Global Politics

Facebook offers the best advertising for migrant-smuggling coyotes

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Tomas Bravo/Reuters

Migrants wait for a "coyote," the colloquial term for people smugglers, about 60 miles south of the US-Mexico border in the Mexican state of Sonora. Coyotes call their clients "pollos," or chickens.

Ten years ago, if you lived in Central America and were looking for a guide to help you sneak across the US-Mexico border, you'd ask your neighbors and call your relatives in the US to see if they knew any coyotes, or people-smugglers.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Now, you can just log onto Facebook.

Social media is playing an increasing role in the business of undocumented immigration to the US from across the Mexican border. As they travel north, coyotes and their clients will check in along their route by posting “proof of life” messages on Facebook. By following them on Facebook, migrants’s family members and coyotes’s business partners can keep abreast of their whereabouts.

Once they reach the US, satisfied clients will sometimes post reviews on Facebook of their polleros, another name for the smugglers.

“It’s the best advertising you could wish for,” said Gabriel Stargardter, a reporter in Mexico City who has spoken with some of these “e-coyotes.” If smugglers do a good job, clients are increasingly using Facebook to connect them with family members and friends, he said.

It might seem counterintuitive for coyotes to use such a public network to promote an illegal business. One coyote even told Stargardter that he’d like to ask Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, to make a “closed network, where the police can’t track us.” But Facebook still has enough privacy settings and features for coyotes to use it to their advantage and protect their identities at the same time.

Facebook has also served to add an extra layer of accountability to the smuggling business. Just as a restaurant owner wouldn’t want to serve bad food for fear of negative Yelp reviews, it’s in a coyote’s interest to look after his clients and make sure they stay safe. “You’re only as good as your reputation in the business," Stargardter said. "Customer feedback is very important.”

In the US, there’s a common narrative that coyotes are the “bad guys,” extorting poor families without much care for their clients’ survival.

But many coyotes view themselves differently, said Stargardter. “They see themselves as dream-makers, helping [migrants] to realize their dreams and get to the US.”

Some even advertise their services on radio stations in rural towns. “They’re only responding to a demand," he said. "People want to go north."

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