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Border smuggling of migrants is now a billion-dollar business

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Cariso Springs, Texas — From the street, the little brown house was unobtrusive but comfortable. A bright yellow toy school bus and a red truck hung on a pig fence, and the façade of the house had a large Texas lonely star on it. However, in the backyard was a mobile home with internal organs, which the prosecutor later described as a “house of horror.”

One day in 2014, a man called from Maryland and reported that his stepfather, an immigrant from Honduras, Moises Ferrera, was detained there and tortured by a smuggler who brought him to the United States. It was discovered when I did. His prisoner wanted more money, his son-in-law said, and repeatedly clapping Mr. Ferrera’s hand with a hammer, vowing to continue until his family sent it.

When federal agents and sheriffs’ agents landed home, they discovered that Mr Ferrara was not the only victim. Smugglers were detaining hundreds of migrants there for ransom, their investigation found. They amputated their limbs and raped the woman.

Prosecutor Matthew Watters told the jury when the accused smuggler was brought to justice, “what happened there was a science fiction, a horror movie, and something not seen in the United States.” .. The organized crime cartel “brought this horror across national borders,” he said.

But if it was one of the first such cases, it wasn’t the last. Smuggling of migrants on the southern US border has been controlled by organized crime over the last decade, including some of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels from a scattered network of freelance “coyote” It has developed into a billion-dollar international business.

The death of 53 immigrants crammed behind an unair-conditioned choking tractor trailer in San Antonio last month was the most deadly smuggling incident in the country to date, worsened by pandemic-related public U.S. border regulations. It was brought as an enhancement of. Health regulations have encouraged more migrants to look to smugglers.

Immigrants have long faced kidnapping and blackmail in cities on the Mexican border, according to federal officials, but such incidents are on the rise on the US side.

Last year, more than 5,046 people were arrested and charged with trafficking. This is an increase from 2,762 in 2014.

Over the past year, federal agents have attacked dozens of migrant stashes almost every day.

Title 42, a public health order introduced by the Trump administration at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, approves the immediate expulsion of illegally cross-border captives, hoping that immigrants will ultimately succeed. Allows you to cross repeatedly. This has significantly increased the number of encounters with migrants at the border (1.7 million in 2021) and has boosted smugglers’ business.

In March, agents near El Paso rescued 34 migrants from two freight containers in one day without ventilation. The following month, 24 people who had been detained against their will were found in a hiding place.

Border patrol agents have recently been engaged in high-speed tracking of so many smugglers in Yuvalde, Texas, with some school staff due to nearly 50 “relief” in the town between February and May. Was a gunfire incident in May after so many previous blockades were ordered when smugglers ran through the streets.

Teofilo Valencia, whose 17- and 19-year-old boys died in the tragedy of San Antonio, said he had taken out a loan to his parents’ home to pay smugglers $ 10,000 for his son’s transportation.

According to George Mason University smuggling expert Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, fees typically range from $ 4,000 for immigrants from Latin America to $ 20,000 for immigrants from Africa, Eastern Europe, or Asia. Is the range of.

For years, independent coyote paid cartels taxes to move immigrants through the territories they control along the border, and criminal gangs stick to their traditional business, drug smuggling. Did, and it was much more informative.

It began to change around 2019, Patrick Lechleitner, deputy director of the US Immigration and Customs Department, told Congress last year. He said a huge number of people trying to cross smuggled migrants to attractive money-makers for some cartels.

Companies have teams that specialize in logistics, transportation, surveillance, stashes, and accounting. All of these support an industry that has skyrocketed from $ 500 million in 2018 to an estimated $ 13 billion today. Homeland Security, a federal agency investigating such cases.

Immigrants travel by plane, bus or private car. In some border areas, such as Tamaulipas, Mexico, smugglers put color-coded bands on migrant wrists to indicate they belong to them and the services they receive.

“They organize their products in ways that were unimaginable five or ten years ago,” says Correa-Cabrera.

A group of Central American families who recently crossed the Rio Grande River into Lajoya, Texas, wore a Gulf Cartel logo, dolphins, and a blue bracelet with the words “entregas” or “deliverys.” Call for authorities and asylum. After they crossed the river, they were no longer a cartel job.

Previously, immigrants entering Laredo, Texas, crossed the river themselves and disappeared into a dense urban landscape. Currently, according to interviews with immigrants and law enforcement officials, it is impossible to cross without paying a coyote connected to the Cartel del Noreste, a fragment of the Los Zetas Syndicate.

Smugglers often hire teenagers to transport what arrives in a working-class neighborhood hiding place. After gathering dozens of people, they load migrants into trucks parked in Laredo’s vast warehouse district around Kiram Industrial Boulevard.

“Drivers are recruited at bars, strip joints and track stops,” said Timothy Tabs, a deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations in Laredo until his retirement in January.

Immigrant-carrying rigs are mixed with 20,000 trucks that travel daily on the I-35 highway to and from Laredo, the country’s busiest land port. Border patrol agents stationed at checkpoints inspect only a small portion of all vehicles to ensure that traffic continues to flow.

The tractor trailer, discovered on June 27 with tragic cargo, passed the checkpoint about 30 miles north of Laredo without suspicion. Three hours later, by the time it stopped on a remote road in San Antonio, most of the 64 people inside had already died.

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

The 2014 incident in a Texas hiding place resulted in the arrest of the perpetrator and subsequent trials, giving a very clear view of the brutal tactics of smuggling operations. Although kidnapping and blackmail occur with some frequency, federal law enforcement officials say such trials by cooperating witnesses are relatively rare. Undocumented relatives of kidnapped migrants rarely call authorities for fear of deportation.

The incident began in the country of Thick Brush, eight miles from Rio Grande in Cariso Springs, a popular transit point for those trying to escape detection. “You can hide a million elephants here. This brush is very thick,” said Jerry Martinez, captain of the Dimit County Sheriff’s Office.

A victim of torture, Ferrera, 54, first moved to the United States in 1993 and traveled to construction sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco, earning more than ten times what she earned in Honduras. He went home a few years later.

“At that time you didn’t need a coyote,” he said in an interview from his home in Maryland. “I went back and forth several times.”

When he departed in early 2014, he knew he had to hire a smuggler to break the border. In Piedras Negras, Mexico, a man promised to take him to Houston. Ferrera’s stepson, Mario Pena, said she had sent $ 1,500 in payment.

After arriving in Texas, Ferrera and several other immigrants were delivered to the Carriso Springs trailer.

Eventually, Ferrera’s son-in-law received a call requesting an additional $ 3,500. He said he had no money anymore.

Calls became more frequent and intimidating, Pena recalled in an interview. The smuggler let him hear his uncle screaming and moaning as the hammer came down on his finger.

Mr Pena managed to send $ 2,000 via Western Union, but they intensified the assault when the prisoners realized they couldn’t collect cash because it was Sunday.

Pena called 911.

According to the testimony of one of the law enforcement agents, Jonathan Bond, the law enforcement agency told Ferrera in a trailer in the living room that “a large amount of blood spilled everywhere in him, causing serious and serious physical harm. I added it. “

Another immigrant had stripped off his underwear and was writhing in pain. His beaten hand was raised high in the front bedroom. In the back bedroom, the agent encountered another immigrant, a naked woman, who had just been raped by a smuggler who appeared naked from the bathroom.

Eduardo Rocha Sr., the owner of a house that passed by Laro and was identified as the leader of the smuggling ring, was arrested along with several others, including his son Eduardo Rocha Jr. The Los Zetas cartel and it sent hundreds of immigrants to the United States in two years, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Elder Rocha was sentenced to life imprisonment. A man who carried out most of his son and physical abuse was sentenced to 15 and 20 years in prison.

Mr Ferrera testified in their trial. He was allowed to stay in the United States as a victim of crimes that helped law enforcement. But his new life came at a price. He showed it when he lifted his right arm for the jury. His fingers are now dead. “This is how my hands are done,” he said.

Susan C. Beach Contributed to the research.