Feature: Wednesday, May 22, 2003
‘Imagine how many people were in that car for it to be so full they had to push her out to close the door.’
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Coyote Cartels

Smuggling immigrants turns into big business and human tragedy.

By Peter Gorman

The sun was blinding. The dusty dirt road that sweltered in the heat could have been almost anywhere along the 2,000 miles of border that — at least theoretically — separates the United States and Mexico. This particular piece of road was just outside Del Rio, part of the section that Victor Sauceda helps patrol. He climbed out of his government-issue SUV to open a padlocked gate in a barbed-wire fence. Less than 100 feet from the gate, the slight rise of a railroad track marks a landscape dotted with scrub brush and cactus. He squinted back at his passenger. “See those train tracks? You think it’s hard to smuggle people here?”

The question needed no answer. The Texas side of this border ranges from farmland to desert to scrubby mountains, but most of it looks like this, and “rich” is not the word that comes to mind. Still, plenty of people have made their fortunes here. There’s always money to be made along a border, finding ways legal or illegal to exploit inequities, to sell to folks on one side what seems greener over the fence. For as long as there’s been a Texas or a Mexico as political entities, someone’s been smuggling something one way or the other — drugs in, electronics out, livestock both ways.

For decades now, drugs have been the carriage trade here, the path to wealth for those who survive. But in the last 10 years, another class of smuggler has also begun making millions along the border. People-smuggling — what used to be a low-key cat-and-mouse game between outnumbered Border Patrol agents and millions of “mice” — has gone big-time. A truckload of cocaine still makes more money for the druglords than a truckload of illegal immigrants does for the people-smuggling cartels. But at upwards of $1,000 per head, a 100-person cargo is nothing to sneeze at. And ironically, the measures that the United States has taken to control the drug trade and to shut down its borders have forced the people-smugglers to become much more sophisticated, more organized, and more profitable than ever.

The two smuggling businesses are closely intertwined; both are dangerous. But, as the tragedies at Victoria and elsewhere along the border have brought home in recent weeks, in the illegal-immigrant business, it’s the “goods,” not the smugglers who are at risk. And when a load is dumped, the human costs are terribly high.

Those tragedies have forced the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (formerly U.S. Customs and the Border Patrol) for the first time to acknowledge the new and more dangerous sophistication of the people-smugglers — the new cartels. This former “mom-and-pop” industry has become a high-stakes game in which smugglers can make millions.

Reuben Patrick Valdes was one of the new breed of smuggling kingpins, the head of an operation that moved more than 200 people a week across the border from Juarez through El Paso, one of the first to use tractor-trailers, an innovator in mass marketing, you might say. When two illegal immigrants died in the back of one of those trucks, Valdes was charged and convicted of heading a smuggling operation that caused the deaths. He faces the possibility of life in prison. After his conviction last month, the Dallas Morning News reported that officials believed Valdes’ prosecution had “put a huge dent in mass smuggling in El Paso and forced many smugglers to return to moving people in smaller groups using cars, vans, and rental trucks.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just last week, in the tragedy that has sickened those on both sides of the border, 19 people died in Victoria as the result of a six-and-a-half-hour ride in the back of a nearly airtight tractor-trailer. Police believe they were part of a group of 100 or more immigrants, each of whom had paid between $1,500 and $2,000 for a trip that may have originated in Reynosa, Mexico, and was to have taken its passengers throughout the U.S.

Nor were the Victoria victims the only group of illegal immigrants discovered near the Texas border in the last several weeks. Two other trucks carrying at least 50 people each were stopped outside McAllen. How many more got through — and how many other illegal immigrants died in the process — is anyone’s guess.

“Just recently we had an incident where we came on a woman who said she’d been pushed from a boxcar full of illegals while it was moving because it was too full to close the door,” said Sauceda, a superintendent in the border bureau’s Del Rio sector. “When my partner and I found her she was crawling along the tracks, yelling for help. She’d already lost her right foot, and I think she lost her right leg after we got her to the hospital. Imagine how many people were in that car for it to be so full they had to push her out to close the door?”

Picture the U.S.-Mexico border as a dam, holding back a northbound current of people — the poor, the persecuted, the ambitious, maybe even terrorists — who are pressing to get to the other side. Until the last decade or so, the dam was more like a sieve or a soaker hose, leaking people all along its length. People didn’t need a lot of help to get across, which meant there wasn’t much profit in it as a business. Now many of the leaks have been caulked. You can’t stop the seepage entirely — there’s a river building up behind that dam — but the flow has been confined to a few relatively intact pipelines.

Now imagine the money to be made if you controlled the floodgates. And if a little of this human current sloshes out and is wasted, so what? There’s always more coming.

During the heyday of the Colombian cocaine cartels in the 1980s and early 1990s, Mexico was an important way station for drugs entering the U.S. Long-established marijuana routes were simply adapted to the needs of cocaine smugglers, who found it easy to move smaller loads of Colombian goods across the border.

Mexico was only a secondary point of entry, however, behind Miami. Florida’s thousands of miles of beaches and the Georgia and Louisiana coastlines were also used. Then there were the East Coast points of entry, from South Carolina to New York and Boston.

But the breakup of the Medellin and Cali cartels in the early 1990s, coupled with tightened security along the southern and eastern U.S. coasts, left Mexico as the No. 1 entry point for Colombian cocaine — and paved the way for a power shift that is still affecting Western Hemisphere history. According to legend, the head of the Juarez cartel, Amado Carillo Fuentes, called several of Colombia’s leading cocaine producers to a meeting and laid out the new reality: Colombia was now dependent on Mexico to move its dope. Mexican trafficantes, therefore, would cease to be highly paid mules and become full partners with the Colombians. Instead of accepting money as payment for their shipping duties, Mexico’s three most powerful drug syndicates — the Gulf, Tijuana, and Juarez cartels — would now take a large cut of the cocaine itself.

The Colombians had no choice but to go along with Fuentes’ plan, and the Mexican cartels — already wealthy beyond dreams — saw their fortunes continue to expand. Colombian heroin, Mexican “brown” heroin, and methamphetamines were soon added to the mix of drugs coming north in large quantities. The Mexican cartels’ new wealth and power turned their country’s endemic corruption into a cancer, reaching to the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari and saturating the Mexican military and police forces.

Alongside the drugs heading to the U.S., however, was a flow of human beings. Businesses on the U.S. side — ranches and farms, builders and restaurants — always need a temporary workforce that can expand during high seasons, then disappear when work slows up. In recent years, companies with factories and warehouses on both sides of the border — NAFTA sweatshops, the locals call them — have joined the mix.

Even a 2000-mile border offers only a limited number of shipping routes. The immigrants were heading north along the same routes the cartels needed and all too often drawing the unwanted attention of U.S. law enforcement. Coexistence required an accommodation — and organized people-smuggling rings were born. People-moving cartels can be told by the drug dealers when and where to cross. The human stream can be diverted to avoid traffic jams — or to create them in ways that help the drug dealers.

“The people-smugglers have become very organized in the past several years,” said Paul Berg, chief of the Del Rio sector of the border protection agency. “The rise of the Mexican border drug cartels forced their hand because both groups need to use the same routes. And often the same guides. So there aren’t a lot of mom-and-pop smugglers left here. There are some, or course, people who are trying to get relatives across and that sort of thing, but most of it is very organized. And as it becomes harder and harder to get through, they’ll become even more organized.”

Berg is an imposing man in his late 50s. He’s as fit as a military recruit, carries himself with absolute assurance, and wears his Sean Connery looks with ease. He’s responsible for about a thousand agents covering 205 miles of border and 59,000 square miles of territory, running north from Val Verde and Uvalde counties more than 300 miles, to Abilene and almost to Fort Worth. While the drug seizure numbers for the sector are up from previous years, apprehensions of immigrants are way down, he said — from about 1,200 on some days a few years ago to an average of 150 to 250 a day now. He attributes the post-9/11 drop to the depressed U.S. economy, with fewer jobs to offer, and to better policing. His agency has been helped along in recent years by new equipment such as sensors monitoring river and road traffic, plus cameras, airboats, and planes.

“You’re never going to stop the flow altogether,” he said. “We can’t really guess how many get through [based on] how many we catch.”

Berg said the smugglers have recruiters all over Mexico and Central America. “If you wanted to get here, you would go to the plaza and ask around for who might help you make it north. ... There will be some known person who arranges transport, and you’ll go to him or her — and there are lots of ‘hers’ — and you’ll arrange a price. Sometimes you’ll pay up front; sometimes you pay half when you start and half later. Sometimes you’ll be allowed to pay the entire cost — generally $1,500 to get as far as San Antonio, and more the further you go — when you arrive. Some of these organizations even offer a guarantee of three tries, so that if you get caught, the same fee includes a second and third chance to get across.

After the price and pay schedule are arranged, he said, “You’ll be told to get to a certain border town on a certain date at such and such a time. There you’ll be told to meet someone named Chacho or whatever, and he’ll see that you get across.

“Of course you may end up in the town, and when you meet your contact you might be given an address to go to, a safe-house on the Mexican side or a hotel, to wait. You might later find that that there are 10 or 20 or even 50 others who have also arrived to meet Chacho, though you won’t know them and may not even meet them on the Mexican side. But sooner or later a guide will get you across the river, and then you’ll march across the land to where you meet your transportation. You won’t know any of this in advance: when you’re going or even if your transportation is a railroad car, a truck, or a bus. You might be picked up just over the border, or you might walk for a few days until you’re past the Border Patrol checkpoints on the roads. You might be driven part of the way to the checkpoint, then let out and walked around it to a point where you can safely get back” into the truck or other transport.

Sauceda describes three types of people-smuggling into Texas. There are the freelancers who simply cross the border on their own, those who hire low-level coyotes to get them from the Mexican side of the Rio Grande to a phone booth on the U.S. side, and those who pay organizations. The first group crosses for free; the second group might pay anywhere from $50 to $300 to an 8-year-old shoeshine boy who knows the routes or a coyote looking for pocket money. But it is the third group that produces the real money.

The truckload of immigrants in the Victoria incident was probably worth between $150,000 and $200,000 in smuggling fees. The driver of that truck, Tyrone Williams, claims he was paid $2,500 to move his cargo from Harlingen to Corpus Christi.

Additional drivers had probably been lined up for equally paltry amounts to move the people to their final destinations. Each of the other truckloads of illegal immigrants stopped earlier outside of McAllen would have been worth about $75,000, agents estimated. More than half of that would stay with the smuggling organization as profit; the rest would go to recruiters, safehouse operators, guides, and finally the transport providers.

In his 205-mile sector of border alone, Berg said, “We think there are between 12 and 18 drug-smuggling organizations and as many as 25 people-smuggling organizations.” Despite the money and attention lavished on the border protection agency in recent years, he is realistic about its failure rate. “Most of our apprehensions are at the border,” Berg said. “For most of these people, if they can get across the river to a safehouse on the U.S. side, they’re home free.”

Getting safely across the river, of course, means avoiding run-ins with drug dealers as well as government agents. Except, of course, on those occasions when the drug dealers use the immigrant-smugglers for their own ends. The relationship between the drug and people-moving cartels is not one of equals. It is one of hunter to bloodhound, rich buyer to poor merchant — and general to expendable foot soldier. The people-smugglers do what they’re told, border sources said.

A few decades ago, drug-runners and people-smugglers were often the same folks. But those innocent, disorganized days are mostly over. “You wouldn’t want amateurs moving your drugs,” Victor Sauceda said. “You have professionals for that.”

On the other hand, said retired Border Patrol agent Wayne Weimers, drug-runners often use the coyotes. “Drug smugglers often use alien smugglers who know the routes, just to find out what the routes are, and then they go via different routes.” And, he said, “High-level drug smugglers would hire high-dollar people smugglers to get them around the checkpoints” and get needed papers. Weimers retired in 2002 after 28 years in the Marfa and Presidio areas, much of that time on joint DEA-Border Patrol task forces.

Sometimes, the one-way communication is just to get the people-movers out of the way.

“Down here our smuggling route for both people and drugs is I-35. Both types of organizations use that, but generally, when someone is moving a load of drugs through we won’t see illegals on the same night,” said Officer Al Moreno, who works intelligence for the border patrol’s Laredo station. “Perhaps they’ve been alerted, but it’s just as possible that if there was a group of illegals planning on crossing the river at a certain point and they saw someone unloading a truck nearby, they would assume it was marijuana or other drugs, and they wouldn’t cross,” he said. “They’d know that drug dealers generally have guns or weapons to protect their loads and would be scared off by that.

“Sometimes the drug dealers even send a boat down the Rio Grande during the day with armed men on it as a signal to the coyotes ... that it isn’t a good night to make a crossing,” he said.

Moreno and others said that, infrequently, illegal aliens are asked to carry small quantities of cocaine or heroin across the border, as part of their payment for the trip. Other times, the would-be immigrants are given drugs to carry for another reason.

“The drug market has changed the smuggling market a great deal, but not necessarily how you think,” said Carlton Jones, public information officer for the Del Rio sector of the border protection agency. “The drug cartels frequently use [illegal aliens as] mules with the intent that they are cannon fodder to occupy the border patrol in order to get the larger shipments through.”

Chief Berg agreed. “Any time one of our agents comes on an illegal with drugs we can assume that 1) there are other drugs coming through elsewhere, and he’s been given up to distract us; or 2) a drug dealer is testing a new crossing point,” he said. “Then a lot of the drug smugglers, big ones, will give up a load of people, and right behind it is a big load of drugs. And if you get the border patrol all bogged down with those people, that load can come right in.”

Sauceda, a supervisor in Berg’s sector, used to work with specially trained dogs at an inland immigration checkpoint. “One of the things drug smugglers would do would be to put a couple of people [illegal aliens] in the back of a car. Then at the checkpoint my dog would signal that something was there, either drugs or people... . Then, while we were busy with that car, maybe a few cars back would be a truck with drugs in a hidden compartment. It didn’t work too often for them though, because we liked to have more than one dog working at a time.”

Federal agencies differ widely in their estimates of how many illegal immigrants are living in the United States. But even the most conservative guess, from the Census Bureau, is a staggering 7 million people. Veteran border agents suggest the real number may be 15 million or even higher.

Not all of those come in across the Mexican border, and not all use coyotes or cartels to get them here. Still, it’s safe to assume that coyotes and their organizations make millions of dollars each week along the Texas border alone. Beyond the cartels and the immigrants themselves, who benefits from this north-flowing river or people? Obviously, lots of employers, especially those unable or unwilling to pay health insurance for full-time workers, or higher wages or U.S.-born workers. Everything from the price of dining out to construction work is affected.

There is also a surprising beneficiary: the Social Security Administration. Millions of illegal immigrants are currently working with fake, stolen, or copied Social Security cards. And every one working for a legitimate employer has 6 percent of his or her paycheck sent to Social Security — though none of them will ever be able to receive a penny of what they contributed. The math comes to $20 or more weekly for every $300 earned, or about $1,000 annually per worker. For every million illegal workers paying in to Social Security, that’s a free billion for the government.

On the Mexican side of the border, the families of the workers are the big winners, as well as the Mexican economy overall — one reason nobody on this side is bragging about the cooperation they get from the Mexican government in stopping illegal immigration.

“Let’s say it’s not a bad strategy to get rid of your unemployed and send them somewhere where they’ll send back money,” Berg said. “The sending of money from the U.S. to Mexico is now considered, I believe, the third-largest revenue producer in Mexico behind oil and tourism.” The estimated $50 billion cross-border drug trade “isn’t counted as a legitimate revenue producer, but if they did, of course, it would be number one.”

The people-moving cartels may not be as rich as the drug kingpins, but their millions are still enough to buy a lot of friends, from federal officials on both sides of the border to ranchers and farmers whose land the immigrants must cross.

In Mexico and throughout much of Central and South America, corruption is openly a part of the fabric of society. But it is a large and growing problem on the U.S. side of the border as well — particularly in connection with drugs, but also involving the illegal alien trade.

Members of the Gulf Cartel have testified that kingpin Juan Garcia Abrego, for several years, used Immigration and Naturalization Services buses that were returning from taking illegal aliens back to Mexico to transport loads of cocaine. Not surprisingly, the buses were never examined at border checkpoints.

“Of course there’s corruption here,” admitted Chief Berg. “But I don’t think there is a lot of it, and I think that’s partly because the Border Patrol has such a rigorous training program. I think we weed them out early. But then some people will always fall.”

None of the laws or strategies the United States has tried through the years to stop the flow of illegal aliens across the Mexican border has ever had much success — partly because the immigrants are badly needed to take the jobs and the pay scales that American citizens don’t seem to want.

The cost of fighting illegal immigration is, of course, huge, especially in the post-9/11 era — and perhaps as important, in the NAFTA era, when free trade rules have greatly boosted smuggling of all kinds.

The U.S. court system could be another victim, if the government tried to prosecute even a small percentage of those who are caught crossing illegally. Most get a little jail time and a voluntary or forced repatriation.

“As a rule, if no one dies [in an immigration crime] the jail time is minimal at best,” Sauceda said. His boss, Chief Berg, echoed his point: “Can you imagine trying to prosecute 1.5 million cases in the courts annually? We simply can’t do it.”

Sauceda explained that almost no one in the people-smuggling cartels, from the recruiters to the bosses, ever gets much jail time, unless a death is involved. Agents usually don’t even know who the coyotes are in a group, Sauceda said. “They make it a habit to blend in with the people they’re guiding. And the people being smuggled will probably have been threatened not to give them up.”

Tightened border security, with increased manpower and technology, has in turn made the coyote trade more dangerous and more lucrative than ever. Saucedo said that people-smuggling is getting so lucrative and generally carries such a minimal legal threat that “I’ve heard of cases where some drug smugglers are considering switching to people. For them it’s all the same anyway. It’s a game. They want to try to get past me and I want to catch them. Cat and mouse. For the smugglers, anyway.”

The final toll of the immigrant-smuggling business, of course, is the highest for the immigrants who pay with their lives for the crime of trying to find a better life. Victims of the Victoria tragedy included husbands, wives, a 5-year-old child, and a 91-year-old grandfather. And though the 19 deaths there may make it the most deadly immigration incident in U.S. history, they will by no means be the only deaths like that this year. Since 1999, more than 300 people a year have died trying to get to new jobs and lives. The toll is already at 80 for the first quarter of this year, most due to drowning.

Sauceda, who has worked out in the brush tracking illegal immigrants for 17 years, thinks those numbers are conservative. “We have no idea of how many are dead. You know when we know someone died? When they die in a truck or locked in a train and we get word of it. We find dead people when we get a call from a relative in Mexico that someone who was expected to call when they got to San Antonio hasn’t called and we go looking, or when we find a body in the river. But we have no real idea of how many were left to die by the guides, how many ran out of water or food, or simply got lost out in the desert. If nobody tells us where to look, it’s not likely we’ll stumble on them. Sometimes a rancher might give us a call when he finds remains, but then how many die and are eaten by coyotes? Could be dozens or even hundreds we miss every year,” he said. “You just see so much death in this job.”

A border agent from another sector, who asked that his name not be used, said that even those who are found sometimes don’t make it into the statistics. “Officially we have to report deaths. Unofficially, nobody likes to hear about them, partly because there’s nothing you can do about them and partly because they bring unwanted attention to border work.” And, he said, there’s seldom any way to know if a death was due to illegal immigration. “So unofficially, sometimes you come on a bone or a pile of bones in the desert, and it’s just easier to throw dirt or rocks on it and say a prayer and forget you ever found it. There’s lots of little rock piles out there in the desert.”

Peter Gorman is a local freelance writer. He can be reached at peterg9@yahoo.com.


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