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REYNOSA, Mexico – Ramón came to the border looking for the American dream, but now makes a living by selling it – smuggling migrants from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to the U.S. side.
“People from practically all of the world. Not just Latin Americans. People from Asia, Africa, all that. And you ask yourself how they manage to get here," said the 31-year old. They all come because of the so-called American Dream, which is a big lie."
He usually crosses a number of times each week. "Two, three, even four times per week," he said.
Over the six years he's been working as a coyote, he's been in the United States "hundreds of times."
Though he's never been arrested, he's come close.
Ramón, who would not give his last name, said he usually smuggles five to 20 migrants at a time. With less than five, there's no profit. Smuggling, after all, is business.
“There's a lot of risk, but the pay is good”
Ramón says he started out helping other coyotes. After six years he now has his own business, which focuses on one of the last stages of the journey -- when migrants cross the border.
“It's money. It pays well. You don't work hard. There's a lot of risk, but the pay is good,” he said.
His is a business of contacts. Ramón says it's important to have contacts along Mexico's southern borders with Guatemala and Belize, because that's where the market starts. He also has to be good to his clients, who may need him in the future to smuggle their relatives or friends.
His main work tool is his cell phone, which he uses to talk to people in Central America, in southern and central Mexico and in Texas to coordinate the work. They are cogs in a smuggling network that uses trucks and hideouts, as well as bribes to authorities and payoffs to drug cartels.
“If we don't pay, the cartel will kill us”
Drug cartels that operate along the Mexico-U.S. border are another tentacle in the migrant smuggling business.
“They are our ticket into the United States, because they are the ones who control the border,” the coyote said. In Reynosa and the surrounding state of Tamalulipas, the Gulf Cartel controls the border. Los Zetas control regions to the west.
Ramón said he pays the cartel for each client; more for adults, less for minors. The cartel's men sometimes show up before the groups cross, to count the migrants and make sure the coyotes pay the right amount.
“If you fail to pay for just one person, you are breaking your word. And your word is the only thing that counts here,” he said.
If he doesn't pay?
“They will kill us,” he added. “And I'm not just saying that.”
“They pay $7,000 to $10,000 for the whole trip”
Because migrants pay along the way, Ramón said he can only estimate the total cost of the journey. There's one price for being smuggled from El Salvador to Mexico's southern border. There's another from Chiapas to Tamaulipas, about $3,000. It all adds up.
The people paying those thousands of dollars are usually relatives already living in the United States. “It's all fixed from up there,” he said.
Ramón added that the most dangerous coyotes are the ones who want the entire amount paid in Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala. “They are con artists … extortionists who in the end don't take you where you want to go.”
Some migrants have complained that their coyotes abandoned them or that they were kidnapped during their trip through Mexico. Smugglers then telephone their relatives and demand even more money to continue their trip.
Ramón said he even guarantees his work. “If you don't make it on the first try, we try again, no extra charge,” he said. And if U.S. authorities deport his clients, he gives them three more chances.
“I prepare them psychologically before crossing”
Around 3 p.m. on crossing day, Ramón goes to the Mexican houses where migrants are hiding to announce they've been granted permission to cross.
The migrants spend hours and days in the safe houses, four to a room. From there, they can telephone relatives in the United States to ask for the money they need for the final stretch of the trip, about $4,000. They get food, though it's usually not good.
Some migrants have complained that once in the safe house, the coyotes doubled the prices they had quoted. So close to the Rio Grande, migrants usually find a way to pay.
“I prepare them psychologically, telling them that they can't make any noise, that they have to eat a lot and be well hydrated because you never know what can happen,” he said. “You can spend hours crouching under a tree.”
He also tells his clients that they can never identify him to U.S. authorities. “If they detain you … you must not identify the coyote,” he said.
“There are spots in the river where the water is not even knee-high”
Ramón works at night, from 7 p.m. to about 10 p.m., them from 11 p.m. on. “You can't move from 10 to 11 p.m., because that's when the border patrols are most frequent,” he said.
The Rio Grande, which marks part of the U.S.-Mexico border, is more dangerous than its size would suggest. The soil along its shores is sandy and unstable and the vegetation is thick. It's difficult to move quickly without a guide.
His groups often cross the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft or a tire tube. Sometimes they just walk. “We already have places where there's no need to get on a raft because the water isn't even knee-high,” he said. If there are too many patrols in those areas, he changes routes and uses the rafts.
Many families want to be detained by U.S. authorities after they cross the border, because they want to apply for asylum. Others want to avoid detection so they can continue their trip and find a job somewhere.
But always there's the need for silence. Cell phones are thrown into the water to avoid ringtones. They quietly stumble and fall. A 2-year-old girl drops her favorite doll into the river.
“After crossing the river, we have to walk silently,” Ramón added. The groups usually head for a road where a truck picks them up.
The migrants are then taken to new safe houses. Some ranchers in Texas along the border allow migrants to cross on foot and rest for a few hours.
“We have smuggled migrants through border controls”
Corruption does not stop in Mexico.
The coyote also talked about other pieces of the illegal network.
He said he has smuggled some migrants through official U.S. border crossings. “You find documents for people who more or less look the same,” he said. They are passports that already have U.S. visas, and are sold by their owners to criminal networks.
Some U.S. Border Patrol agents also accept bribes for allowing migrants to pass, he added. “When it gets really hard here, we send the people over there and they let them in,” he said. “They say that there's no corruption on the other side, but there is.”
“Come before Trump”
Ramón said his part of the smuggling business is seeing the same trend as the rest of the border: an increase in the arrival of migrants over the last few weeks.
He recommends that migrants get to the border soon, before Donald Trump is sworn in a president of the United States. But his reasoning is odd. “There will be more jobs, because companies are going to fire people,” he argued.
His logic goes something like this: Trump will deport or jail millions of undocumented migrants, which will create millions of job vacancies and drive up salaries.
“The United States will not be able to live without us,” Ramón said. “We are the ones who make the United States strong, we the undocumented people.”
Ramón added that the majority of migrants arrive at the border “so their families can survive in those countries where they have practically nothing.”
“Others come to escape wars, conflicts,” he said. “Some come alone, because their families were wiped out.”