The Migrants' Mayor

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 2, 2006

CARA SUCIA, El Salvador -- Narciso Ramírez strode through the throng of supplicants waiting outside the mayor's office on a recent morning with the expansive smile of a man who had just been elected by a landslide.

A middle school dropout with no experience in government, Ramírez had taken on a three-term incumbent belonging to the region's most successful political party.

But the 45-year-old rancher, widely known by his nickname, "Don Chicho," offered a credential far more persuasive in these parts. By his own account, Ramírez has helped about 200 residents sneak into the United States over the years by lending them money for their journeys and providing a list of friendly contacts along the route. According to Salvadoran officials, Ramírez's role went further. In 2002, they charged him with heading an international network of at least 50 smugglers.

He was acquitted of the charges, but many residents of this far western town say Ramírez was the area's top coyote, or people smuggler, for much of the 1990s, personally guiding groups of 150 to 200 at a time up through Mexico into the United States.

"If I tried to list all the people who Don Chicho has taken to the States, I'd never finish," said Herman Walter Orellana, 48, a cheese maker who was sipping coffee at a stall on the traffic-choked road that bisects the town.

The exact role Ramírez played in helping people reach the United States could not be determined through interviews. Still, his election in the municipality of San Francisco Menendez, which includes Cara Sucia, underscores the respect accorded here to reliable members of a profession generally considered callous and criminal in the United States. To many in Cara Sucia, Ramírez also serves as a reminder of a gentler, simpler time before the debate over immigration in the United States reached a fever pitch -- when the trip north was less dangerous and expensive, and trustworthy coyotes were easier to find.

"Don Chicho always came through. . . . And if you were especially poor, he'd give you a discount and let you pay half of the cost later," recalled Orellana, who said his younger brother got just such a deal for his trip to Atlanta in 1990. When Ramírez announced his candidacy, Orellana added, "My brother immediately called me and said, 'You have to give him your vote. It's thanks to him that I'm over here.' "

Ramírez, the son of a struggling farmer, said such expressions of gratitude from those he has assisted were common. One man even sent back a refurbished pickup truck upon opening his own repair shop in Atlanta. "That was years after he had paid me back and after we had lost contact," Ramírez said. "I get emotional thinking about it."

Cara Sucia, a warren of shacks and concrete huts near the border with Guatemala, is home to about 5,000 people. It is one of a handful of towns in the municipality of San Francisco Menendez and is believed to derive its name, which means "dirty face," from the destitute children who used to swarm around the owners of one of the area's first plantations.

Nonetheless, jobs were once plentiful here, compared with eastern El Salvador.

It wasn't until the late 1980s, when the local economy began to sag under the pressure of so many new arrivals fleeing the civil war and poverty rampant in other parts, that Cara Sucia's residents began heading north.

Ramírez was well-positioned to help them. A short but muscular man whose manner is at once affable and wary, he recalls showing an entrepreneurial streak since age 8, when he took his first job hauling vegetables in the local market.

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