The Life and Times of a Human Smuggler: Background information when reading In the Midst of Winter

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In the Midst of Winter

by Isabel Allende

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende X
In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2017, 352 pages
    Sep 2018, 352 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Natalie Vaynberg
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About this Book

The Life and Times of a Human Smuggler

This article relates to In the Midst of Winter

Print Review

Illegal Immigrant in Trunk of CarWe have heard a lot about illegal immigration in the past few months – it is a hot topic of discussion and debate, vast amounts of time and money are spent on controlling, limiting or shutting it down across the border between the US and Mexico. However, there are many stories of migrants who make it across: Isabel Allende's In the Midst of Winter tells a fictionalized account of such a story. How is successful crossing achieved? Who are the smugglers making their livelihood on these dangerous journeys? Are they heroes, villains or something else entirely – perhaps simply savvy businessmen?

In her novel, Allende refers to smugglers as "coyotes," a term that is universally understood by all characters. Coyote refers to a particular type of smuggler – one who operates in the hills and in the deserts, leading migrants through the treacherous terrain. There are other names as well; pollero, for example, which translates roughly as "chicken hauler" a reference to the smuggler's human cargo. The name depends largely on the methods used to get their charges across the border.

Smugglers' naming conventions are mysterious, but so are their methods, their pricing and their networks.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), on average, the cost of transporting a single able-bodied adult across the US border can vary anywhere between $3,000 to $12,000. There are many costs involved – for example, the smuggler may have to pay off gangs, police officers and border officials along the way; in some cases, there is also a need to procure false documents, find relatively safe housing, or adapt modes of transportation to best conceal human cargo. However, at the end of it all, coyotes can bring home as much as $6,000 each month – says a coyote in a rare interview on Fusion TV; an enviable wage for most of their peers.

Brian Petersen's Film CoyoteIt does not take much to understand why one would get involved in the smuggling trade. Job opportunities in Mexico and Central America are few and pay is low; what's more, everyday living is made dangerous by corrupt authorities and a wide array of gangs. When deciding to smuggle, you not only ensure a way to provide for yourself and your family, you also join a powerful network that can help create opportunities and offer a small measure of security.

This was not always the case – as recently as the late 1990s, the human smuggling landscape was sharply different. Coyotes operated in small, contained units, mostly with people they knew intimately or to whom they were related. Costs were a fraction of what they are today and the entire process took much less time and effort. But today, as border security is an ever-growing priority, mom-and-pop shops have grown into large scale, hierarchical organizations that bring in an average of $6.6 billion in annual revenue.

As the risk continues to grow, coyotes have developed a bare-bones set of rules:

  • Know where the water is so that you can always reach it.
  • Pick migrants who are most likely to survive the difficult journey – in other words, no young children, no elderly or ill persons will be taken on by the more reputable and, therefore, reliable smugglers.
  • The money must be separate from the product. In other words, the money must be paid before and after the journey, not during. Those being smuggled must arrange for payment to be waiting for them on the other side of the border.

Illegal ImmigrantsWhen we think of illegal immigrants we may have a wide variety of reactions, from compassion to anger, but likely not indifference. Not so for the smugglers. They are as pragmatic about their job as a paper pusher; it's not personal, it's business. There is a demand for a service and this is a service they will continue to provide.

For how long? Forever. When asked point blank when illegal border crossing will cease, one pollero explained "[it] will never stop unless you can stop poverty and hunger. It will never stop because people will always want to help their families."

Illegal immigrants sometimes travel in the trunks of cars, courtesy of
Scene from Brian Petersen's movie Coyote
Illegal immigrants walking to freedom, courtesy of

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Natalie Vaynberg

This "beyond the book article" relates to In the Midst of Winter. It originally ran in November 2017 and has been updated for the September 2018 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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