HomeNewsAnalysisHow the Zetas Tamed Central America's 'Coyotes'

How the Zetas Tamed Central America's 'Coyotes'


Why did the Zetas, in two massacres, murder 268 people, the majority Central American, Mexican and South American migrants? The history of some of the Salvadorans who died in these bloodbaths in northern Mexico, the voice of one of El Salvador's coyote patriarchs and some documents all indicate that everything was part of a process of making the coyotes understand that they either had to pay or could not pass. Not them, nor their migrants. The rules have changed. The coyotes are no longer the roughest guys on the road.

The "coyote" -- a criminal that specializes in smuggling undocumented migrants -- returned much sooner than expected. Normally, he was gone more than 20 days, but this time only five or six days had passed since he had crossed the border between Guatemala and Mexico. This is why Fernando, the coyote's driver in El Salvador, thought it was strange when he received the call from his boss. It was August 2010, and the coyote ordered his driver to pick him up at the San Cristobal border crossing, on the Salvadoran side. He came alone, without any of the six migrants that he had brought. The coyote, Fernando noted when he told the story to the Attorney General's Office, came back seeming nervous, without explaining what had happened, giving half-hearted excuses. "A dog bit me," Fernando remembered the coyote saying. Some days later, Fernando would discover that the coyote was not bitten by a dog in Mexico. He was bitten by something much bigger.

* * *

On Wednesday, August 25, 2010, the covers of El Salvador's morning papers read: "72 cadavers found on a ranch in Tamaulipas." Early on the morning of the 23rd, an 18-year-old Ecuadorean boy had arrived, tired and with a bullet wound in his neck, to a Mexican navy checkpoint. He had said he was a survivor of a massacre perpetrated by the lords and masters of crime in this northern Mexican state: the Zetas. The marines located the place and traveled to a municipality called San Fernando, from where they advanced to an area known as La Joya (The Jewel), on the outskirts of the town center. There, outside a cement shed with little more than a roof, they found an armed command. In the middle of nothing, at the edge of a dirt road, they engaged in a shootout. Three gunmen and one marine were killed. The rest of the gunmen fled. The marines entered and saw what was inside the shed: lined up against the cement wall like a sad-colored worm, stacked on top of one another, swollen, deformed, tied up, was a mountain of bodies. Massacred.

This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

Thanks to the testimony of the Ecuadorean survivor, a boy named Luis Freddy Lala Pomadilla, the following day the newspapers reported on the massacred migrants. Little by little, day by day, the news was confirmed: 58 male and 14 female migrants from Central America, Ecuador, Brazil and India had been massacred by a Zetas command unit.

* * *

Fernando -- the motorist -- said that the day the news was published all over the world, he got a call from the coyote.

"I'm leaving. If the police come, you don't know me," said the coyote.


"Hey! You don't know anything about me."

* * *

Fernando is the code name that, during the proceedings against six Salvadorans accused of forming part of a band of coyotes, was given to the key witness. Fernando had known the coyote since childhood. They were neighbors at the time Fernando lost his job and agreed to work as the coyote's driver. On various occasions, Fernando told the judge, the prosecutors from the anti-human trafficking unit and agents from the Elite Anti-Organized Crime Division (DECO) that normally his job was to pick up the coyote, bring him to meet with some potential migrants, bring him to meetings with other members of the organization, and bring him to and from the border with Guatemala when he began or returned from a trip. His duties, until that August of 2010, did not include keeping his mouth shut when the police arrived.

In December 2010, the police appeared. They arrested Fernando and also arrested a 33-year-old man named Erick Francisco Escobar. According to the Attorney General's Office, Fernando and the other witnesses, Escobar was the coyote.

The arrest took place four months after the massacre in San Fernando, because it was not until September that the Salvadoran Foreign Ministry received the forensic report from Mexico, which established that 13 of the migrants murdered in that abandoned shed were Salvadoran. The police investigators searched for the families of the victims and obtained seven consistent testimonies. The coyote they had negotiated with was named Erick, and his telephone number -- which later would be traced by the police -- was the same. One of the witnesses, a man whose son was shot and killed by the Zetas in that Tamaulipas massacre, was the only one of the seven who said he would be able to recognize Erick. And he did so. During the process, he pointed out the man who he said was the coyote that had guided his son to his death.

Fernando was arrested in the same operation as Erick. He was accused of belonging to the network, but after a few weeks in the San Vicente jail -- where he was forced to sleep sitting next to a toilet -- he decided to give a sworn statement about what he knew to the prosecutors and the DECO investigators.

Three months after the first captures, the police detained a man who had managed to remain fugitive during that time. In the municipality of Tecapan, Usulutan, the DECO arrested a corpulent man who directed the first division soccer team Atletico Marte and was the owner of the Ruta 46 buses. His name was Carlos Ernesto Teos Parada. According to prosecutorial investigations and Fernando's declaration, he was the head of the coyote network that Erick worked for.

Sabas Lopez Sanchez, a 20-year-old boy, and the 28-year-old Karen Escobar Luna, were also from Tecapan. Both of them ended up forming part of that sad-colored worm.

* * *

In his statement to the prosecutors, Fernando drew a map with his words. The map Fernando drew indicated that the migrants, at least the six that were with Erick, spent their last days hanging from a freight train like vagrants.

Fernando described two routes. One of them began in Chiapas, where hundreds of thousands of migrants arrived each year after getting their legs wet crossing the Suchiate River that borders Guatemala. The route then continued through Veracruz, which indicates that the migrants had already alternated between hikes through the mountains and Chiapas buses on the 280 kilometers where the train does not operate, until they reached the municipality of Arriaga. There, they got on and rode the steel beast for 11 hours under the harsh August sun, before getting off in Ixtepec, in the state of Oaxaca, where they switched trains and got onto a much faster one, which travels at around 70 kilometers per hour, and takes between six and eight hours to reach the municipality of Medias Aguas in the state of Veracruz. There, the trains that come from Oaxaca and Tabasco converge to travel on a single railway to the outskirts of Mexico City. From there, the migrants rode to Ciudad Victoria, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, where they would have planned to cross the Bravo River, outsmart the US Border Patrol and enter the vast state of Texas.

SEE ALSO: Target: Migrants

Fernando explained that he considered Erick a man of vices. A drinker and a cocaine addict. He liked, as the witness said, to live the fast life.

Drinking alcohol and using cocaine, in the world of the coyotes, is like drinking whisky in that of poker players. It is nothing unusual. And it would have been just one identifying characteristic, one point of interest, if what happened in this case had not occurred.

On one occasion, Fernando told the prosecutors, Carlos Teos and Erick met in Usulutan together with other members of the group. This happened about one month before the massacre. Teos gave him some instructions, spoke about the route and the new contacts and ordered one of the people present to take out the money. Fernando saw firearms. The man returned with a roll of bills and gave Erick $3,000 -- the money that would cover the travel costs of some of the migrants.

The family members of the six Salvadorans that were shot to death by the Zetas said that the agreement with Erick was to pay between $5,700 and $7,500 for the trip. Everyone paid half before leaving. The other half would be paid there, in the United States, after the arrival that never occurred.

Fernando said that after that meeting, Erick ordered him to go to San Salvador, and once there, to Consitution Boulevard, and enter a side street that leads to a community called La Granjita, dominated by an old gang called Mao Mao. This place is known locally as La Pradera, because at the entrance to the dirt street there is a motel by that name. Erick wanted to buy cocaine, and his driver took him. There in the car, Fernando said, Erick snorted a large amount of cocaine.

Snorting cocaine is an identifying feature of a coyote. It would have been just one point of interest, if Fernando's tale had not ended how it ends.

* * *

One of the girls who was traveling with the coyote called one of her family members during the trip, who would later become one of the complainants against the coyote. The girl, according to prosecutors, was optimistic.

"I'm in Mexico and I am with the person who is going to bring me. I am fine, give my love to everyone, I'll let you know once I'm in the United States."

The son of the man who later identified Erick also called. He was also optimistic.

"Who are you with? Are you with Erick?" asked the father.

"Yes, dad, he is here with us still, he hasn't left us."

The future events had yet to unfold. The minor details still had not resulted in a sad-colored worm.

* * *

On August 11, according to reports from El Salvador's immigration office, six migrants who would be massacred in an abandoned shed in Tamaulipas 13 days later crossed over the border in San Cristobal one or two minutes apart.

Fernando, the driver, said that one night earlier, they had stayed in two hotels located blocks from the bus terminal that links to western El Salvador. Some migrants stayed at the Ipanema hotel and others at the Pasadena hotel. These are travelers' hotels, which charge about $17 for a double room, and serve as stopping points for truck drivers, bus drivers, migrants and coyotes.

One of the case prosecutors said that during the investigation they were granted a search warrant for the Pasadena hotel. Among the occupants, they found a 10-year-old boy and an 18-year-old, who were waiting to begin their journey with the coyotes. The coyotes were a man who had been recently deported from the United States and a policeman on temporary leave. Both were arrested. Prosecutors also found a Guatemalan man named Jose Maria Negrero Sermeño. The police requested his records by radio, and they were soon told that he had an outstanding arrest warrant for people trafficking issued by a judge in Cojutepeque. They seized his telephones and found the numbers of agents from the police, immigration and border authorities, as well as notebooks with the names of representatives from the Guatemalan and Salvadoran immigration offices and the business cards of various officials. When they analyzed his telephone calls, they found that he had communicated with Erick and Carlos Teos.

The migrants who would be massacred got on an international bus bound for the Guatemalan capital, said Fernando. Erick gave the bus driver $120. According to Fernando, this amounted to $20 per migrant, which were to be used to bribe any police agent who noticed the migrants were being guided. Erick, Fernando and another man -- Carlos Arnoldo Ventura, who would later be sentenced to four years in prison for illegal trafficking of humans -- traveled by car to the border. Fernando said that during the drive, Erick was speaking with Carlos Teos by phone about the routes and the dates.

The prosecutorial records state that Carlos Teos -- who had a tourist visa to enter the United States -- left El Salvador bound for the US nearly a week after the migrants. Fernando said that Teos was the person in charge of receiving the migrants in the United States, turning them over to their family members, and collecting the second half of the money for the trip. On some occasions, there are registries showing that Teos left the country, but none showing he returned. The prosecutors' hypothesis is that Teos returned loaded with cash, and evaded controls in order to enter the country without declaring the money. The analysis of his bank accounts showed that he was a man who could go from having no money at all to having nearly $10,000 in under a month; from having $85,000 one month to having $94,000 three days later.

The last thing that Fernando knew about Erick was that he crossed the border without being registered, with plans to board the bus on the Guatemalan side and undertake the journey with his migrants.

* * *

A while later, Fernando would receive Erick's phone call. A phone call that arrived quite soon.

"I'm leaving. If the police come, you don't know me," the coyote told him upon his return.

The coyote disappeared for several weeks. When he reappeared, said Fernando in his sworn statement, Erick told him a small detail, a subtle characteristic of those men who live hard lives, which would change this story completely.

Erick said he had spent money that is sacred on these trips. He had wasted on his vices the fee that he had to pay the Zetas in Tamaulipas. Erick spent the money that a coyote must pay this Mexican mafia so that each migrant can continue their journey. Erick, said Fernando, knew that he had touched mandatory money, non-negotiable money, and for that reason he abandoned the six Salvadorans who wanted to enter the United States.

* * *

When one of the case prosecutors talked about how Carlos Teos and Erick were absolved by an alternate judge from the specialized court of judgment in San Salvador, his voice broke up. It sounded like he was going to cry.

Despite Fernando's testimony, the analysis of the phone calls, the recognition of the father of one of the murdered boys, despite the fact that using the same evidence and the same testimony from Fernando another judge later sentenced two other members of the group, this judge absolved Erick and Carlos Teos.

"It was a complete surprise, we had been celebrating… it was very sad. We all turned around to look; nobody believed it."

The Attorney General's Office has appealed the decision and is hoping that the Criminal Division will reverse the decision and order another judge to try the case.

Meanwhile, the only thing left for the family members of the victims is the testimony that they already gave. All of the family members of the massacred migrants who testified received telephone threats. They were all told they would be "disappeared," and murdered, they told prosecutors, before leaving their houses to look for another place to stay.

* * *

What happened on that property is a story that has already been told -- told by a boy.

The 18-year-old Luis Freddy Lala Pomadilla sat in the Ecuadorean city of Riobamba at noon on September 14, 2010. He sat down to answer the questions that, via video, he was asked by a prosecutor from Mexico City. Pomadilla was one of two survivors. He said that another boy survived as well, that it was nighttime and he saw him escape from among the dead, but that later he heard a commotion, a chase, and gunshots.

The Mexican prosecutor was more interested in asking Pomadilla about names and aliases. He asked about El Coyote, El Degollado, Chabelo, El Kilo, Cabezon, El Gruñon -- a "Guatemalan kaibil," and five Salvadorans. He asked Pomadilla if he recognized these men as Zetas. Pomadilla said that the men had not spoken among themselves, and that for this reason he only remembered El Kilo -- Martin Omar Estrada, who would later be arrested and sentenced as the Zetas' chief operator in San Fernando. Pomadilla -- who like the six Salvadoran migrants had been abandoned by his coyote -- remembered that there were eight Zetas, all armed, who drove in a white double cab pick-up and an all-terrain Trooper. These men stopped the three trucks in which the dozens of undocumented migrants were traveling as they attempted to reach the border. He recalled that they were brought to San Fernando and placed against the wall of a shed. One of the Zetas asked if among those men and women there was anyone who wanted to train to be part of the Zetas. Just one migrant boy raised his hand and said yes. "But they killed him anyway." They killed him and 71 others. Pomadilla, who survived because they thought he was dead, said that afterwards, a firearm went off for about three minutes. There was a shower of bullets from just one gun that lasted until it had killed all 72 migrants.

The Zetas are a bunch of cavemen. As a coronel who formed part of the contingent that maintained a state of siege in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala in order to try to eliminate that group told me in 2011, the Zetas are criminals who first shoot at, torture and murder, and later ask if their victims will obey them.

SEE ALSO: Zetas News and Profile

Nonetheless, being cavemen does not prevent them from being mafiosos. In each one of the activities of this group that I have examined since 2008, there is just one interest: multiply their money. Why kidnap 72 migrants, bring them to a forgotten area of a rural municipality and massacre them? What did they get from this?

The main hypothesis of the Mexican authorities is that the Zetas were displeased because the migrants did not want to become part of their criminal organization. However, one of the women who had been guided by Erick and who died in that massacre was a young woman of 18 years from the La Libertad province. Is this the profile for recruits that the Zetas are looking for?

The story of the six Salvadoran migrants who wound up murdered, who presumably paid the price for the fact that their coyote decided to consume more cocaine and alcohol than he had money for, speaks to another logic. He that doesn't pay, doesn't pass. Migrating through Mexico has a price, and the Zetas collect it.

The coyotes or migrants who try to avoid this toll will come up against these cavemen. What could be a more powerful way to show this than 72 cadavers packed into a sad-colored worm?

Everything seems logical when one considers that the Zetas were trying to send one simultaneous message to the coyotes and the migrants. But to be sure of this, to understand how this mafia changed the criminal codes of a world of roughneck coyotes, one would have to find one of these clandestine guides.

There are few better places than the Chalatenango province in El Salvador to find some of the best coyotes.

*This article originally appeared in El Faro and was translated and reprinted with permission. See Spanish original here.

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