People-Smuggler Campaigns in El Salvador

Narciso "Chicho" Ramirez has spent time in prison on suspicion of smuggling migrants and was stripped of his U.S. visa. But in his hometown he's mayor material — the man who helped hundreds of Salvadorans achieve "el sueno Americano" — the American dream.

Now running for mayor, Ramirez says he stopped smuggling people in October 2001, when El Salvador made human trafficking a crime punishable by eight years in jail. But his reputation as a "coyote" — slang for smuggler — abides. "Here, they only say good things about Don Chicho," said Blanca Rosa Coreas, 50. "He's taken many people north, and they are grateful to him."

"I saw it as helping people who most need it," said Ramirez, a 44-year-old rancher who owns construction and bus companies as well as restaurants and hardware stores.

Ramirez says his ties to people-smuggling make him the perfect candidate to lead a group of 10 small rural towns 60 miles west of the capital, San Salvador. They include Cara Sucia, a village of 5,000 whose name means "dirty face."

It's a district where nearly everyone heads to the United States to work at some point, and where four bank branches mostly handle money the migrants send home.

Recent polls make Ramirez the favorite in next Sunday's election, ahead of Mayor Remigio Morales, who has served for nine years and is seeking a fourth consecutive term.

"Parties choose as their candidates, especially local ones, someone that is going to win. This is the criterion," commented Rodolfo Cardenal, vice rector of El Salvador's Catholic University and a Jesuit priest. "It's not the moral suitability of a candidate."

"Coyotes are very popular because the safest way to arrive in the United States is with a good coyote. He'll charge a good amount of money, but the person will arrive safely," he added.

Ramirez has had a career path that many hope to follow.

He spent his childhood delivering giant bags of vegetables from a local market. At 22, he emigrated to the United States, returning in 1985 to buy a truck and a bus which he used to build various successful businesses while traveling back and forth to the United States.

Ramirez claims he never charged for his smuggling services, and simply "volunteered to help people without money," leading them across Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico and dropping them off to find coyotes who would lead them across the U.S. border for money.

Ramirez was arrested in 2002 on charges of helping to organize the smuggling of 144 migrants found in a banana truck in Monterrey, Mexico. He said he had already gotten out of smuggling and had nothing to do with the banana truck, but spent 14 months in a Salvadoran jail and one year under house arrest before he was cleared. The U.S. Embassy still stripped him of his visa.

Ramirez says politicians are demonizing smugglers. "Instead of spending so much money to eradicate the trafficking of illegals to the United States, that money should be used to create more jobs in the country," he says.

At a recent rally, Ramirez rode a horse through the streets of Cara Sucia, accompanied by Horacio Rios, a prominent politician, who said: "Narciso helped a lot of people go to the United States, and now they are good workers — businessmen that send home money."

El Salvador survives on that money — $2.8 billion last year alone — from the 2.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States, Rios said. More than 300,000 of those migrants are there illegally.

Ramirez says that if he becomes mayor, his first order of business will be to lobby the U.S. Embassy for a visa, so he can visit his seven brothers in the United States.