Archive for Thursday, April 6, 2006

Mexico’s migrant smugglers expect business to boom

April 6, 2006

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— Barely 18, Jose belongs to Mexico's new generation of migrant smugglers - young, savvy and happy to see Uncle Sam further tighten border security.

Why? It's good for business, he says.

Jose figures more migrants will seek his help if the U.S. Senate approves legislation to double the Border Patrol and put up a virtual wall of unmanned vehicles, cameras and sensors to monitor the 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Border experts say the price for helping Mexicans move north has quadrupled from $300 to $1,200 since 1994, when the U.S. last tightened the rules. Cases are coming to light of smugglers making $1 million or more. And Jose reckons the earnings will rise yet higher if new obstacles go up.

"This is never going to end," he said. "The United States cannot work without Mexicans."

Jose is a lanky, baby-faced teen in a baseball cap who says he started smuggling people late last year and made $16,000 in his first three months. His mother worries, but needs the money - Jose was making $53 a week cutting lettuce. Talking to a reporter outside their humble adobe house near this city in central Mexico, Jose and his mother asked to withhold their surname for fear of arrest.


Carrying their belongings and gallons of water, people wait for darkness near the town of Sasabe, Mexico, before trying to cross illegally into the United States through the Arizona desert. Growing security along the border has made smuggling migrants a lucrative business.

Carrying their belongings and gallons of water, people wait for darkness near the town of Sasabe, Mexico, before trying to cross illegally into the United States through the Arizona desert. Growing security along the border has made smuggling migrants a lucrative business.

"We're always going to look for a way to get in, and there's always a way," Jose said. "This is a business for everyone."

Victor Clark, a Mexican border expert in Tijuana who has studied smugglers' patterns for decades, agrees with Jose. "This is going to have the opposite effect of what the U.S. government wants, since the demand for migrant smugglers is going to go up," he said.

The smuggling business flourished after the U.S. Border Patrol cracked down on the busiest crossings into Texas and California in 1994.

Migrants were funneled into the remote Arizona desert, and domestic flights into Hermosillo, Sonora, the biggest Mexican city near the Arizona border, jumped from 20 a week in 1994 to nearly 500 today. The airport's baggage claim area is often nearly empty because migrants arrive with little more than a duffel bag for the rest of their journey.

Many risk death walking for 30 hours in 100 degree temperatures through remote desert terrain. The smuggler leading them may well be linked to organized crime, though Jose says he isn't.

That too is a change from the days when it was considered something of a community service in Mexican villages and older, trusted men would show relatives and neighbors the safest routes.

Now a growing number of smugglers are like Jose - in it just for the money.

Jose says he treats his migrants well and even helps those he finds abandoned in the desert - for a price, of course.

After all, he said: "It's business."

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