Special Reports

Express Smuggling: Cartels use buses to make millions moving migrants

Special report Smugglers diversify...

EL PASO, Texas - Drug cartels are diversifying. After years of shipping illicit drugs across the border, the new cargo is fueling a humanitarian crisis.

The cover of night and remote desert are no longer critical for smugglers who traffic hundreds of undocumented immigrants every week. New, innovative tactics have cut a six-to-eight week trip north down to 7-10 days.

Many of those smugglers are now dumping older, time-consuming approaches, no longer taking someone across the border and getting them past the internal checkpoints.

Instead, they now simply drop their human-cargo off at the border, leaving it up to the migrants to turn themselves in to request asylum with U.S. immigration authorities.

The drug cartels are finding new, more efficient ways to do it.

The surge is overwhelming border patrol and migrant support systems. One of the biggest resources are buses, the now-prefered transportion method for those heading north. Before, migrants would hop onboard a train known as "La Bestia" and their route to the U.S. 

Cartels used them to feed the Antelope Wells route in the New Mexico bootheel from October to January.

"The traditional route is anywhere from 6-8 weeks long, because the person is either walking, taking buses, hitchhiking," Tucson Border Patrol Sector Chief Roy Villarreal told ABC-7.

The largest of caravans held several thousand people, but caravans are spread out over time.

"Now they have an effective mechanism via the smugglers to get from Central America all the way up the US-Mexico border," Villarreal said.

The new trip is taking just over a week. Also gone are the days of coyote who would live next to the border and smuggle undocumented immigrants into the U.S., said Professor Jesus Peña, who surveys deported migrants.

"The days are long gone when you would see the coyote - or pollero - as a local person here at the border who knew a route through the desert, or a spot in the fence where people could cross, charging them $200," Peña said.

Those same neighborhood smugglers could pinpoint Border Patrol patterns and areas along the fence where people could climb over or cut through easily.

Just $200 would get you across then. Today, the new and effective bus systems have turned into giant money machines for criminal organizations.

"Whether it's a criminal enterprise, which is the case with these transnational criminal organizations, or a business, their effort is to generate as much profit as possible," Villarreal said.

"It's just like a company. You're out there looking for raw materials. You're advertising that, and then you have to bring them across, so there's some transportation on that," said UTEP border security professor Victor Manjarrez, "To be able to charge them those higher rates, you have to teach them: you're going to claim credible fear. You're going to coach them on that."

The cartels are allegedly operating the same way large corporations do, using synergy to have different enterprise aspects support each other. "The aspect of illegal migration is usually utilized to distract agents, to pull them away from an area and create a vulnerability, whereupon the drug trafficking organizations will then exploit that," Villarreal said.

Traffic along the Tucson sector border is a mix of humans and drugs, and cartels use each side to facilitate the other. Every aspect of human smuggling helps rake in millions, even for those who simply control the river access near McAllen, Texas.

"They own the pathway across the river. They own the pieces of wood that you lay out over the river. In 2017, that was $100 million. And that's not even doing anything illegal. That's $100 million just saying you can cross through my area. God knows what that number is now," Manjarrez said.

So how much money are the cartels making?

It is unclear  how many people are being bussed into Juarez, but one can come up with an estimate using the old Antelope Wells numbers. Antelope Wells was seeing 100-300 migrants twice a week. If one goes with an average of 400 a week, at the general reported $5,000 per person, the cartels using that route had $2 million each week.

The smugglers using that same route have now shifted their system to the El Paso-Juarez metro area. 

"These same migrants won't say they've been smuggled. Yes they're human trafficking victims, but they're paying and consenting victims.  They don't look at it as a crime. They say 'oh well he wasn't a smuggler, oh no he just helped me cross'," Manjarrez said.

"We've reached a balance point where Juarez can't absorb more migrants and still guarantee dignified treatment," Peña said.

While lawmakers have described these migration levels as the new normal, Mexico is beginning to crack down on migration through the country.

"It's pretty powerful what a smuggler is selling. They're not selling the entry into the United States, they're selling hope. And hope will make people do incredible things," Manjarrez said.

That hope drives express bus smuggling, along with the dozens of other routes smugglers use to entice people away from their homes to the north.
 


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