Women Are the New Coyotes

Human Rights
Editor's Note: This piece was part of a four-part investigative series for the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión.

"Gaviota" (not her real name) has six phones that don't stop ringing. Her booming business produces net profits of more than $50,000 a month. She has dozens of customers lining up for her in a datebook stretching three months ahead.

Gaviota is not exactly a college-educated professional, much less a businesswoman in a legal enterprise. But she has found "coyotaje" (illegal human trafficking) to be her best option of keeping the promise she tearfully made to her two children: "As long as they don't kill me, you won't live in poverty."

Gaviota is one of dozens of women along the southern border of the United States who are active participants and, often, the masterminds behind the world's third most lucrative illegal industry, after drugs and weapons: human trafficking.

Experts, authorities and the smugglers themselves agree that human trafficking networks are entering a new era, in which women have ceased to be the victims -- smuggled across the border and often raped along the journey -- and have become the ones that pull the strings in smuggling people ("goats," "chickens" or "furniture," as they call the undocumented).

"The old story of the man who runs the 'coyotaje' business is now just a myth. It's finally coming out that the big business of human trafficking is in female hands. As long as they make it known that they are women, they have lots of business all along the border," explains Marissa Ugarte, a psychologist, lecturer and founder of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition of San Diego, Calif.

In 2006, some 3,455 women were arrested for smuggling undocumented immigrants along the southern border, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). So far in 2007, another 1,606 women have been caught.

Female coyotes tend to employ other women -- most of them single mothers -- to line up customers, arrange food and lodging for the undocumented, and participate in cross-border money laundering.

"A real 'coyote' organizes everything for you. From who and where to take the 'goats' across, and where they will stay on this side of the border, to who will deliver them to the door of the customer (the immigrant's family). The other ones who just take you across the river or through the desert -- those bastards are just sleazebags and that's why we're eating their lunch," says Gaviota, whose smuggling network operates in Laredo, Tex. and transports migrants into the United States at border crossings or across the Rio Grande, depending on the customer's budget.

"The business is a real money-maker," says Ramón Rivera, a DHS spokesperson in Washington, D.C. "These women inspire confidence in the immigrants and when the authorities stop them and take them to court, they give them shorter sentences because they are mothers, daughters, because they are women. But when they get out, they go right back to doing the same thing, or worse -- they start going into other areas."

Many women have crossed the line that separates human trafficking from the trafficking of drugs, weapons and money.

"I took my first 'chickens' across when I was nine years old, and when I grew up I started moving drugs across the border. My mother taught us the business and made us tough. She hated poverty. For her, power was everything," says Cristal, daughter of the notorious drug smuggler Rosa Emma Carvajal Ontiveros, "La Güera Polvos," or "the Blonde Powder Woman." Carvajal Ontiveros was shot to death on Oct. 6, apparently by a hit squad, in Chihuahua's border zone with New Mexico, according to her family.

Just like their male colleagues, female coyotes put their lives at risk.

'Greasing the machinery'

And like their male counterparts, female coyotes engage in extortion and bribery -- of both Mexican and American authorities -- which are prerequisites for setting up and maintaining human trafficking rings.

"In this business, everybody gets a share. The ministries, the Border Patrol and the narcos. You have to keep them happy so they let you do your job. Here, no money means no business," says Adamaris, a young woman in El Paso, Tex. As she tells it, her children's hunger drove her to turn her home into a "safe house" where more than 500 undocumented migrants have passed through in less than a year.

In addition to bribing federal agents, the women coyotes must also fill so-called "quotas" -- monthly payments ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 -- demanded by members of the major drug smuggling cartels, in order to be allowed to operate.

"Nobody shows their face. You pay middlemen, but you know full well who the money is going to," says Adamaris.

"Gourmet" Service

According to the women interviewed -- all U.S. citizens except Adamaris -- many female coyotes smuggle migrants through the border crossings, rather than the mountains or the desert.

"It costs more but it's safer. That's why they come to us. We don't mess around with walking for three lousy days in the desert, but you gotta have balls to take people across the border," says Margarita, who limits herself to smuggling women and children through California border crossings.

Margarita is motivated by economics -- but in her case it isn't a fear of poverty, but her passion for "the good life." With her Coach brand sneakers and Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, Margarita goes to the Mexican side of the border every weekend, looking for customers who will pay the tab for her luxurious lifestyle.

Penalties in the United States for human trafficking can be as light as one year in prison or two or three years on probation, as well as confiscation of the vehicle used to transport the immigrants. In the worst case scenario, those convicted of conspiring to transport and house undocumented immigrants get a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, or both.

This is why coyotes charge so much for their services: between $2,000 and $5,000 per person. They know that in every illegal crossing, there is the danger of making a mistake that could land them in prison for a long time.

Cases like that of Karla Patricia Chávez of Honduras, leader of the gang responsible for the deaths of 19 undocumented immigrants in a trailer in Victoria, Tex. in May 2003, have made a deep impression on Gaviota. "I knew that bitch. Texas is our turf, and we all know the 'little shops' (businesses). That bitch didn't wise up, and she got found out. In this business, if you miss one little detail, they kill you or lock you up, and they take your whole crew down with you," says Gaviota, who keeps the names of her customers and employees under tight wraps.

Need, power and vice

Female coyotes say they run these risks to avoid poverty and for the love of their children.

"We all got into this business out of necessity. Some of us are single mothers, and others have husbands in jail. The fact of the matter is that we're all on our own. What bastards are gonna blame us for what we do? Who wouldn't do the same thing if the miserable pay you get in a factory couldn't be stretched far enough to feed your kids, and you find you can get twice the money for just giving a drink or taking care of a goddamn 'chicken' (an undocumented migrant)? Anybody who blames us has never seen their kids cry out of hunger," affirms Esperanza, who smuggles undocumented migrants, money and narcotics in the Nogales, Ariz. region.

Her taste for drugs, or perhaps her hard life, have prematurely wrinkled her skin. Esperanza, who is about 40, looks 60 years old.

But others say drugs and a lust for power are the real forces that drive women to enter the U.S.-Mexico trafficking business.

Nearly 90 percent of the women arrested at the Mexican border on smuggling charges are drug addicts, according to the organization Integral Family Development in Nogales.

"No matter how needy you might be, if you are an honest person, you're not going to get involved in illegal activities. Women like to brag about being more sensitive, more honest and protective (than men) -- and that's not true with these women. Saying they're doing it for their children is just a pretext. It's really because they don't have enough money to feed their addiction," says Susana Padilla Gómez, director of the organization Integral Family Development on the border between Arizona and Sonora, Mexico.

Whether out of vice, power or hunger, it is clear that Gaviota, Cristal, Margarita, Adamaris and Esperanza -- and the Blonde Powder Woman in her day -- have won fame and fortune.

As Esperanza says, women's stories of smuggling must not remain untold, because, she says, "Getting laid by the coolest guy at the party isn't worth it if your gang doesn't know about it."

Editor's Note: All names, except for those of the experts, the Blonde Powder Woman and the authorities, have been changed at the request of those involved and to protect the innocent.

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