Marco Werman: As comedian Chris Rock once joked, "You don't sell drugs. Drugs sell themselves." Same thing with human smugglers, or "coyotes," the guys who, each year, sneak thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans across the border. These coyotes don't need to advertise either but some of have found they can get even more customers with a little online marketing and shoutouts from satisfied customers. The coyotes have actually been getting referrals when happy migrants post good reviews on Facebook, Youtube and other social media. The smugglers can even track their clients on these social media sites as they travel across the border and apparently border agents have been slow to catch on. Gabriel Stargardter is a reporter in Mexico City and has spoken with some of these e-coyotes.
Gabriel Stargardter: Well, really they've reacted to a change in the marketplace. So what they have done is they've seen that a lot of their clients, their family in the US have been on Facebook or other social media for awhile and it's been a way for them to keep in touch. When they make the journey north and document that journey - most will do it either just by logging in in an internet cafe, migrant shelters or wherever it may be - usually when they get to the United States there's sort of a "We made it" proof of life-type post, which is for both the people at home and anyone who may be interested in how they're doing. That plays really into the coyote's hand because it's the best advertising you could wish for. One coyote told me he didn't need to advertise because he's got Facebook, because people do the advertising for him. People who are inspired by that and want to make a similar journey, they will put them in touch via Facebook. The messages roll in.
Werman: How did the coyotes market themselves before Facebook? Is it possible they actually put up flyers around Mexico City to advertise what they do?
Stargardter: Well, we have heard cases of advertising. They've not been more recent, as far as I can gather, and that was back in Honduras. That was on rural radio frequencies. On Facebook itself, no, they don't advertise and they actually are quite wary of it. The head of the Honduran police told me that social networks are a tool that they use to track these people smuggling groups. They've actually been looking into that and drilling down. One coyote told me, I asked him if he had any message for Mark Zuckerberg and he said "Yeah, please give us our own closed network where the police can't track us."
Werman: There's this perception that coyotes are the bad guys who extort poor families and leave people in the desert if they don't get their money and don't really care if the people get up to the border or not. Are some of these positive reviews for these coyotes that they're getting on Facebook, is that turning around that reputation even a bit?
Stargardter: Just to begin with, I would argue that the coyotes see themselves in a very different light. They seem themselves as dream makers. They're helping them realize their dreams and get to the US. They're moving them illegally without papers but they're only responding to a demand and people want to go north. I don't think there's that much shame about it and they would also argue that it's in their interest to look after their charges because you're only as good as your reputation. Customer feedback is very important in this industry.
Werman: Yeah, it's almost like Yelp or Angie's List for coyotes.
Stargardter: I don't think we're quite there yet but I think that migrant networks, the word of mouth and the communication between that network is an incredibly powerful thing. I don't think people realize quite how powerful it is.
Werman: That was Reuters reporter Gabriel Stargardter speaking with us from Mexico City.