San Pedro Sula, Honduras – It is a hot November evening in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The windows of a clapped-out old people carrier are down and the sound of car horns and reggaeton music mingles with its rumbling motor. Above it all rises the voice of a bear-like man in his late 20s. His bulk is just about squeezed into the driver’s seat, his phone is glued to his ear – and he does not like what he is hearing. As the call continues his normally soft, slightly lisping voice grows louder and harsher, finishing in a stream of obscenities.
He is worried. At this point he should have a group of Hondurans all signed up for the most perilous journey of their young lives, with each one paying him up to $7,000 for the privilege. But, one by one, his prospective clients are refusing to answer their phones.
This is a people smuggler, better known in this part of the world as a “pollero”. For the past four years, he has been earning a living running migrants through a lethal gauntlet; from the gang-ridden hinterlands of Central America, through Mexico with its ever vigilant migration authorities and brutal cartels – all in the aim of reaching the US.
But his latest trip has not even started and, already, things are not going to plan. And who can blame his potential customers for having second thoughts? Polleros are shadowy figures in this multimillion-dollar business – seen as necessary evils who are just as ready to abandon migrants to the gangs or the desert as they are to get them to the “other side”.
Following the people smuggler
We have been following him for a couple of days now as he tries to get would-be migrants on board for the journey from Honduras, through Guatemala and Mexico, to the US, calling prospective customers in the car, in our hotel, in the cramped house he shares with his wife and son outside of town. As the chase continues, he begins to open up.
One evening, in the air-conditioned anonymity of our hotel room, he feels safe enough to tell us that he does not work alone, but for the Gulf Cartel, one of Mexico’s largest criminal groups. He says that if the top bosses find out he is talking to us, he could be killed.
It is not altogether surprising. Migration NGOs report that the Gulf Cartel, their rivals, the Zetas, and other Mexican criminal supergroups have plunged into the migrant protection racket, recruiting smugglers and setting up safe houses for migrants travelling north through Mexico and Central America.
Those without money with which to pay a smuggler or the “tax” that cartels demand in order to cross their territory have little chance of making it to the US. Kidnapping, rape and murder are common, especially in Tamaulipas – the state which the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas have spent the past few years battling over. Seventy-two migrants were found murdered there on a ranch in 2010.
Given those dangers, and the substantial amount of money he charges, it is not unusual for the smuggler to struggle to find clients. One night in the hotel he plays a Whatsapp audio message from the man he says is his boss. Speaking with a northern Mexican accent, the voice says: “Gordo [Fatty], how are we doing, what’s going on?’ He quickly records an answer: “All is fine, it’s just taking a bit of time.” Now his voice is soft, subservient. The pressure to find people is growing.
‘With the help of God’
Finally one of his calls pays off. A distant cousin called Luis is ready to go. We set off in the old people carrier.
Collecting Luis is anything but straightforward. He lives in Los Planetas, a San Pedro Sula neighbourhood so overrun by gangs that the people smuggler is afraid to go in alone. He asks the military police manning a nearby checkpoint to accompany him – without revealing what he does – but they refuse.
San Pedro Sula is Honduras’s industrial powerhouse – with factories churning out goods for the national and international brands that are clustered here. But it has become better known in recent years as one of the world’s most murderous cities outside a war zone. The people here live in the shadow of the powerful Mara Salvatrucha 13 and 18 gangs, while the young struggle to find work. There are too few factory jobs to go around and the economy is failing.
It is a similar situation in areas of Guatemala and El Salvador. And with little other option than to join the gangs, many choose to look for opportunities elsewhere.
Luis, the people smuggler’s latest customer, is struggling to find work and ready to leave in search of it.
When we eventually reach his house, without a military police escort, we find a cosy concrete home with a dirt patio outside. Members of his extended family are sitting on wooden chairs waiting for the smuggler. Outside, neighbours stand gossiping under a streetlight.
Inside, Luis, a dreamy 25-year-old who whiles away his time composing reggeaton songs, is already packing his small bag. His room is spartan – apart from some football memorabilia. He says he will get through the trip ahead “with the help of God”.
As he says goodbye to the relatives waiting on the patio, everyone seems emotional. Joining hands, they pray for his safe passage. His aunt and grandmother wipe away tears even as they hug him. There is no guarantee they will see him again.
‘I’ll find you and kill you. I’ll eat you’
Both Luis and his relatives think his journey north is starting immediately on the night bus out of San Pedro Sula.
But once the smuggler has him away from his family, he quickly informs him otherwise. Looking at Luis in the car mirror, he abruptly announces: “I lied to you, we’re not going tonight. You’re going to stay in this hotel and if you run away, I’ll find you and kill you. I’ll eat you. I’m not kidding.”
Stunned, Luis can only nod. This is the first time the smuggler has given him a glimpse of the other side of his personality and his business. Arriving at the hotel he has chosen for Luis, he takes his phone and wallet, then shuts him in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room. His only companions for the night are some bugs and a couple of cockroaches. His last words are: “Don’t open the door for anyone.”
In a matter of a few minutes, Luis has left his family and fallen completely under the control of the people smuggler. Tomorrow, the smuggler will transfer him to a safe house he calls his “warehouse”. This is where Luis will stay until the smuggler and his bosses decide that he is ready to travel.
The smuggler says that keeping clients as virtual prisoners once they have signed up for his services is his regular modus operandi. “Having someone in the warehouse gives me 50 percent security that the family aren’t going to change their mind and that they’ll pay. The family has to pay half the cost of the trip within that time,” he explains.
A migrant NGO confirmed to Al Jazeera that they had found similar cases of smugglers keeping clients in this way in both Guatemala and El Salvador, but it is unclear if it is a widespread practice.
What migrant aid organisations do agree on is that it is common for migrants who believe they have paid the agreed amount to be progressively squeezed for more in safe houses as they head along their route.
‘I was kidnapped and tortured’
As we drive around the city at night a couple of days later, I ask the smuggler what happens to those who fail to keep up with their installments. He does not miss a beat. “With pain in my heart I hand them over to the cartel …. They decide what to do with them – if it puts them to work to pay off [the debt] … or kills them,” he says.
I ask him how that makes him feel and he thinks for a moment. His tone is matter of fact.”Of course we get to know them, we strike up a friendship, and it’s painful but … just because I’ve known someone for four months doesn’t mean I’m going to give my life for him or her.
“If I left them go, I have to pay for them,” he adds.
For the cartel and the smuggler, there is an unmovable bottom line: the migrants are merchandise, to be profited from one way or the other. If not as clients, then as victims to be kidnapped for ransom, or used as low-level hitmen or drug mules.
The people smuggler says his own employment with the Gulf Cartel began in a similar way. “I went as a migrant like any other youngster with the American dream, and it turned into a nightmare. I was kidnapped, tortured, I saw them kill my cousin and 14 people more. It was lose my life or work with the cartel.”
“I started as what’s traditionally known as a ‘mule’, trafficking drugs to the US, and as the days went by they told me I could return to Honduras but with the aim of bringing people from here to the US.”
A package deal
He has since spent four years working with the cartel and now describes his bosses as “good people”.
When he is not on one of the three or four trips he takes to the border each year, he spends his time looking for those who might have the $6,000 to $7,000 required for his services. That is not easy in a country where the minimum wage is about $330 a month. Many rely on relatives already in the US to help them come up with the huge sum, while selling all they have in Honduras to get the rest together.
The fee covers a package deal – the smuggler, like many others, offers three shots from Honduras to cross the US border.
Migrants who do not make it in their allotted number of attempts often have nothing to return to. “Those people end up in the street, because even if you want to, you can’t keep taking them. The money they pay you is just enough for the three attempts.”
It is getting ever more difficult to make it – and not just because of the gangs. After alarm in the US over the growing number of child migrants reaching the border in 2014, Mexico put in action “Plan Frontera Sur” – a programme, part funded by the US, to prevent Central Americans passing through. It has worked. Roving checkpoints and a constant watch on the cargo train used by migrants have led to a 70 percent rise in deportations.
The smuggler says that a lot of the money he is paid is spent bribing Mexican police and migration officials to turn a blind eye to him and his clients. But the biggest sums are demanded by the Gulf Cartel’s chief rivals – the Zetas – for each migrant who crosses their territory.
‘They were all raped’
But even money cannot guarantee a safe passage. Women are particularly vulnerable, he says. “A year and a half ago I brought a group of young girls, of about 16 to 17 years old, and all them got raped. They raped them all and I couldn’t do anything. Nothing. In Mexico you’re no one. You can pay all your money but they still do what they want with your clients. One of them even got pregnant and had to abort; she was traumatised. They got there, but not as I promised them – safe and sound.”
There is a quiet in the room as he finishes speaking. It is, perhaps, the point at which he seems most affected by the things he has witnessed.
The rest of the time he veers between acts of exaggerated sentimentality – buying a cuddly reindeer for a member of our team, crying that we had “hurt his feelings” when we pushed to know if his journey was going ahead – and displays of macho, domineering bullying.
Perhaps an inclination towards manipulation is inevitable in a man operating in a dangerous and murky world, where the work revolves around bending clients to his will.
Even his own wife does not know what he does, or why he disappears three or four times a year for weeks on end. But those mysterious trips have provided for their home and life together. When I ask him if he wants to – or even can – stop, he seems unsure, torn between the danger of the route and the rewards it brings.