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Migrant smuggling at the border now a billion-dollar business

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CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas – From the street, the little brown house was unobtrusive yet pleasant. A bright yellow toy school bus and a red truck hung from the pig’s wire fence, and on the front of the house was a large lone star from Texas. 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 from Maryland called to report that his stepfather, Moises Ferrera, a migrant from Honduras, was being held there and tortured by the smugglers who had brought him to the United States. His captors wanted more money, the stepson said, hitting Mr Ferrera’s hands repeatedly with a hammer and promising to keep going until his family would send it.

When federal agents and sheriffs arrived at the house, they discovered that Mr. Ferrara was not the only victim. Smugglers had held hundreds of migrants there for ransom, their investigation found. They had mutilated limbs and raped women.

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

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

The deaths of 53 migrants in San Antonio last month who sat in the back of an air-conditioned suffocating tractor-trailer — 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 prompted more migrants. to turn to smugglers.

While migrants have long faced kidnapping and extortion in Mexican border towns, such incidents are on the rise on the US side, according to federal authorities.

Last year, more than 5,046 people were arrested and charged with human smuggling, compared to 2,762 in 2014.

For the past year, federal agents have raided shelters containing dozens of migrants almost daily.

Title 42, the public health order put in place by the Trump administration at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, has authorized the immediate eviction of those caught illegally crossing the border, allowing migrants to cross repeatedly in the hopes of eventually succeeding . This has led to a significant escalation in the number of encounters with migrants at the border – 1.7 million in fiscal 2021 – and brisk trade for smugglers.

In March, officers near El Paso rescued 34 migrants from two freight containers without ventilation in one day. The following month, 24 people held against their will were found in a storehouse.

Law enforcement officers have recently launched so many high-speed chases for smugglers in Uvalde, Texas — there were nearly 50 such “rescue” operations in the city between February and May — that some school officials said they weren’t taking a lockdown order seriously amid a mass shooting. in May because so many previous lockdowns had been ordered as smugglers ran through the streets.

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

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

For years, independent coyotes cartels paid a tax to transport migrants through the area they controlled along the border, and the criminal syndicates stuck to their traditional business, drug smuggling, which was much more profitable.

That started 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 trying to cross the border made migrant smuggling an irresistible moneymaker for some cartels, he said.

The companies have teams specializing in logistics, transportation, security, warehousing and accounting — all of which support an industry whose revenues have grown to an estimated $13 billion today from $500 million in 2018, according to the federal agency Homeland Security Investigations. that investigates such cases.

Migrants are transported by plane, bus and private vehicles. In some border regions, such as the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, smugglers put color-coded bands on migrants’ wrists to indicate they are theirs and what services they are receiving.

“They organize the merchandise in ways you could never imagine five or ten years ago,” said Ms. Correa-Cabrera.

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

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

Smugglers often hire teenagers to transport arrivals to stables in working-class areas. After gathering several dozen people, they load the migrants into trucks parked in Laredo’s huge warehouse district around Killam Industrial Boulevard.

“Drivers are recruited at bars, strip bars, truck stops,” said Timothy Tubbs, who was deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations for Laredo until he retired in January.

Rigs carrying migrants mingle with the 20,000 trucks that travel daily on I-35 highway to and from Laredo, the country’s busiest land port. Border police officers at checkpoints inspect only a fraction of all vehicles to ensure traffic continues to flow.

The tractor-trailer discovered with its tragic cargo on June 27 had passed a checkpoint about 50 kilometers north of Laredo without arousing suspicion. By the time it stopped three hours later on a remote road in San Antonio, 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 that the air conditioning system was faulty.

The 2014 Texas warehouse incident resulted in the arrest of the perpetrators and subsequent trial, providing an unusually vivid picture of the brutal tactics of smuggling operations. While kidnapping and extortion is a regular occurrence, such trials involving cooperating witnesses are relatively rare, federal law enforcement officials say. Fearing deportation, undocumented relatives of kidnapped migrants rarely call the authorities.

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

Mr. Ferrera, 54, a torture victim, first migrated to the United States in 1993, en route to construction sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco, earning more than 10 times what he earned back in Honduras. A few years later he returned home.

“At that time you didn’t need a coyote,” he said in an interview from his home in Maryland. “I came and went a few 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 escort him all the way to Houston. Mr Ferrera’s stepson, Mario Pena, said he transferred $1,500 as payment.

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

Before long, Mr Ferrera’s stepson was called and demanded 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 let him hear the sound of his stepfather’s screams and moans as a hammer landed on his fingers.

Mr Pena managed to transfer $2,000 through Western Union, he said, but when the kidnappers realized they couldn’t collect the money because it was a Sunday, they intensified their attacks.

Mr. Pena called 911.

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

Another migrant, stripped down to his underwear, writhed in pain, his clubbed hand held up, in the front bedroom. In the back bedroom, officers found a naked woman, another migrant, who had just been raped by a smuggler who came out of the bathroom naked.

The owner of the house, Eduardo Rocha Sr., who passed by Lalo and was identified as the leader of the smuggling gang, was arrested along with several others, including his son, Eduardo Rocha Jr. The younger Mr Rocha testified that their cell was affiliated with the Los Zetas cartel and that over the course of two years it had led hundreds of migrants to the United States and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The elder Mr Rocha was sentenced to life in prison. His son and the man who committed the most physical assaults were sentenced to 15 and 20 years in prison.

mr. Ferrera testified at their trial. As a victim of a crime aided by the police, he was allowed to remain in the United States. But his new life had brought a prize, which he showed when he raised his right arm before the jury, fingers now lifeless. “This is how my hand ended,” he said.

Susan C. Beachy research contributed.

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