As trusted individuals in a Guatemalan culture rooted in religion, pastors and priests play a role in the booming business behind immigration
Early in the morning, Antonio knelt before an altar with white candles and a small statue of the Virgin Mary and prayed for a miracle.
It was still dark when he piled into a blue van with his six-year-old son, Gaspar, and a group of other farmers and their family members hoping to reach the United States. They set out from their home town in the highlands of Guatemala and rode for hours before pulling down a narrow dirt road which ended in a clearing near the Mexican border.
The migrants bowed their head as their guide an Evangelical pastor cracked a Bible, and prayed for the groups safe passage. At the border, he whispered a last Que Dios te bendiga (May God bless you) to each before passing them to the next handler.
Guatemala is one of the biggest sources of migrants to the US, and across the highlands of this poor Central American country, churches and clergymen also play a role in the booming business of people-smuggling.
As trusted individuals in a deeply religious society, pastors and priests can offer comfort and a promise of safety to those undertaking the dangerous trek north. They also take a cut of the profits.
The church is an invisible actor in migration, said Francisco Simn, a researcher on migration and smuggling at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala. Using the image of the pastor is just one of the many ways coyotes [people smugglers] recruit clients. He has credibility and the trust of the people.
Out of 23 towns Simn recently visited in the western highlands, he found cases of pastors and priests helping people to migrate in 14 of them.
Some churchmen physically guide clients on the first leg of their journey as with the pastor who led Antonio to the border but most simply link up coyotes and potential clients. Evangelical leaders were more frequently involved in migration than Catholic priests, Simn found.
As night fell in a small highland town 70 miles from the Mexican border, a few dozen people sang pop-inspired Christian music in a simple, single-room Evangelical church.
In an office next door, drinking a Pepsi and catching up on his accounts, was Pedro, who recruits customers for a coyote.
Pastors can act as a bridge between people who want to migrate and people who can take them, he explained. They know the community.