They're not mob bosses or drug lords, but human smugglers can be just as deadly. As border security has tightened in the past decade, immigrant smuggling has evolved from mom-and-pop operations to sophisticated crime rings that can kill dozens when things go wrong.
Now, authorities are cracking down on a growing practice that spirits an estimated one million immigrants into the US annually. Last week, for instance, a Houston lawmaker introduced legislation that would place rewards on kingpins' heads and mandate punishments rivaling those for organized-crime dons. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, ranking Democrat on the US House immigration subcommittee, laid out her Commercial Alien Smuggling Elimination Act for the public Wednesday. And Attorney General John Ashcroft is expected to decide in the next week whether the alleged ringleader of the deadliest US smuggling incident - the sweltering deaths of 19 immigrants sealed in a Houston-bound trailer - will face the death penalty.
The arrest and indictment of 14 alleged smugglers linked to the tragedy shows just how serious the government has become in breaking up these crime rings and punishing culprits to the full extent of the law.
The story of Karla Patricia Chavez Joya of Honduras, the alleged ringleader who sobbed into her hands at a Houston bond hearing last week, offers a glimpse into how much the industry has changed since the US ramped up border enforcement in 1994. Guided across the Mexican border by smugglers in 1993, she is now accused of spearheading the process from the other end - in a more sophisticated way. Prosecutors say her group typifies the changes in the shepherding of immigrants.
"Human smuggling has become a very lucrative business," says Luisa Aquino, spokeswoman for the Houston Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office. "Those mom-and-pop organizations, which used to cross just a couple of people, have joined forces. And now what you have is very much organized crime. Unfortunately, the commodity is human life."
Worldwide the industry generates an estimated $9.5 billion a year, half of that along the US-Mexican border. Economically, it rivals narcotics smuggling, and while not as tightly controlled as drug cartels, these rings are highly organized, often with fleets of vehicles and webs of way stations. "If you're running a multimillion [dollar] business, you can afford to buy the best technology and the best people," says Nolan Rappaport, who helped draft the bill for Representative Jackson Lee.
In the 1980s, the cost of help in crossing ranged from $50 to $100 per trip, or whatever an immigrant had. Today, prices have shot up to $1,000-$2,000.
That's because it is increasingly difficult to cross the border - especially since Sept. 11, 2001 - and smugglers know immigrants are more dependent on them. But smugglers are having to find more remote, dangerous routes to remain undetected - and so several hundred immigrants die each year.
"[They] have no idea what they're about to face," says Mario Villarreal of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in Washington. "The smuggler needs to be held accountable for what transpires." Here's how it works:
• Scouts frequent bus stations in cities in the interior of Mexico, looking for people hoping to cross illegally. They also recruit people in small villages and rely on former clients to refer new clients. Immigrants typically pay half of the fee up front and then take commercial buses to Mexican border cities.
• After arriving, they're told to check into cheap motels and wait for their guides. The guides then lead small groups across the border and to "safe houses" on the US side. Here they wait until more immigrants arrive.
• Transporters load immigrants into vans, trucks, or rail cars, depending on their numbers, and head to major cities where they'll be left at a "drop house" and the balance of the fee will be collected. Smugglers often demand more cash or hold immigrants hostage until relatives come up with funds.
"No doubt it's become more dangerous for the immigrants. They are being forced to take more dangerous routes and are now dealing with big criminal organizations," says Jorge Gonzalez, chairman of the economics department at Trinity University in San Antonio. The reality, he says, is that these immigrants are indispensable to US businesses. It's a fact not lost on lawmakers. At a recent congressional hearing, Rep. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona said he'll introduce a temporary-worker bill this month, aimed at thinning the ranks of immigrants who turn to smugglers. Such measures, periodically proposed and always controversial, promise farm hands and others "guest-worker status" - to the chagrin of many unions and conservatives.
"There is a demand in the US for labor that many Mexicans are willing to supply," he said. "Rather than turning a blind eye to the fact, I support ... allowing these workers legal entry."