Smugglers' highway

On the Mexican border with Arizona, evidence points to a rise in smuggled migrants

At Casa Guadalupe, a 40-bed migrants' inn a stone's throw from the metal wall dividing this gritty Mexican border town from the United States, Felipe Portillo is encouraging his two small sons to settle down and rest up for the big night ahead.

"We're making this sacrifice so the boys can learn English and have a better future," says Mr. Portillo, who is paying $6,000 to smugglers to get his family of four from a suburb of Mexico City to Chicago, where a factory job awaits him.

Giggling and jumping from bunk to bunk in one of the inn's barracks-style rooms, the Portillo boys appear unaware that in a few hours smugglers will try to slip them across the Arizona desert into the US - first on foot, then by transport to an initial safe house.

The boys will become part of a growing illegal industry that US and Mexican officials say is beginning to rival arms and even narcotics trafficking for its sophistication, profitability - and cruelty. People smuggling is a growing global scourge, with the United States one of the smugglers' top destinations.

Increasingly, Mexican migrants are dying as they attempt to enter the US illegally, and communities especially along the US-Mexico border are seeing human misery and violence rise as smuggling rings work to hold on to their lucrative business.

"When you see the conditions [migrants] are subjected to by smugglers and how they are abandoned in life-threatening situations at the first hint of trouble, you realize we're up against modern-day slave traders," says John Hughes, coordinator of a new US push to close down migrant smuggling.

This latest battle in the anti-smuggling war, Operation Crossroads, is focused on the Arizona border with Mexico. While there are no hard statistics, US officials have gathered anecdotal evidence of increased smuggling from migrants interviewed after being caught by border police.

"Today more than 90 percent of migrants use a guide or a smuggling ring to get across the border," says Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the INS Western regional office in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "That's a big switch from the early 1990s, when a majority did not use them."

Seizures of large groups of illegal migrants in US cities like Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Houston also indicate that people are getting through without being stopped at the border. Subsequent investigations have revealed that many came across in Arizona, with the help of smuggling rings.

Officials say the smugglers' prowess has been reflected in a drop in overall numbers of migrants caught illegally crossing the border. Between October 2000 and April 26, 2001, the border patrol reports apprehending 775,911 illegal aliens on the Southwest border, down 23 percent from the same period last year.

Another reason for the drop may be that some migrants are staying home long enough to save up to hire smugglers, officials say.

In a three-month crackdown last year, police closed down 70 drop houses in the Southwest, primarily in Phoenix and Tucson, and more than 60 people were charged with various crimes, from smuggling or endangering human life to illegal possession of firearms.

Running the gantlet

In a way, the rise in smuggling is a fruit of past success in stopping illegal migration. As migrants who once had little trouble slipping illegally into the US have confronted tougher conditions on the border, they are turning to smugglers who help them circumnavigate the new obstacles.

Portillo is one example. Two years ago he illegally crossed the US-Mexico border for the first time on his own. But after years of buildup by the Border Patrol on the 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico, and the addition of a mind-boggling array of deterrents including fences, infrared cameras, ground sensors, and stadium lights, Portillo decided he couldn't get his family across without help. So he joined a growing percentage of illegal immigrants paying for help to sneak into the US.

Under the Crossroads program, the INS is stepping up surveillance of transportation hubs used by smugglers to move clients like Portillo, while cracking down on the "drop houses" spread out along smuggling routes. Intelligence agents are stepping up efforts to infiltrate smuggling rings - a difficult task, since the rings are often families with members on both sides of the border.

"It's not so much apprehensions we're looking for, as it is deterrence," says the INS's Mr. Hughes, an alien-trafficking specialist who was brought from a similar operation in Scandinavia to coordinate the push in Arizona. "We want to convince both the smugglers and the aliens that we aim to stop what is essentially profiting from human misery."

As one of several dozen migrant inns in this unpaved outpost in the Sonora Desert, Casa Guadalupe is a small link in a migrant smuggling chain that stretches usually from deep in Mexico, but sometimes from as far away as South America, Europe, and Asia. The chain snakes into US cities, the destination of choice for the world's poor seeking opportunity.

Not everyone who comes to Naco and Casa Guadalupe to rest up before the clandestine hike into the US has paid a smuggling ring, or even plans to pay a local "coyote," or guide.

"Most of us won't go over with a 'coyote' because we don't have the money," says Daniel, the impromptu leader of a group of men from Tabasco and Mexico City who are waiting for nightfall to try their luck. "You can't trust a lot of them, they'll rob you and leave you," adds Daniel, who declines to give his last name. "But they're not all bad, though that's what the gringos want you to believe."

Migrants are also learning that while many of the local "mom and pop" coyotes have been run out of business by the tougher surveillance of the border, it's the more sophisticated - and expensive - smuggling rings that have flourished.

"We used to have what we called 'weekend smugglers' here, like high school kids who got people over as far as the Wal-Mart parking lot for $20 a head," says Alfredo Esquivel, binational cooperation specialist with the Border Patrol in Douglas, Ariz. "Now that's gone, but what we are up against is much better coordinated and financed."

Some migrant advocates compare the smuggling chain to the underground railroad of the Civil War era, for the way it helps poor migrants circumvent the US government measures that have forced migrants out of traditional urban-area smuggling routes to more dangerous routes through remote mountains and deserts.

But US and Mexican officials reject such sympathetic characterizations, insisting that smuggling rings prey on the "cargo" they are transporting, charging ever higher fees and often leaving the migrants to die.

In the US government's fiscal year (October to September) 2000, 369 migrants died attempting to cross illegally into the US from Mexico - up more than 50 percent from fiscal 1999. The number of migrant rescues along the border has almost doubled, from 1,041 people in 1999 to 2,454 in 2000.

Many of the deaths and rescues occurred after migrants tried to cross alone. But in other cases, smugglers left their charges stranded in the desert or mountains - sometimes in blazing sun or freezing temperatures - when they sensed trouble or when planned transportation to the next stop didn't materialize.

And the migrants' troubles aren't always over when they arrive at a "safe house" in the US. "I know people who've been held in a house until their family paid a ransom," says Alfredo, a teenager in Daniel's group who also declines to give his surname.

Typically, migrants, especially those from beyond Mexico, pay half or more of a smuggler's fee when starting their journey. In Peru, for example, the going rate for getting into the US illegally appears to be common knowledge. Many Peruvians interviewed at random quote a price of up to $7,000: $4,000 at departure and the rest upon safe arrival. The price from China has topped $50,000.

But often migrants will be held at their destination until the rest is paid - either by the migrant himself, family members, or an employer. In Los Angeles last month INS agents discovered 61 illegal migrants from Mexico in a locked garage. The detained illegal immigrants said they were being held in exchange for smuggling fees.

Because it involves money, smuggling people often entails violence: a trade of "cargo" from one ring to another gone bad, for example, or smugglers teaching runaway migrants a lesson. According to police estimates in Phoenix, a major people-smuggling hub for the Arizona desert corridor, half of all homicides in the city last year were tied to the smuggling of aliens.

Possible roadblocks

The Phoenix experience is just one reason for Operation Crossroads. But Hughes says more measures are needed, including tougher sentences for convicted smugglers, although by law smugglers convicted of causing migrant deaths can now face capital punishment in the US.

A promising avenue for deterrence, US officials say, is increased cooperation between the US and Mexico. Although Mexico has always had a distaste for any measures that could be construed as working with the US to impede migration, Mexico has taken a tougher stand against smuggling in light of migrant deaths.

The difficulty that both the US and Mexico face is that migrants are willing to pay smugglers several times their annual salary at home if it means getting safely into the US. The migrants hear through the grapevine which smugglers they can trust.

"I've heard about the problems some migrants have run into with smugglers, but people I know in Chicago set me up with people who are supposed to be OK," says Portillo at Casa Guadalupe. "It was either that or take my family through the desert on my own."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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