Migrant smuggling across the border is now a billion dollar business

CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas — From the street, the little brown house was unremarkable but pleasant. A bright yellow toy school bus and a red truck hung from the wire fence, and the front of the house featured a large Texas Lone Star. But in the backyard was an emptied 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 and tortured there by the smugglers who had brought him to the United States. . His captors wanted more money, the son-in-law said, and repeatedly pounded Mr Ferrera’s hands with a hammer, vowing to continue until his family sent him away.

When federal agents and sheriff’s deputies descended on the home, they discovered that Mr. Ferrara was not the only victim. The smugglers had held hundreds of migrants there for ransom, according to their investigation. They had mutilated limbs and raped women.

“What happened there is the subject of science fiction, of a horror movie – and something we just don’t see in the United States,” said prosecutor Matthew Watters. , to a jury at the trial of the accused smugglers. Organized crime cartels, he said, have “brought this terror across the border.”

But if it was one of the first cases of this kind, it was not the last. The smuggling of migrants across the US southern border has evolved over the past 10 years from a dispersed network of freelance “coyotes” to a multi-billion dollar international enterprise controlled by organized crime, including some of the most violent drug cartels in Mexico.

The deaths of 53 migrants in San Antonio last month who were crammed into the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer without air conditioning – the deadliest smuggling incident in the country to date – came as restrictions on US borders were tightened, exacerbated by a pandemic-linked public health rule, prompted more migrants to turn to smugglers.

While migrants have long been victims of kidnapping and extortion in Mexican border towns, such incidents are on the rise on the U.S. side, according to federal authorities.

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

Over the past year, federal agents have raided hideouts housing dozens of migrants almost daily.

Title 42, the public health order introduced by the Trump administration at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, authorized the immediate deportation of those who cross the border illegally, allowing migrants to cross repeatedly in the hope to eventually succeed. This has led to a substantial escalation in the number of migrant encounters at the border – 1.7 million in fiscal year 2021 – and booming business for smugglers.

In March, officers near El Paso rescued 34 migrants from two unventilated cargo containers in a single day. The following month, 24 people held against their will were found in a hideout.

Law enforcement officers have engaged in so many high-speed chases against smugglers lately in Uvalde, Texas – there were nearly 50 such ‘bailouts’ in the city between February and May – that some school workers said they did not take a lockdown order seriously during a mass shooting in May because so many previous lockdowns had been ordered when smugglers ran through the streets.

Teófilo Valencia, whose 17 and 19-year-old sons perished in the San Antonio tragedy, said he took out a loan on the family home to pay smugglers $10,000 to transport each son.

Fees typically range from $4,000, for migrants from Latin America, to $20,000, if they are to be moved from Africa, Eastern Europe or Asia, according to Guadalupe Correa- Cabrera, smuggling expert at George Mason University.

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

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

The companies have teams specializing in logistics, transportation, surveillance, hiding and accounting – all supporting an industry whose revenue has soared to around $13 billion today, from $500 million in 2018, according to Homeland Security Investigations, the federal agency that investigates such cases. .

Migrants are moved by plane, bus and private vehicles. In some border regions, such as the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, smugglers affix colored bands to migrants’ wrists to indicate ownership and what services they receive.

“They organize the merchandise in a way that you never could have imagined five or 10 years ago,” Ms. Correa-Cabrera said.

Groups of families from Central America who recently crossed the Rio Grande to La Joya, Texas, wore blue wristbands with the Gulf Cartel logo, a dolphin and the word “entregas” or “deliveries” – meaning that they intended to go to the United States. authorities and seek asylum. Once they had crossed the river, they were no longer the cartel’s business.

Previously, migrants entering Laredo, Texas, crossed the river alone and blended into the dense cityscape. Now, according to interviews with migrants and law enforcement, it is impossible to cross without paying a coyote linked to the Cartel del Noreste, a splinter of the Los Zetas union.

Smugglers often enlist teenagers to transport new arrivals to hiding places in working-class neighborhoods. After rounding up several dozen people, they load the migrants into trucks parked in Laredo’s sprawling warehouse district around Killam Industrial Boulevard.

“Drivers are recruited from bars, strip joints, truck stops,” said Timothy Tubbs, who served as assistant special agent in charge of homeland security investigations for Laredo until his retirement in January.

Rigs carrying migrants mingle with the 20,000 trucks that travel daily on I-35 to and from Laredo, the nation’s busiest land port. Border Patrol agents posted at checkpoints inspect only a fraction of all vehicles to ensure traffic remains flowing.

The tractor-trailer discovered on June 27 with its tragic cargo had passed through a checkpoint about 30 miles north of Laredo without arousing suspicion. By the time it pulled up three hours later on a lonely San Antonio road, most of the 64 people inside had already died.

The driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., one of two men charged Thursday in connection with the tragedy, said he was unaware the air conditioning system had failed.

The 2014 incident at the Texas hideout led to the perpetrators’ arrest and subsequent trial, providing unusually vivid insight into the brutal tactics of smuggling operations. Although kidnappings and extortion occur with some frequency, such trials with cooperating witnesses are relatively rare, according to federal law enforcement officials. Fearing deportation, undocumented relatives of kidnapped migrants rarely call the authorities.

This case began in thick brush country eight miles from the Rio Grande at Carrizo Springs, a popular transit point for people trying to evade detection. “You could hide a million elephants here, this brush is so thick,” said Jerry Martinez, captain with the Dimmit County Sheriff’s Office.

Mr Ferrera, 54, a victim of torture, first emigrated to the United States in 1993, heading to construction sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he earned more than 10 times what he won in Honduras. He returned home a few years later.

“In those days, you didn’t need a coyote,” he said in an interview from his home in Maryland. “I’ve been back and forth several times.”

When he left in early 2014, Mr Ferrera knew he would have to hire a smuggler to cross the border. In Piedras Negras, Mexico, a man promised to guide him to Houston. Mr. Ferrera’s son-in-law, Mario Pena, said he wired $1,500 in payment.

After reaching Texas, Mr. Ferrera and several other migrants were delivered to the Carrizo Springs caravan.

Shortly after, Mr. Ferrera’s son-in-law received a call asking for an additional $3,500. He said he had no more money.

The calls became frequent and threatening, Mr. Pena recalled in an interview; the smugglers made her hear her stepfather’s screams and moans as a hammer slammed into her fingers.

Mr Pena managed to wire $2,000 through Western Union, he said, but when the kidnappers realized they couldn’t get the money back because it was a Sunday, they escalated their assault .

Mr. Pena called 911.

Law enforcement officers found Mr. Ferrera in the trailer “seriously, seriously injured physically, with a lot of blood all over him, lying on a sofa” in the living room, according to the testimony of one of the officers, Jonathan Bonds.

Another migrant, stripped down to his underwear, writhed in pain, his clubbed hand raised in the air, in the front bedroom. In the back bedroom, the agents encountered a naked woman, another migrant, who had just been raped by a smuggler who came out naked from the bathroom.

The owner of the house, Eduardo Rocha Sr., who passed by Lalo and was identified as the leader of the smuggling ring, was arrested along with several others, including his son, Eduardo Rocha Jr. The young Mr. Rocha testified that their cell was affiliated with the Los Zetas cartel and that in two years he had funneled hundreds of migrants to the United States and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The eldest Mr. Rocha was sentenced to life imprisonment. Her son and the man who had committed most of the physical abuse were sentenced to 15 and 20 years.

Mr. Ferrera testified at their trial. As a victim of a crime who had assisted law enforcement, he was allowed to stay in the United States. But his new life came at a cost, which he displayed when he held up his right arm for the jury, fingers now lifeless. “That’s how my hand ended,” he said.

Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research.

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