Post by Gabriella Sanchez, assistant professor in human security at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Human Smuggling and Border Crossings (Routledge, 2015). Follow her on Twitter @border_views. This post is the first installment of Border Criminologies themed series on Human Smuggling organised by Gabriella.

I asked Antonio Serdan, suspect number 22, if there was a coyote who crossed with the group but he said there wasn’t. I asked him how much it was going to cost him to cross the border and he told me it wasn’t costing anything. I asked him to tell me what he meant. He said they got together [sic] back in Mexico and decided to share the cost. I asked how those responsible for the vehicles were going to make their money, or if it was going to be free and he said no, it wasn’t going to be free. I asked him to explain [that] to me… and [he] said they were only going to pay whatever they could afford, whatever they had on them. I asked him about those who didn’t have any money on them, and he said others were going to chip in. He told me they were helping each other out―like a family.

In the early hours of 2 March 2006, a young sheriff officer from Maricopa County―a jurisdiction about 200 kilometers from the US-Mexico border―reported having stopped a truck with license plates that looked ‘suspicious.’ The officer approached the vehicle and asked the driver and the two occupants sitting on the front seat to step out. To the officer’s surprise, not three, but twenty people began to walk out of the truck. They weren’t alone. About 50 meters down the road another truck had also stopped, and its 24 occupants were making the short walk to the place where the officer stood. Quietly, all 54 people―later determined to be irregular migrants from Mexico―sat by the side of the road. Aware that the driver from the first vehicle had been caught for the attempt to enter the US extralegally, the other driver decided not to leave him alone. They weren’t being smuggled. In their words, they were traveling together; or, as one of the arrested migrants reported to the investigators in the case, as a family. 

The 54 irregular migrants arrested that day were the first of an estimated 4,400 who faced criminal charges in the US state of Arizona for conspiracy to commit human smuggling: their own. Having failed to identify a significant number of human smugglers despite aggressive enforcement efforts―which far from targeting the feared,   menacing human smugglers involved setting up checkpoints in and out of predominantly migrant neighborhoods, carrying out intimidating raids at hotels, restaurants, smalls businesses, and factories in low-income sections of the county, and parading a menacing yet broken war tank along with armored vehicles through the streets―local authorities switched to a different tactic. Empowered by a piece of   legislation aimed at reducing the cases of human-smuggling related violence―including the alleged increase in the number of migrants’ kidnappings―Arizona’s authorities announced irregular migrants could be in fact charged for conspiring with their smugglers in the commission of their own irregular border crossings, a crime punishable with prison by the state code. The law―sarcastically known in official circles as The Coyote Law―was eventually found unconstitutional, its consequences having negatively and permanently impacted the lives of thousands of irregular migrants and their families.

US-Mexico border fence at night in El Paso, Texas (Image: G. Sanchez)
What the Arizona experience reminds us is how the narratives of the smuggler (as violent, predatory, and exploitative) mobilized in the context of immigration and border control efforts have been used not to advance the protection of migrants, asylum seekers, or other displaced populations, but rather to frame the conditions of their illegality in an attempt to criminalize their presence.  

This isn’t to suggest the practice of smuggling doesn’t sometimes involve abuse. There is a large corpus of migration scholarship documenting the kinds and the extent of the victimization those on the move face at the hands of smuggler facilitators, ranging from scams, intimidation, and physical abuse to sexual assaults, extortion, and kidnapping.

Yet, smugglers are neither the only source of the violence migrants and asylum seekers face during their transits and nor do their actions take place in a vacuum. The machinery set in place through the interaction of international immigration and refugee law, foreign governments, humanitarian agencies, corporations, the global prison industrial complex, and local law enforcement, among others, is often even more effective at creating conditions conducive to victimization, sometimes in forms that make smuggling’s hidden charges, prolonged delays, or poor housing conditions look inconsequential. Furthermore, there’s growing recognition of the fact that that without the support of smugglers―and the demonstrations of solidarity that also characterize many of these transits―the incidence of violence and death among migrant and refugees would be even higher.

The present blog series on human smuggling reflects on some of these issues. From Jakarta, Antje Missbach writes about the Australian government’s attempts to ‘break the people smugglers’ business model’ which have led to the criminalization of fishermen in Indonesia and the emergence of survival practices in refugee camps. Contributions by Fabrice Langrognet and David Danelo on labor and warfare history provide an all too often absent perspective in current smuggling scholarship. Both pieces are evocative of the recent reporting on well-intentioned European ‘citizens’ who by ‘defying’ international law ‘assist’ refugee seekers and rush to their rescue―in stark contrast to the racialized and gendered depictions of smugglers as predatory men of color exploiting their own, a characterization that raises questions over the construction of racialized hierarchies of morality in the facilitation of irregular migration transits. Luigi Achilli brings us with him to the Mediterranean to explore the ways that many of those in transit become smuggling entrepreneurs themselves, having failed in their attempts to reach their destinations, relying instead on the economies of survival that emerge along the migrant trail. To close the series, Theodore Baird remind us of the pitfalls of conducting research in smuggling, including some of the methodological challenges involved in the study of underground, criminalized economies and the hypervisibility of smuggling in media discourses amid the punitive responses it generates from the nation-state.

US-Mexico border fence by day in El Paso, Texas (Image: G. Sanchez)
Where do we go from here, and what are the kinds of critical transformations that smuggling scholarship needs to undergo? On 5 and 6 April 2016, a group of smuggling scholars will convene at a workshop at the European University Institute in Florence with the goal of establishing new directions in smuggling scholarship. It will be an effort to establish a stronger theoretical foundation to our work, to engage in a critique of the limits of smuggling scholarship, and to collaborate at developing comparative work that reflects the similarities, differences, and challenges present in the experiences of smuggling facilitators and those who travel with them. We invite you join us in this journey.

Any comments about this post? Get in touch with us! Send us an email, or post a comment here or on Facebook. You can also tweet us.


How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Sanchez, G. (2015) On Departures, Transits and Destinations: The Facilitation of Human Smuggling. Available at: (Accessed [date]).