Over the past generation, migrant smugglers — at the outset known as "polleros" (or chicken herders) — have been viewed as a necessary evil by migrant advocacy groups. Smugglers acted illegally, to be sure, but for a worthy cause: To assist migrants to arrive at their destination and achieve a better life. Migrant activists, including church groups and human rights organizations, not only turned a blind eye to the law-breaking but affirmatively extended their support networks (and credibility) both to the smuggled migrants and to the (perceived) Robin Hoods who were smuggling them.
In what might have once seemed a marriage of convenience for a noble purpose, smugglers operated hand-in-hand with human rights advocacy groups along Mexico’s migration corridors. All of them viewed their activities as akin to the pre-United States civil war Underground Railroad: A network of safehouses, finances and routes through which slaves could be smuggled out of the South and brought to freedom.
Though it may have started out innocently enough, over the past ten years, the smuggling enterprise has changed dramatically and become thoroughly criminalized.
As security conditions improved steadily on the Southwest border and irregular entrance into the United States was further restricted, the price charged by smugglers rose disproportionately. In turn, as the amount of money generated by human smuggling grew, criminal groups operating along the migration routes — including drug cartels and corrupt law enforcement authorities — became major participants, and human smuggling became a central feature of their criminal businesses.