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Guatemala to Punish 'Coyotes' Who Smuggle Migrants

Jimmy Morales, Guatemala's independent presidential candidate, looks on during an interview with Reuters in Guatemala City, Aug. 20, 2015.

Guatemala's Congress has voted to impose harsher sentences for anyone helping migrants skirt the law, as it faces pressure from the United States to stop human trafficking and slow the flood of people passing through its borders.

The so-called "anti-coyote" law, passed late on Thursday, targets smugglers who help undocumented migrants traverse the Central American nation, a key route towards the United States.

Central Americans for decades have sought to escape violence and poverty by migrating northward, but the issue became a crisis for the United States last year when tens of thousands of unaccompanied children, mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, flooded the southern U.S. border.

The Guatemalan route is also attracting migrants from further afield. Five Syrians traveled across two continents and five countries to reach jobs and a house in Guatemala promised by their Turkish smuggler, before being stopped in neighboring Honduras.

Jean Paul Briere, head of the migration committee in Guatemala's Congress, said the law reflects a compromise with the United States as part of a development plan to create jobs and lift living standards in Central America.

"The situation with the exodus of migrant children (to the United States) helped the law get approved more quickly," he said. "(Now) it is possible to punish these groups who mostly enrich themselves from migrants and use them to traffic money, drugs and weapons ... [and] exploit children and women."

All 118 deputies present voted in favor of imposing a jail sentence of six to eight years for any smuggler who helps foreigners or Guatemalans with passage, illegal documents, or employment. Those who assist minors or pregnant women, or cause serious harm, could face more than 13 years in prison.

Any Guatemalans will also be able to recover whatever payments they made to the "coyote," and will have any debts to them canceled. Any physical, psychological or economic damage will be compensated by the suspect.