDOJ, 2007).

[15] USDOJ, NDIC, Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area: Drug Market Analysis (Washington, DC: USDOJ, 2007).

[16] Ibid.

See also:

Part I: The Emergence of Mexico's Small Armies

Part II: Gangs, Deportation and Violence in Central America

*This work was originally commissioned and published by the Migration Policy Institute, which together with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars has convened a three-year research initiative focusing on Mexico, Central America, and the United States. (Estados Unidos)


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