Mexican Drug Cartels Move Into Human Smuggling

Mexican drug cartels move into human smuggling

David Francis
San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service
Monday, March 31, 2008

(03-31) 04:00 PDT Agua Prieta, Mexico — At the Center to Aid Migrants in Exodus shelter, would-be immigrants to the United States shared stories of violence at the hands of human smugglers working for drug cartels.

“You used to be able to walk across” the border, said Javier Corazon, 48, who says he lived in Tucson for decades before being deported two years ago. “Now you never know what's going to happen. They may leave you, beat you or worse.”

The 30 or so beds at the shelter in this small Mexican town near the Arizona border were filled mostly with Mexicans and a few Central Americans, some of whom remain determined to cross the border.

“The only thing they have to look forward to when dealing with the 'coyotes' is more abuse,” said Rosa Soto Moreno, a shelter volunteer.

Immigrants as commodities

As U.S. border security has tightened, Mexican drug cartels have moved in on coyotes, human smugglers who are paid to bring illegal immigrants into the United States. The traffickers now use their expertise in gathering intelligence on border patrols, logistics and communication devices to get around ever tighter controls. They are slowly gaining control of much of the illegal passage of immigrants from Mexico to the United States, U.S. border officials say.

“This used to be a family business. The coyote and the migrant were from the same town; they were connected,” said Carlos Vlez-Ibez, chair of the department of transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o studies at Arizona State University. “Now, because of the so-called security needs of the border, what's been created is this structure of smuggling in the hands of really nasty people who only treat the migrant as a commodity.”

U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Special Agent Joe Romero and other law enforcement officials say the Mexican drug cartels have even merged human smuggling with drug trafficking, forcing immigrants to act as “mules” in transporting drugs as the price of passage.

“The drug cartels have determined this is big business,” Romero said as he overlooked a narrow strip of desert between El Paso, Texas, and the nearby Mexican city of Ciudad Jurez. Drug cartels “control these corridors. Just like we're watching them here, they're watching us. … It used to be, 'Get across the fence and run.' Now it's a lot more organized.”

Moreover, crimes committed by drug gangs that have become common in Mexico are now crossing the border, police officials say. Phoenix Police Cmdr. Joe Klima notes that 350 kidnappings were recorded in the city last year, a crime he describes as previously nonexistent.

Another cartel novelty is the numbers of “drop houses” – homes on the U.S. side where illegal immigrants take refuge after crossing the border. Last year, Phoenix authorities discovered a record amount – 163 such sites – according to Alonzo Pea, special agent-in-charge of the Phoenix Office of Investigations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Not surprisingly, Arizona police say there have been numerous reports of violence committed at drop houses, usually when immigrants fail to pay the entire fee. Pea says many typically pay half in Mexico and half after they cross the border.

Phoenix tries new strategy

Klima and Pea say tighter border controls in Texas have made Arizona a more popular spot for crossing the border, forcing them to change tactics. In the past, officials mainly targeted illegal immigrants for deportation. Now Klima says Phoenix police are relying on a new strategy: reaching out to illegal residents for information on the infrastructure behind the human smuggling business.

Some analysts say that program may be in jeopardy after Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon's recent decision to allow police to ask a suspect his or her immigration status – a reversal of a 10-year-old policy – which may make many illegal immigrants reluctant to talk to police. Phoenix is the only major U.S. city that allows its police to ask criminal suspects for residency status.

Meanwhile, drug cartel coyotes from Texas to California are playing an increasingly sophisticated game of cat-and-mouse, of surveillance and countersurveillance, with U.S. authorities, border agents say. When coyotes are caught, violence against U.S. officials is becoming more common. Romero says that even though illegal immigration and crime has decreased in the El Paso area, attacks on U.S. agents have increased by 150 percent.

The rampant violence on both sides of the border has not gone unnoticed by the governments of both nations.

Just last week, Mexican President Felipe Calderon sent 2,500 soldiers and federal agents to Ciudad Jurez to tamp down a bloody drug war. In October, Calderon and President Bush announced the Merida Initiative, a $550 million aid program to help fight transnational crime and drug cartels, and to improve border security. The White House calls the plan a “new paradigm for security” between the two countries.

But some Democrats have not embraced the initiative. They are upset that they were not consulted and that Mexico receives financial aid while funding for the federal Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program, which provides money for local drug task forces in the United States, has been cut from $520 million to $170 million.

“As long as there is demand for illegal narcotics in the United States, suppliers will sell their cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin on our streets,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said at a February congressional subcommittee hearing on the plan. “So we have to fight the scourge here at home just as we help our partners to the south address the problem in their countries.”

Coyote abandon immigrants

Back at the Agua Prieta shelter, some would-be immigrants to the United States complained that coyote fees had increased dramatically, from $500 in 1993 to $2,500. Others said the coyotes left them at the first sign of the U.S. Border Patrol or when weather conditions worsened. With most of their money in the hands of the coyotes, they had little choice but to return to Mexico.

Gabriel Clemente, 34, said he is looking for work on the Mexican side because of high coyote fees and the increased difficulty in getting across the border without assistance.

Corazon, the migrant worker who lived for years in Arizona, has decided to stay in Agua Prieta, earning $80 a month unloading boxes of food. “This is home now,” he said.