Post by Gabriella Sanchez, postdoctoral research fellow at Monash University, Australia.

The so-called 'Coyote Trail' (Photo: Gabriella Sanchez)
The U.S. border state of Arizona has been a constant actor in the contemporary American debate over immigration. The multiple laws and regulations passed by Arizona’s local and state governments seeking to criminalize the presence of irregular migrants, the humanitarian crisis related to the deaths of thousands of border crossers, and the concerns over border security given the state’s proximity with Mexico―alongside a historical distaste over the presence of Mexican and Latino residents in the state―have earned Arizona global recognition. Yet, these factors have also facilitated the dissemination of notions of invasion, crime, and violence frequently attributed to migrants. Arizona is often referred as a place of extreme turmoil, plagued by a Mexican invasion that includes not only irregular migrants, but drug trafficking organizations―the feared “cartels”―and transnational human smuggling “networks” involved in crimes ranging from violent kidnappings to beheadings.

Within the discourse of border-at-siege, human smugglers―the men and women who facilitate the clandestine journeys of migrants and refugees into countries other than their own―have become a  perfect target. They are blamed for the frequent tragedies involving the deaths of those who cross borders clandestinely. They are portrayed as profit-hungry members of criminal syndicates or as indomitable sexual predators lurking in the shadows for their victims―the naïve, infantile migrants and refugees from the global south. These characterizations have been effective at generating moral condemnation of smugglers’ actions, yet provide scant empirical data on the nature and dimensions of their work.

Human smuggling facilitators, however, are often far from being the feared monsters of law enforcement and media. Research conducted by Zhang and Chin among Chinese human smugglers, Spener and Izcara in Mexico, Koser in Pakistan, and van Liempt in the Netherlands attest to the non-criminal, ordinary nature of smuggling facilitators’ lives. In 2007, I began to conduct research among human smuggling facilitators in Maricopa County, Arizona―those frequently referred as coyotes or polleros. Despite the narrative that frames smuggling as a recent development along the Arizona border, the facilitation of extralegal border crossings is by no means new to the state. For instance, anthropologist Manuel Gamio identified references of coyotes operating in the state as early as the late 1800s. But in the context of increased border enforcement which has diverted the flow of clandestine border crossers to the Arizona desert, and the limitations surrounding the issuance of visas and border crossing permits, human smuggling services has emerged as a viable source of income among marginalized communities in the state, eventually developing into a solid, healthy market.

The human smuggling facilitators I interacted with over the years were nannies, gardeners, construction workers, janitors, and elderly men and women, who through their participation at facilitating specific segments of border crossings had found an effective way to supplement their meager incomes from the formal economy―one that did not carry the stigma connected with drug sales or sex work, and which circumvented, at least in part, the employment limitations associated to the lack of legal immigration status of many of them. They never denied their involvement in smuggling. In fact, their accounts suggested pride and satisfaction alongside clear references to community building and solidarity. One woman charged with human smuggling after housing migrants in transit for a couple of nights reflected on her experience by saying: “I was an illegal myself. I know how it feels to travel that way and I was happy to help. Why wouldn’t I?” And so while in Arizona, as the state continued to carry out arrests and mobilize a highly racialized, anti-immigrant, crime-control driven discourse, facilitators’ testimonies provided a counternarrative to the official notions of violence and exploitation. To them, their participation in the provision of clandestine border crossings constituted a legitimate form of labor that allowed them provide financially for their families, but one which also involved a responsibility to help and protect others. Assisting migrants during their border crossing journeys involved clearly articulated notions of morals, ethics, and protection. A smuggler, speaking about his role, commented: “We reunite families; we help them to be together. Like an elderly couple we crossed so that they could get to Chicago to their children. It took us some time; it was not easy to cross them. But at the end they were finally able to see their kids. And this only happens because of the work that we do.

Testimonies like these suggest that the parameters that define smuggling as a criminal act alone were not effective at reflecting the social and cultural dimensions within which border crossing activities were embedded. There was a clear discrepancy between the criminalizing narratives of the state and the human smugglers’ assessments of their actions. Clearly articulated notions of community, empathy, and protection increasingly suggest the need to identify how people conceptualized labor, especially within illicit, illegalized practices.

The everyday lives of human smuggling facilitators in Maricopa County, Arizona, and their individual perceptions of their activities defy the rigid definitions of legality and reveal alternative understandings of labor, ethics, and community. At the same time, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the precariousness of clandestine crossings―and the likelihood of migrants and refugees to encounter risk and violence along their paths. There was in fact evidence of the deterioration of the social fabric that allowed for migrants to travel safely with the assistance of experienced, skilled facilitators, mainly as a result of the geographic influence of drug trafficking organizations, on the one hand, and the increased penalization of smuggling, on the other. Smuggling costs do also create hierarchies of protection that exclude those unable to pay higher fees from the kind of smuggling services that provide safer, shorter journeys―most incidents of violence, injury, and death are in fact experienced by those with reduced social or financial capital. In that sense, smuggling services could be perceived as far from safe, and not as the supportive, protective mechanism that facilitators describe. But beyond its inherent contradictions, smuggling must first be understood as the series of efforts that emerge from below in an effort to devise mechanisms of protection that can ensure the most basic level of safety for those unable to travel with the protection of visas and passports. As such, what the smugglers’ narratives reveal is the need for an analysis of how their actions are shaped by increasingly criminalizing, racialized immigration control regimes which target the poorest of migrants and refugees along some of the most contested borders in the world.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Sanchez G (2014) “It is not what I do, but what we do for others”: Smugglers on Human Smuggling. Available at: (accessed [date]).