People Smuggling Now Big Business in Mexico

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 17, 2001; Page A01

MEXICO CITY, May 16 – Immigrant smuggling on the U.S.-Mexican border, once dominated by local "coyotes" charging relatively small sums to guide Mexicans into the United States, has become a multibillion-dollar industry increasingly controlled by large, well-organized syndicates.

Officials in Mexico and the United States say the evolution of the smuggling industry along the 2,100-mile border has come largely in response to more aggressive U.S. efforts to control illegal immigration. Since 1994, those efforts have included doubling the number of U.S. Border Patrol guards, to 8,800, new triple fences, infrared night scopes, underground sensors and klieg lights to illuminate potential crossing points.

As the odds of being caught have climbed, smugglers' fees have risen dramatically, from about $300 a person a few years ago to between $1,500 and $2,000. Most of the 1.6 million Mexicans apprehended by the Border Patrol last year – and an unknown number of others who got through – are believed to have paid the higher fees charged under the new border math.

Mexican officials recently formed a special intelligence unit to target human smuggling and are investigating at least two dozen human smuggling gangs. Felipe de Jesus Preciado Coronado, head of Mexico's National Immigration Institute, said in an interview that the government has identified at least 57 organized smuggling bands.

President Bush and his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, have vowed to work together to create new mechanisms to control legal immigration. Both leaders say they want to reduce illegal immigration, which puts the lives of millions of poor Mexicans at risk and turns them into prey for profiteers along both sides of the border.

"We are seeing trends we never saw in the past," said Jim Chaparro, head of the anti-smuggling office at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). He said the once small and informal smuggling business has evolved into a powerful web of "literally hundreds of syndicates, some at a low-level and some at the kingpin level."

Interviews with more than 20 immigration specialists on both sides of the border suggest that small-scale coyotes are still active but that as human smuggling has become more difficult, gangs have become more organized and wealthy. Increasingly, they have members on both sides of the border. They also occasionally employ people solely to get arrested, taking the time and attention of U.S. border officials so that high-paying customers can sneak across.

The equipment used by coyotes – a flashlight for a nighttime wade across the Rio Grande – has been replaced by encrypted radios, cell phones that are discarded and changed every few hours and the Internet. Smugglers communicate across the border by radio or e-mail, signaling movements of U.S. patrol agents or the arrival of a new batch of people preparing to cross.

The smuggling groups that charge the most offer more sophisticated services, including computer-generated fake documents or stolen valid visas and passports, which help people waltz through U.S. entry gates without having to attempt dangerous desert crossings. Others offer inventive ways to be driven across. Recently arrested smugglers, for instance, had installed benches inside a diesel tank truck. Others had squeezed people into portable toilets being carried on trucks.

Of particular worry is a deeper smuggling network inside the United States, including drop houses where immigrants are kept, often against their will, until they pay off smuggling fees. Gustavo Lopez Castro, a Mexican sociologist who has interviewed many smugglers, said they range from part-timers to "gangs and gangsters using beepers and cell phones, airports and buses."

"Now they buy airline tickets for these people and give them clothes when they cross the border," Lopez said.

He said one smuggling ring he saw put illegal Chinese immigrants on tour buses in Mexico so they appeared to be tourists. He said the group had contacts in the United States, Europe and Asia.

That is further evidence that the organizations are increasingly helping non-Mexicans illegally enter the United States. About 28,000 people from Syria, Poland, Russia and China and a list of other non-Latin countries were apprehended last year on the border, according to the INS. In the early 1990s, that number was generally around 16,000 a year.

Mexican officials said that along the U.S. border in the state of Baja California last year, illegal immigrants from 40 countries were apprehended. Preciado said Mexican immigration officials recently caught a South Korean smuggler taking illegal Chinese immigrants across the border and an Ecuadoran smuggler taking across people from Central America.

"When you look at the border, it looks like a large pilgrimage," he said.

Migrants from Asia and Europe pay far more than Mexicans, upwards of $50,000 to get into the United States.

"The flow of illegals has become much more organized, and that has opened the opportunity for these [smuggling] groups to market their services to non-Mexicans," said Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, director of the Mexico project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.S. officials say some human smuggling groups are starting to mirror the structure and methods of drug smugglers. Just as rival drug gangs often steal from each other, Chaparro said, "gangs are ripping off aliens [from other smugglers] and holding aliens captive until they sell them to a buyer." The buyer is usually a relative or an employer.

In the past, studies found no links between drug smugglers and human smugglers. That was believed to be a key reason, along with the fact that coyotes were generally not well organized, that law enforcement resources were far more focused on drug smuggling. But Chaparro said he believes there is a "a lot of overlap." Aware that U.S. courts tend to dole out far stiffer penalties for importing drugs than smuggling people, he said, "A lot of drug smugglers have turned to alien smuggling."

Robert Harris, associate director of the U.S. Border Patrol, said some groups do not care what they smuggle as long as it pays well.

The United States has busted several smuggling rings recently. The FBI in Los Angeles earlier this month announced the arrest of 11 people on charges of running a human smuggling ring that brought hundreds of Ukrainians across the Mexican border into California.

According to that indictment, these smugglers recruited people in Kiev and flew them to Mexico, providing them with valid Mexican visas and some training in English. Many crossed on foot or by boat near Tijuana. They were each charged $7,000 or more and some were put on flights to jobs in U.S. cities.

Smugglers also are more likely to be armed and violent. There have been many cases in Mexico of coyotes robbing and raping their customers or abandoning them before they ever reach the border. In the past year, on a stretch of the border near Tucson, 100 incidents of violence against the Border Patrol have been recorded.

"As the stakes have gone higher, alien smugglers have gotten much more desperate," said the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow. "There is more money and drugs involved and more violence against the Border Patrol. . . . It's pretty dangerous up there."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company