Quetzaltenango, Guatemala – Jose Sica waits impatiently in his small shop, with rows of pink and blue plastic children’s bicycles on the floor and untouched phone chargers and screen protectors lining the wall behind him.
Looking at his empty sales log, Sica feels stuck: “Today, I’ve barely sold two things,” he told Al Jazeera.
Opening the shop in Quetzaltenango, one of Guatemala’s largest cities, was a final gamble for Sica, who previously spent 14 years working as a security guard in the United States. It was either strike success with this business or migrate north once again.
With the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic still gripping Central America, and with his business struggling to get off the ground, Sica has started asking how much it would cost to get smuggled to the US once again.
But the price has soared dramatically: When Sica migrated north in 1996, he said, coyotes – self-styled guides bringing migrants and refugees across borders in exchange for money – charged him about 25,000 quetzales ($3,200). Today, they are charging up to 140,000 quetzales ($18,100) – a fortune in a country where approximately half of the population lives under the poverty line.
The price has shot up amid the pandemic and shifting migratory controls, according to more than a dozen sources interviewed by Al Jazeera. It has made an already lucrative human smuggling industry even more so for criminal enterprises, while migrants suffer the brunt of the consequences.
“If I had money, I’d go right now,” Sica said. “The more barriers they create, the more the price goes up. Now, it’s harder, more dangerous and more expensive to migrate.”
Smuggling networks expanding
Costs have been rising for years, a product of increased migratory barriers in the US and Mexico and expanding smuggling networks.
According to Carlos Lopez, the director of a migrant shelter in Guatemala City, costs jumped significantly amid crackdowns during the Trump administration. This was only exacerbated by pandemic-related border closures and mobility restrictions.
“When the authorities tighten migratory policies and controls, it’s almost certain that the cost of the coyotes, or as they call them in Mexico, polleros, is going to go up,” Lopez told Al Jazeera.
Even as COVID-19 restrictions began to loosen, other obstacles persisted. “There’s poverty, there’s corruption, there’s abandonment by the state,” Lopez said. “So there’s an emergency situation that the pandemic has only worsened and made more visible.”
Such factors have contributed to a recent surge of arrivals on the US-Mexico border from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Opportunistic smugglers are taking advantage of the situation, said Eduardo Jimenez, a community leader who runs a project near Quetzaltenango aimed at providing Guatemalans with economic opportunities so they don’t have to migrate.
“The ambition of coyotes is to earn much, much more money,” Jimenez told Al Jazeera. “So they take advantage of the need people have to make their living situation better. And they know people will find a way to pay; the coyotes are able to raise the price however they want.”
Mafias fighting for control of passage along the Guatemala-Mexico border have also boosted the level of extortion, and if you do not pay, “you run the risk of being mercilessly killed”, Jimenez said.
While migrant caravans were once a way to avoid such forms of exploitation, this alternative “has become less feasible” as Mexican authorities have worked to forcefully break up caravans, Jessica Bolter, an analyst with the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Worldwide, criminal enterprises raked in an estimated $5.5bn to $7bn from human smuggling in 2016, according to a United Nations report. To pay, migrants take out massive loans or request money from family or friends who have already migrated. Sometimes they turn to predatory lenders, who charge interest rates of 10 to 20 percent a month. Migrants often put up the only thing of value their family owns as collateral: their homes.
If they fail to pay their debts – which can happen if they are detained on their journeys, or deported before they earn enough money in the US – they and their families might be left with nothing.
‘Why did this happen to me?’
When Aracely Vail, 26, decided to migrate to the US, she got a loan from a relative of her husband, who had migrated seven years prior. She left behind her eight-year-old daughter in hopes of reuniting with her husband in Maryland, and of earning enough money to give her daughter an education.
Coyotes have used the perception that US President Joe Biden‘s border policies are more flexible than former President Donald Trump’s to convince people to migrate, painting it as a surefire trip with minimal risks.
Vail said it was portrayed this way to her, and she agreed with a human smuggler on a price of 135,000 quetzales ($17,500). They agreed she would pay 35,000 quetzales ($4,500) up front and the rest when they arrived at the border. “He told me the journey would be easy,” Vail told Al Jazeera. “He told me so many different things, and the journey wasn’t like that. They’re just stories they tell people.”
After days of walking for more than 18 hours through the Mexican desert, Vail said she was abandoned by the smugglers right before crossing the US-Mexico border after her group was chased by US border agents. She was detained and deported back to her small Guatemalan town.
“I asked God: ‘Why? Why did this happen to me?'” she said. “I just wanted to go because of the poverty, because of the lack of opportunity here.”
Today, she sits in her small two-room house as her daughter plays with plastic dolls in the background. As she talks, she sews glittering studs onto traditional Indigenous clothes, explaining that she earns a bit of money from her work.
But the one who will be paying off her debt is her husband in the US: “You can’t get that kind of money here.”