Posted on July 31, 2022

Smuggling Migrants at the Border Now a Billion-Dollar Business

Miriam Jordan, New York Times, July 25, 2022

From the street, the little brown house was unremarkable yet pleasant. A bright yellow toy school bus and red truck hung on the hog-wire fence, and the home’s facade featured a large Texas lone star. But in the backyard was a gutted mobile home that a prosecutor later described as a “house of horrors.”

It was discovered one day in 2014, when a man called from Maryland to report that his stepfather, Moises Ferrera, a migrant from Honduras, was being held there and tortured by the smugglers who had brought him into the United States. His captors wanted more money, the stepson said, and were pounding Mr. Ferrera’s hands repeatedly with a hammer, vowing to continue until his family sent it.

When federal agents and sheriff’s deputies descended on the house, they discovered that Mr. Ferrara was not the sole victim. Smugglers had held hundreds of migrants for ransom there, their investigation found. They had mutilated limbs and raped women.

“What transpired there is the subject of science fiction, of a horror movie — and something we simply don’t see in the United States,” the prosecutor, Matthew Watters, told a jury when the accused smugglers went on trial. Organized crime cartels, he said, had “brought this terror across the border.”

But if it was one of the first such cases, it was not the last. Migrant smuggling on the U.S. southern border has evolved over the past 10 years from a scattered network of freelance “coyotes” into a multi-billion-dollar international business controlled by organized crime, including some of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.

The deaths of 53 migrants in San Antonio last month who were packed in the back of a suffocating tractor-trailer without air conditioning — the deadliest smuggling incident in the country to date — came as tightened U.S. border restrictions, exacerbated by a pandemic-related public health rule, have encouraged more migrants to turn to smugglers.

While migrants have long faced kidnappings and extortion in Mexican border cities, such incidents have been on the rise on the U.S. side, according to federal authorities.

More than 5,046 people were arrested and charged with human smuggling last year, up from 2,762 in 2014.

Over the past year, federal agents have raided stash houses holding dozens of migrants on nearly a daily basis.

Title 42, the public health order introduced by the Trump administration at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, has authorized the immediate expulsion of those caught crossing the border illegally, allowing migrants to cross repeatedly in the hope of eventually succeeding. This has led to a substantial escalation in the number of migrant encounters on the border — 1.7 million in fiscal 2021 — and brisk business for smugglers.

In March, agents near El Paso rescued 34 migrants from two cargo containers without ventilation on a single day. {snip}

Law enforcement agents have engaged in so many high-speed chases of smugglers lately in Uvalde, Texas — there were nearly 50 such “bailouts” in the town between February and May — that some school employees said they failed to take a lockdown order seriously during a mass shooting in May because so many previous lockdowns had been ordered when smugglers raced through the streets.


Fees typically range from $4,000, for migrants coming from Latin America, to $20,000, if they must be moved from Africa, Eastern Europe or Asia {snip}

For years, independent coyotes paid cartels a tax to move migrants through territory they controlled along the border, and the criminal syndicates stuck to their traditional line of business, drug smuggling, which was far more profitable.

That began to change around 2019, Patrick Lechleitner, the acting deputy director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Congress last year. The sheer number of people seeking to cross made migrant smuggling an irresistible moneymaker for some cartels, he said.

The enterprises have teams specializing in logistics, transportation, surveillance, stash houses and accounting — all supporting an industry whose revenues have soared to an estimated $13 billion today from $500 million in 2018 {snip}

Migrants are moved by plane, bus and private vehicles. In some border regions, such as the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, smugglers affix color-coded bands to the wrists of migrants to designate that they belong to them and what services they are receiving.


Groups of Central American families who crossed the Rio Grande recently into La Joya, Texas, wore blue bracelets with the logo of the Gulf Cartel, a dolphin, and the word “entregas,” or “deliveries” — meaning they intended to surrender to U.S. authorities and seek asylum. Once they had crossed the river, they were no longer the cartel’s business.

Previously, migrants entering Laredo, Texas, waded across the river on their own and faded into the dense, urban landscape. Now, according to interviews with migrants and law enforcement officials, it is impossible to cross without paying a coyote connected to the Cartel del Noreste, a splinter of the Los Zetas syndicate.