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Human Smuggler: Central Americans Are Worth Their Weight In Gold

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

These days, the migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border are mostly from Central America, specifically Honduras and Guatemala. That region is plagued by gang violence and poverty, and many people are desperate to leave. This has fueled a shadow economy. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports for Planet Money, and she traveled to Mexico for a close-up look at the business of human smuggling.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Matalote hates his nickname, but he's asked me not to use his real name.

(Speaking Spanish).

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: (Speaking Spanish).

It's a joke about his weight. A matalote is a large fish found in Mexico.

(Speaking Spanish).

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: I meet him in the northern Mexican city of Matamoros. We drive to his favorite restaurant a few blocks from the Rio Grande. He recommends the frog legs, but I'm already feeling adventurous enough for one day because Matalote is a human smuggler.

His job? He crosses migrants over the river and makes sure they get to Houston. He's agreed to explain how it works.

MATALOTE: (Through interpreter) It's a service for a person to achieve their dream.

GARSD: Like all businesses, there's a division of labor. Matalote's boss is called the coyote. He's like the travel agent. He arranges each leg of the journey - for a fee, of course. Matalote's cagey about just how much the coyote pockets, but it's a lot. But Matalote will tell me about the other employees in his smuggling ring. It starts with the caminador, or the walker, because Matalote says that's what you're going to do - a lot of walking and riding buses.

MATALOTE: (Through interpreter) The walker is the person who's going to the leave you where the coyote tells him to. You follow them, OK? And he'll drop you off.

GARSD: A Honduran migrant might be passed along any number of walkers on the journey to the border. Each walker gets paid a hundred bucks per person they take north. A lot of that money is for bribes to local law enforcement and tolls to the cartels. Once you make it to the border, you'll meet the next employee of the smuggling ring, el cruzador, the crosser.

That's Matalote. He charges up to $5,000 to get you to the other side of the Rio Grande. I ask him to tally it all up - bribes, tolls, salaries. What do his people charge to bring someone from Honduras to the U.S.?

MATALOTE: (Through interpreter) Well, about 17, 18, $19,000.

GARSD: Prices vary. That's on the high end of normal.

JOSE BENITEZ: (Through interpreter) It's like any other marketplace, m'ija. That's exactly what it is.

GARSD: That's Jose Benitez. He runs the Federation of United Immigrants and Workers in Houston, Texas, a nonprofit for immigrant rights. He sees dozens of recent arrivals every day, and he says you get what you pay for. The more you pay, the safer it tends to be.

BENITEZ: (Through interpreter) You have to assume the average price is between 6,000 and 10,000. If you pay more, you're more likely to get through without being detected.

GARSD: And that's why our smuggler, Matalote, has been able to raise his prices a lot lately. The entire journey keeps getting riskier and riskier. He says 16 years ago, he would charge $50 to cross someone over the river, but the border started getting tighter. Central American started getting more desperate. And all the costs, cartel tolls, bribes, salaries - they're going up.

MATALOTE: (Speaking Spanish).

GARSD: Matalote says right now, Hondurans - Central Americans, they're worth their weight in gold.

He says business is booming.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.