We find the way together.
A huge scar ran from the middle of his forehead to the bottom of his chin — a gift from La Bestia, the treacherous migrant train that runs from south to north in Mexico, used by migrants who can’t afford the assistance of coyotes or polleros. He had fallen off while he was asleep and the wheels cut his face open. This was in 2012, on Obama’s watch. When we met, in the summer of 2014, he was detained at a temporary shelter at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, trying to make it to North Carolina for the second time, where some of his family worked seasonal farm routes. His aunt would be mad about the scar. She had told him not to ride La Bestia. “I didn’t want to be sent home with my face like that.” He laughed and I laughed back, nervously. He had no other choice but to keep trying to cross into the United States.
His face is one among many in the tableau of dangerous migration, stretching from here through Central America: people trying to escape the local gangs known as maras, who have overrun every aspect of life in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The surge of child migrants in the spring and summer of 2012, driven north under threat of kidnapping and murder, was a surprise. But what we’ve seen since should be anything but. The seasonal migrations are a new feature of our warming world. Fire season, migration season, hurricane season, heatwave. Busloads of kids, following in the footsteps of uncles or cousins, show up at temporary government-funded housing directly after having crossed the border into Mexico, walking off the bus with no shoes on, emaciated and exhausted. Their stories, shocking at first, are now old news. That’s because most discussion of the crisis at the border focuses only on the pull of the US, and not the forces pushing migrants out of their homes, hidden behind the clouds of dust and teargas that attend their passage. They are here because they were forced to be here, never forget.
It’s often assumed that migrants and refugees are seeking safety, or an abundance of resources, or a job market. But the teargas greeting mothers and children at the border in Tijuana is no safety. Claudia Gómez Gónzalez, shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent minutes after having crossed the border in Rio Bravo, Texas, did not find safety. For Oscar Alberto and his twenty-three-month-old daughter, drowned in the river that separates the US from Mexico, no asylum. Fleeing your homeland and everything you’ve ever known is about seeking survival, not safety.
They are told by family members not to talk to or trust anyone on their journey north, not even their coyotes, or guides. Most kids travel in small groups, or larger caravans, formed by word of mouth. They hear from cousins or neighbors that if enough people show up at the border, they will be let in and reunited with family. They are told to surrender to the Border Patrol, to avoid violent encounters or getting lost alone in the desert. They carry small pieces of paper that list various human-rights or faith-based organizations, as well as shelters. As they travel together, they compare notes, relaying information and forming a collective common sense, necessary for navigating the perilous route.
In Mexican legend, the moon goddess, Coyolxauhqui, leads a rebellion of her siblings against their mother, Coatlicue. She is then ripped limb from limb by her siblings for her betrayal of her mother. Gloria Anzaldúa transforms this ancient story of matricide and family separation into a political imperative. We must assemble ourselves, limb by limb, body by body, into caravans, into places of asylum, into fighting units capable of protecting migrants. “Chaotic disruptions, violence, and death catapult us into the Coyolxauhqui state of dissociation and fragmentation that characterizes our times,” Anzaldua writes. But the imperative goes beyond a tragic story of fragmentation and dismemberment. It is simultaneously a necessary process of “integration,” confronting a fragmentation that “expels you from paradise.” But Coyolxauhqui emerges. The task of reconstructing allows our limbs to be rearranged in new but disorienting ways. “The Coyolxauhqui imperative is an ongoing process of making and unmaking.”
One of these implements of dismemberment and separation is the US–Mexico border, or Frontera Norte. But US power extends far and wide, with active-duty troops and Homeland Security deployed along the US–Mexico border for the better part of the 2010s. The Trump administration’s threat to deploy six thousand troops to Frontera Sur, the Mexico–Guatemala border, in June of 2019 extends a military occupation begun by Reagan. As the United States and Mexico together slide into political chaos, the already dismembered are fragmented yet again.
Maybe it was the fact that “Coyolxauhqui ” and “coyote” share the same first four letters that prompted me to tell this story. I am reminded of the image of a coyote I saw once in an NGO newsletter. He had his body wrapped around three people, shielding them from the headlights of a Border Patrol truck in the middle of the night. The same morphed circular silhouette appears on the great stone of Coyolxauhqui, excavated in 1978 in Tenochtitlan. If you’re from the Southwest US, like myself, or if your family has migrated, you might know of a coyote or two. The politics of the coyote have changed. In the past, a coyote might be a person from the local town, traveling for their community. In recent decades coyotes have transformed into human traffickers, almost always in conjunction with Los Zetas, the rogue-Mexican-special-forces-become-cartel, muscling out the sympathetic coyotes of the past. We must find new political forms in the chaos. We need to resuscitate radical coyotaje. Fortunately, the kernel of such a revival is already present in the self-organization of migrants.
In August of 2016, I was on a Greyhound bus traveling from McAllen, Texas to San Antonio. Our bus was halted at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere at 4 a.m. In moments like this there’s a tinge of heat in your neck and ears.
I waited, wondering if the bus would soon be stormed by heavily armed agents or masked smugglers. A Border Patrol agent boarded the bus and went through the seats collecting IDs. When the agent approached me, I was still fumbling through my belongings. He let out a couple mucosal sighs, waited for about thirty seconds, then grabbed me by the arm and told me to get off the bus.
Border checkpoints were a normal part of my childhood and I always thought I’d be better prepared for this moment. Before the agent could drag me off the bus, I finally found my driver’s license in my backpack. He scanned it and moved on to the single mother from El Salvador beside me, carrying a baby who must’ve been only two or three weeks old. She held a manila envelope — a sign that she had just been released from a border facility with a one-way ticket. I watched closely as the agent spoke perfect Spanish to her, and I watched as she stared back at him, terrified.
“They are here because they were forced to be here, never forget.”
After the agent exited the bus, the woman next to me was visibly shaken. She told me later that something similar happened on a bus through Veracruz. A group of several masked men on bikes pulled alongside the bus and forced it off the road. The men boarded the bus and quickly realized there was nothing worth taking, so they left. She said that everyone on the bus speculated that the masked men were affiliated with Los Zetas.
There’s a reason for this chain of association. Los Zetas, made up of ex–Mexican military officers trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, must be understood as the mirror image of ICE and the Border Patrol, controlling territory from the other side of the river. Lacking a strong foothold in drug smuggling compared to the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels, Los Zetas created a market for themselves, monopolizing the migrant routes. In 2010, they were responsible for the deaths of seventy-two undocumented migrants in Tamaulipas, Mexico, slated to cross the border with Gulf-affiliated smugglers.
In March of 2011, along Mexican Federal Highway 101, also known as the highway of death, multiple buses were hijacked by Los Zetas hitmen. In April 2011, over the course of about twenty days, 193 bodies were recovered along the highway. These shocking events officially marked a change in the contemporary political and social landscape in Mexico. They also spelled an even more dangerous journey for Central Americans migrating through the country. The tactics of fear and extortion that Los Zetas has used to paralyze Northern Mexico do not stop at the border. They permeate and infect the entire migrant journey. Los Zetas continues to control the major migrant routes, consolidating territory after the arrest of El Chapo and the fragmentation of the Sinaloa cartel.
If you’re paying a Zeta-affiliated coyote, you will almost certainly be secure crossing the border, notwithstanding minor challenges from state-affiliated institutions, as long as you’ve paid all of your regional fees. The more the border is militarized, the more necessary become paramilitary coyotes. The cartels and the US state feed off of each other, with the violence of the Border Patrol driving migrants into the peril of cartel-controlled routes.
Caravaning, guided by radical coyotaje, has the potential to break out of these violent passageways and create a new path forward. Caravans are no longer hidden behind darkness, and this is a good thing. The essence of a radical coyotaje is a communal one: protection and a better chance at surviving a journey north. If there are more people to scout local towns for shelters or churches, it is easier to find food. Splitting money at bus stops to get a couple more compadres on for safer traveling, sharing medicine
at border facilities — there is a politics of class struggle built into these dynamics.
I remember two kids spotting each other from across a FEMA tent in El Paso, Texas in 2016, amidst the noise and chaos of about eight hundred other kids inside. They shouted and waved. They ran to each other and embraced and cried. As they separated, I asked how they knew each other. One of them explained that they met on the train through Mexico. Then they exchanged WhatsApp handles by yelling across the tent.
We need to understand coyotaje politics as a vision of communism. Coyotaje, much like Coyolxauhqui, has been taken over and broken apart. Coyotes are forced to shift their loyalties, both out of desperation and in competition with cartel-affiliated smugglers. Any group larger than five migrants is threatened with kidnapping or death for intruding upon cartel-controlled territory without explanation or payment. If caught in certain territory by cartel hitmen, coyotes will be forced to reveal who they are, on pain of death. But the collectives protect the anonymity of coyotes who don’t work for narcos, and who will dress as migrants to avoid discovery.
In this current context there is protection in numbers, but there is also protection in accountability and visibility. The migrant caravan of 2018 that got Trump so worked up showed us that mass movements of people can transcend the brutality of the Mexican state and the rules of the northern desert. Knowing the names of corrupt police and the locations of sanctuary, the caravan takes on the role of a new coyote, informed by legacies of radical resistance and community building. For Central American migrants there is no community that can replace the ones they were forced to leave, but through collective struggle there is always something worth rebuilding. As one caravanera put it, in an interview with Pueblo Sin Fronteras: “As we walk arm in arm, we truly are a people without borders.”
We need coyotaje on both sides of the border to get us all to our ultimate destinations. A true radical coyotaje would mean, essentially, replacing the treacheries of La Bestia with an underground railroad extending the length and width of both Mexico and the United States, capable of supporting and defending migrants. This would require existing left organizations to build deep connections with immigrant communities, but it’s the only thing that can stop increasing brutality as more people are forced into the journey north.
There is no one-size-fits-all to resisting the strategies of fascist aggression. There are many ways to reassemble out of fragmentation. The important thing is to create channels, conduits, passageways for the self-organizing actions of migrants, to build the coyote commune everywhere you can.