TIJUANA, MEXICO — LIKE many ``coyotes'' who smuggle illegal immigrants across the United States's vast Southern border, Margarita is dressed in black: black shirt, black jeans, black mascara. Once evening comes, Margarita - like the cunning coyote or prairie wolf, these smugglers' namesake - will be nearly impossible to trace as she guides a Mexican woman and her three children to a safe house a mile across the border.
A seven-year veteran in the trafficking of human beings, Margarita waits for nightfall - and her $400 take - in a popular ``coyote'' hangout here. Just three blocks away is El Bordo, a river levee that has become the most popular crossing on the 2,000-mile border.
Even as she slaps down a $100 bill for a 60-cent bowl of pork-rind stew, Margarita knows that US Border Patrol officers are already stalking the no man's land beyond El Bordo with an impressive array of Land Rovers and all-terrain vehicles. They are watching the pollos - or ``chickens,'' as illegal immigrants are called - gather by the hundreds behind the fence that divides the first and third worlds.
Most of all, they're waiting for the coyotes to make their move.
But like the millions of migrants who cross the border each year, Margarita is less daunted by La Migra - the US Border Patrol - than by Mexican police who profit from the immigration racket. Indeed, coyotes owe their existence to the Border Patrol's imposing presence - and its inability to stop them from sneaking across.
``La Migra can be fooled easily,'' says Margarita, claiming that she hasn't been caught since January. Even then, she posed as a migrant's wife and was released the same day - despite the fact that she has committed a felony under US law nearly every night since she was 16.
``The [Mexican] police are much tougher,'' she says. ``Every time they catch me with a pollo they take $500 or whatever I have in my pockets.''
Police not only take about half of her $50,000 annual income. (She spends much of the rest on alcohol and drugs). Some also collaborate with the estimated 20 smuggling rings in Tijuana that have turned immigration into a international industry and made business difficult for ``independent'' coyotes like Margarita.
Some poorly paid police officers are so corrupt, these smugglers claim, that they apprehend northbound migrants arriving at the Tijuana bus terminal, extort money, and then deliver them to the smuggling organizations for $30 to $40 a head.
``They're taking our clients away,'' complains an older coyote named Valent'in, sitting at the chipped linoleum bar of the smugglers' haunt in the heart of Tijuana's red-light district. For dramatic effect, he turns his empty pockets inside out.
Mafia-like, family-run immigration organizations earn the nickname apalabrados - or ``the appointed'' - by paying off police with anywhere from $9,000 to $80,000 a month, according to smugglers and immigration experts here. Most organizations can earn that much in one night. And a few groups, whose operations spread across the world from Beijing to Bombay, can earn that much from a single family of long-distance immigrants.
``See those pollos?'' asks Valent'n, nodding toward two men in peasant clothing walking by outside. ``Eighty percent of the people you see are heading to the `other side.' The rest are guides ... But if I tried to walk up to those guys, one of `the appointed' could have a policeman lock me up in a second.''
Most Mafia-like organizations are not just protecting their turf but expanding it.
The southern border has heightened its reputation as the world's back door into the US ever since the passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Patrol Act. The law granted resident status to about 3 million illegal immigrants, but it also beefed up border security and made employers hiring illegals subject to prosection.
In response to the stiffened requirements, some smuggling rings broadened their connections with fly-by-night travel agencies in Central America who advertise ``trips to the US.''
``They've transnationalized the business,'' says Mexican anthropologist and immigration specialist Victor Clark Alfaro, noting that the US border detained immigrants from more than 60 countries last year. ``They have such a sophisticated business vision that we're not just talking about coyotes with three or four immigrants, but true travel agencies that can transport hundreds of people every night.''
According to Mexican border experts, Tijuana's immigration ``industry'' generates anywhere from $100 to $300 million a year in fees alone. The standard rates are $100 to $150 for el brinco, the ``hop'' to the other side of the levee; $300 to $400 for passage to Los Angeles; and up to $1,000 for Central Americans or foreigners. ``Appointed'' groups often charge more.
``Immigration is probably our fourth-largest industry,'' says Mr. Clark, who speculates that it trails tourism, commerce, and the booming assembly plant or maquiladora industry. ``There's a sector of the economy that depends on immigrants.''
Indeed, when the 1986 US legislation kept many potential migrants in their home towns waiting to see its effects, Tijuana's hotels, restaurants, buses, and sleazy night clubs were left virtually empty.
But when migrants saw that jobs were still available in the US, they boosted the illegal immigration industry even more with their new needs: counterfeit green cards and false documents for amnesty applications. And with the increased border surveillance and violence, coyotes became even more indispensable.
``The more patrolling there is, the more demand there is for coyotes,'' says immigration expert Ofelia Woo Morales. ``Despite the high prices [of being smuggled], people keep migrating.''
Back in the restaurant, Margarita pauses for a rare pensive moment when asked about her future. She deftly sidesteps the question by saying the flow of migrants will never stop - not as long as there is a scarcity of work opportunities in Mexico and an abundance of dreams over the border in ``El Norte.''