Coyotes and Resistance on the U.S. Mexico Border

Among the villains in the crosshairs of the Department of Homeland Security’s $57 billion 2012 Fiscal Year budget are coyotes, the smugglers migrants often hire to help them enter the United States without authorization. The border enforcement part of this budget, which supports an all-time high number of agents and officers, will in part focus on taking down these "criminals." However the book, Clandestine Crossings, by David Spener, directly challenges this "discursive" and costly fable about coyotes, and in doing so reveals that coyotes play an essential role for migrants trying to resist a blatantly unjust system.

April 21, 2011

Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border
David Spener, Cornell University Press (2009), 298 pp., $24.95 (paperback)

Among the villains in the crosshairs of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) 2012 Fiscal Year budget are coyotes, the “smugglers” migrants often hire to help them enter the United States without authorization. No doubt their job will become more challenging in the face of a $57 billion budget that, the DHS boasts, will support an all-time high of 21,370 Border Patrol agents and 21,196 Customs and Border Protection officers, more than double the 2005 numbers. Since the majority of these agents will be placed along the U.S. Mexico boundary, this budget makes clear that the central goal of Obama’s immigration policies, like those of his recent White House predecessors, is to “secure our borders,” continuing to build the same security apparatus that coyotes continually learn how to evade.


Coyotes, U.S. authorities assert, are among the principal perpetrators of violence in the U.S. Mexico borderlands. They only care about money, we are told, and have a complete “disregard for human life.” They rob migrants and abandon them to their deaths. They are members of organized crime and drug trafficking networks, and perhaps even terrorist syndicates, so the official story goes.


These claims, repeated constantly by U.S. officials and regurgitated by the media, are rarely questioned, even among progressives. David Spener’s Clandestine Crossings, a highly captivating book of great significance and one of the first comprehensive studies of migrants and their use of coyote networks, however, directly challenges these stereotypes. This “discursive” fable, Spener contends, serves to “incite moral panic,” and thus to legitimate the continual pumping of money into border and immigration enforcement, one increasingly justified in the name of “homeland security.” (In the post-September 11, 2001 era, the U.S. Border Patrol presents its number one priority as the “detection, apprehension and/or deterrence of terrorists and terrorist weapons.”)


Drawing on hundreds of interviews with migrants, coyotes, and officials, Spener offers a sober analysis of who coyotes are and what they do. Instead of finding criminals, drug traffickers, or terrorists, he discovers that coyotes and migrants come from a similar social, economic, and cultural background. Moreover, they coexist in a type of interdependence used to resist a “state-imposed situation of structural violence.”


Among the features of this institutionalized violence is the vast economic disparity between the United States and Mexico, one exacerbated by NAFTA and evidenced by unlivable wages within Mexico, which has resulted in excruciating economic pressure on the country’s poor majority. Since 1994 approximately 500,000 Mexicans have migrated to the United States without proper documentation per year, more than double the pre-1994 rate of migration. This, combined with an increasingly militarized apparatus of exclusion in the U.S. Southwest, Spener explains, has led to dramatic growth in the employment of coyotes by working-class and campesino Mexicans. In this regard, coyotaje—the paid services migrants use to cross the U.S. border without authorization—is a necessary and legitimate tool in the struggle against “the forcible segregation of populations into zones of affluence and zones of poverty and the associated monopoly exerted by nation-states” over human mobility.


Most coyotes are not abusive or negligent, Spener finds, because they have good business sense: treat your customers well. Return business is vital to the profitability of coyotaje. If a migrant is treated badly not only will he or she not ever go with that coyote or coyote’s network again, the coyote will get a terrible reputation in the migrant’s community. Information about bad treatment travels fast. Contrary to the media and official messaging, the ability to successfully and safely enter migrants into the United States is the cornerstone of a coyote’s business.


U.S. officials often correlate the ongoing success of coyotes with increased technological sophistication, and with their ties to large criminal organizations, including international terrorism networks. But as Spener convincingly shows, it is not technology, but rather a tradition of “mutual aid” between migrants and coyotes that compensates for the drastic resource disadvantage they have against the militarized U.S. enforcement apparatus along the boundary.


For migrants today crossing the border not only involves getting past the international divide, but often also a multiple-day walk through an immigration–enforcement-saturated zone. It is one littered with checkpoints ranging up to 150 miles into the interior of the United States, and frequent patrolling by immigration authorities—in addition to the latest in surveillance technology, including Predator drones flying overhead, and motion sensors.


For Spener, such intense policing speaks to the fact that the U.S.-Mexico border is the world’s starkest example of global apartheid, one marked by “grossly unequal distribution of wealth, power, and well-being among nation-states in a way that mirrors the operation of the domestic regime of white supremacy in South Africa from 1948-1994.” This apartheid-like system, Spener explains, relies on national sovereignty as its justification, while employing a variety of mechanisms—e.g. limiting of freedom of movement and the right to work on the basis of national citizenship—to maintain itself.


Coyotes have become essential to the everyday, household level resistance to this globally institutionalized injustice, what Spener calls resistencia hormiga, the thousands upon thousands of acts of insubordination and evasion by migrants on a daily basis. One crucial form of resistencia hormiga happens when migrants form a “strategic alliance” with coyotes in “border-crossing, one of the principal fields in which migrant resistance to global apartheid takes place.” This alliance may be an uneasy or even conflictive one, and is normally entered for practical, rather than political reasons. However the cumulative long-term impacts of such resistance, contends Spener, could both begin to take down apartheid measures in the border region and within the country, and serve as the basis for substantial changes in the U.S. immigration control regime.


The power of resistencia hormiga in the United States is exemplified by the 2006 marches by millions of people from undocumented migrant communties (and their allies) throughout the country. For Spener, these marches showed the resistencia hormiga’s capacity for massive organized political action which has had the impact of bringing both the Democrats and Republicans to court the Latino vote. Moreover, the children of the undocumented migrants, will, unlike their parents, have “full participation in civic life,” and could well “tip the balance of political power” in both California and Texas which already have non-white majorities in their populations, but white majorities in their electorate. This bloc of people, who have seen and felt the abuses and discrimination that this system has committed against their parents and themselves, could well be mobilized around human rights issues and inequalities based on class and race, according to Spener, which could contribute to the demise of the apartheid system.


While dismantling the apartheid system at a global level “looms an impossibly utopian project,” Spener suggests that concrete and specific measures could be implemented, with strong popular pressure, to begin to dismantle the current apartheid system present in the United States and at the U.S. Mexico boundary. To start, Spener suggests three measures: legalizing migrants already present in the United States; increasing the number of visas the United States offers Mexican migrants per year; and improving economic conditions in migrant-sending communities. These relatively modest suggestions constitute Spener’s own policy level version of resistencia hormiga: small, doable, and concrete efforts, which taken all together could create serious pressure for more far-reaching change. If these things were to happen, Spener writes, the present border of exclusion could become one of “inclusion,” permitting the “interaction and cooperation of neighboring peoples, whose differences it recognized, but whose divisions it no longer enforced.”


Spener’s book is a must-read for all activists and scholars of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and of matters of international migration, boundary and immigration enforcement, and race- and class-based exclusion more broadly. Although I have long worked on matters relating to the U.S.-Mexico divide and was already suspicious of the dominant narrative regarding coyotes, or professional smugglers, this book challenged me like few others have. Spener’s careful and compelling analysis and his willingness to confront what is effectively a sacred cow in discussions surrounding matters of migration enforcement—that coyotes are the worst of the worst—make Clandestine Crossings both fascinating and of immense importance.

Todd Miller is an Editorial Assistant at NACLA.


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