By Chris Lane
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Sometimes smuggling schemes involve federal agents. In July, Border Patrol agent Jesus Miguel Huizar pled guilty to conspiring to smuggle more than 100 illegal immigrants, at $350 a head, through a checkpoint, and had to forfeit his El Paso home, used as a stash house, to the government. In January, former Border Patrol agent David Cruz and his wife pled guilty to conspiracy charges, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Sergio Garza was arrested in Laredo for his suspected role in helping illegal immigrants into the United States.
Most smuggling organizations are loose networks that lack the clear-cut hierarchy traditionally seen with the major drug cartels, says McElroy. And there are seldom any Robin Hoods. It's all about the money.
McElroy says today's prices range from $1,000 to $2,000 to bring someone up from Mexico, and between $4,000 and $6,000 from South America. And when you consider that smugglers are bringing in anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred immigrants a week and "are probably not paying taxes," says McElroy, the dollars add up quickly.
Over the last few years, ICE has seen an increase in violence. Agents hardly ever work a case where guns or some form of torture are not employed.
"It's not unusual for us to go into places and find ropes and chains," McElroy says. "We get calls from relatives telling us that they've been told that their family member is going to be killed or maimed or tied up outside in extreme weather conditions. I mean, we've heard it all. Whether they're doing it or not, they're saying they're going to do it, and in some cases they do, like in the Spezzia case."
In the mainstream, oftentimes there's not much sympathy for illegal immigrants, and smuggling crimes are viewed as victimless. After all, the immigrant does pay the smuggler to get him across the border.
"The average American citizen does not understand the complexities of unauthorized migration," says University of Houston professor Nestor Rodriguez. "They say, 'Well, that's what you get for doing things illegally.' But the reality is that these are people who are trying to survive and help their families survive and take a large risk to do it. People should care [about smuggling crimes] because this is the suffering of humans and Americans have always stood for fair play and humanitarian values. And also because it happens on our land and this is not the type of behavior that we want to allow here."
Most smuggling crimes, however, go unreported to the police. Victims are afraid to speak up for fear they will be deported — often considered a worse fate than whatever bodily or mental injuries were incurred.
"A lot of the time," says McElroy, "if they had called us in the first place, some bad things may not have happened. We work closely with [local nonprofit groups] and try to stress: Come and report crimes like these. Because it's not worth having your relative held hostage."
Jimenez agrees that most illegal immigrants are still afraid to report smugglers to the police, but slowly that is changing. She likens the situation to food poisoning at a restaurant. Once you get sick from eating the food, do you go back, do you sue or do you simply disappear?
"I think people are much more aware of the consequences and are therefore more willing to denounce the coyote, especially when they're being abused," Jimenez says. "Many years ago it was much more difficult because [the smugglers] were people you knew, the hometown guides, and you didn't want to expose anyone because ultimately you'd be sent back and lose the money you paid."
Miguel was loading trucks for roughly $60 a week near his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, when he decided to try to join his younger brother, Elmer, in the United States. Elmer had made the journey nearly a year earlier to find work to support his sick mother. After arriving in Houston in January 2006, Elmer took a landscaping job and sent home as much money as he could. After a month, his mother died, but Elmer decided to stay.
It was November 2006 when Miguel began heading north. With 1,500 Lempira — a little less than $80 — in his pocket, and a small dose of how-to knowledge from his brother Elmer, Miguel jumped on a bus heading into Guatemala.
After more than a month trekking through mountains, jungles and deserts in Guatemala and Mexico, Miguel stowed away on the last of six cargo trains he took during his journey, finally chugging into Nuevo Laredo.
Miguel found refuge at an immigrant flophouse and took a job selling newspapers. For about three weeks, he lived and worked along the border. On the job, Miguel met a fellow Honduran who introduced him to a man named Luis. For $1,600, Luis told Miguel, he could arrange for Miguel's safe passage to Houston. The smugglers later raised the fee to $1,800. Miguel then called Elmer, whose friend told Miguel that he had the money. When Miguel relayed this to Luis, the deal began to roll into motion.
To smugglers, penniless immigrants are not worth much money up front; they are almost like commodity futures. Their real value lies down the road, and only if they can protect their merchandise through whatever means are necessary and then cash in.