GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemalan law enforcement officials, supported by U.S. agencies, arrested nine top members of an alleged "coyote" human smuggling organization and seized $600,000 held in U.S. banks.
The arrests Wednesday were the first here of coyote leaders since Guatemala President Otto Perez Molina visited President Obama during a July 25 summit with Central American leaders that focused on the immigration crisis on the U.S. border with Mexico.
The arrests provoked an outcry among some Guatemalans who see the coyotes — people paid to smuggle others into the United States — as trusted members of their community who provide a needed service.
In the village of San Francisco la Union, a demonstration organized by relatives of those arrested attempted to prevent the detained coyotes from being moved.
Three local police officers were detained and a police car was destroyed, according to Al Dia, a Guatemalan newspaper.
Criticism of the coyote arrests was regularly heard on Guatemalan talk radio, and critical comments were common on social media here.
The arrests broke new ground because, under Guatemalan law, it is not a crime simply to transport people from Guatemala to the United States, and coyotes have been doing so for many years. About 1.5 million Guatemalans are believed to be living in the United States.
To get tougher on the coyotes, several Guatemalan lawmakers on July 10 introduced legislation making human smuggling punishable as an "organized crime."
Prison terms under the proposed legislation would run up to eight years, with penalties increased by 60 percent if minor children are involved. The legislation is pending before the Guatemalan Congress.
In the meantime, authorities appear to be invoking a law already on the books that prohibits human trafficking tied to the sex trade or the transport of people without their consent.
The U.S. Embassy defended the arrests, charging that Guatemalans transported by coyotes were "human hostages" facing "deplorable conditions" while being moved "over desolate terrain without food and water."
"This organization has been directly linked with operations in which Guatemalans who tried to migrate to the North died during the trip," the embassy said.
The embassy statement also claimed "victims of trafficking have been beaten and raped." In many instances, it said, children are separated from adults and coyotes then demand more money to transport them to the United States.
Planning for the raid on the coyote organization — called a "confederation" by the U.S. Embassy — began in November 2013, when U.S. national security and immigration agencies shared intelligence about the smuggling gang with official counterparts in Guatemala and Mexico.
Thelma Adana, the Guatemalan attorney general, thanked the U.S. government for its assistance, saying "these arrests were effected on the basis of various denunciations given by the U.S. Government in November 2013."
The U.S. Embassy said 450 undocumented people were taken into custody as part of the joint U.S.-Guatemalan raid.
The coyote group moves as many as 80 people every week, charging $6,500 per person, according to Prensa Libre, a Guatemalan national newspaper.
The coyotes may also be charged with money laundering, as their funds were seized from American banks by U.S. authorities.
The coyote organization collected an estimated $3 million over the past three years, according to the U.S. Embassy.
The arrests may be welcomed in Washington and in Guatemalan governmental circles, but they provoked protests from others here.
On the Radio Punto talk show called "Talking Openly," sentiments were running against the coyote arrests by a margin of 9-to-1.
"This is against the poor people," said Juan Carlos, a caller from Escuintla in southern Guatemala. "The coyotes just give a service."
On Facebook, Edyee Gonzalez wrote, "My admiration for the Coyotes is 100%."
Selvin Cux wrote, "My brother went 15 years ago with a Coyote. No Coyote forces anyone to travel with them."
The police frequently cooperate with coyotes and accept bribes from them, according to Guatemalan officials.
Last June, in the Huehuetenango province of western Guatemala, a police chief was arrested along with a coyote leader named Julio Serrano, nicknamed "The Monk."
Serrano reportedly has ties with the group whose leaders were detained Wednesday, according to Siglo.21, a Guatemalan newspaper.