An exclusive look inside a human-smuggling operation run by a cartel, as reported by ABC News

As we slowly make our way down this dirt road, it’s clear that we don’t quite fit in with the surroundings. Our destination is a small town nestled in the heart of the northern Mexican desert, a mere speck on the horizon.

As we drive through the night, the dust from our tires creates a trail that glows under the full moon. As we near a group of houses, we signal our arrival to our contact.

As we stand here, I can feel the tension in the air. Despite the fact that we have been granted permission to be here, the fact remains that we are in the heart of cartel territory. The risks are omnipresent in an environment where so much wealth is at stake.

We were welcomed by a man in a black zip-up hoodie who instructed us to wait while he checked if it was safe for us to continue. He swiftly communicated through a walkie-talkie, the smugglers’ preferred mode of communication to avoid any eavesdropping.

After waiting for forty-five minutes, we received instructions to proceed. Our group of approximately 100 individuals had gathered outside a series of homes located a brief distance away, all with a common purpose for our visit to this location.

As we approach the crowd, the man in the hoodie informs us that the group comprises people from all over the world. He goes on to say that it feels like a gathering at the United Nations. Everyone seems to be waiting eagerly for something, and the atmosphere is charged with excitement.

India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Senegal, and many other countries are currently represented tonight. On other occasions, it could be Russia, Turkey, China, and the list continues.

A diverse group of migrants, all hailing from different regions, share a common goal: to reach the United States. These individuals are accompanied by human smugglers, who wear masks and carry firearms, and are responsible for ensuring their safe passage to their destination.

According to a smuggler interviewed by ABC News, there are approximately 200-300 people crossing the border every week. This activity is reported to be occurring consistently throughout the border, both day and night.

A changing criminal landscape

There is currently an unrelenting wave of migration occurring at the United States southwest border.

In 2021, an unprecedented number of individuals have migrated to various parts of the world. The motivations behind these journeys are diverse and intricate. Some are escaping from destitution, violence, political or religious oppression, wars, or the impacts of climate change. All of these reasons coexist and contribute to the rise in migration.

The narrative surrounding the rapid and efficient arrival of millions of people is often incomplete without addressing the crucial question of how it’s happening.

The solution to that question is quite straightforward. It’s the workings of organized crime.

According to Gerardo Rodríguez Sánchez Lara, an international security expert with decades of experience studying organized crime, the current influx of people arriving at the border would not be feasible without the significant involvement of transnational organized crime.

In recent years, human smuggling has evolved into a large-scale industrial operation, although it is not a new phenomenon.

Organized crime syndicates have realized that aiding the movement of migrants towards the U.S. border can be immensely profitable. These cartels have established control over specific areas along the border, known as plazas, where they exercise authority over activities carried out within their jurisdiction.

Nowadays, migrants are required to pay in order to reach the border.

ABC News spoke to a smuggler who emphasized the importance of respecting ownership in the business of smuggling migrants. The smuggler explained that attempting to cross the border alone would result in certain death for the migrants. The only way to safely cross the border is with the help of a smuggler, who requires payment for their services.

Producing, transporting, and selling drugs can be both lucrative and challenging. A significant amount of investment is required to create the product. However, once it is produced, the risk of losing the product and the initial investment is high when transporting and selling it in the United States. Unfortunately, if the authorities seize the drugs, cartels do not recoup any of the money spent on producing it.

When it comes to human smuggling, the investment and risk involved are significantly lower. Migrants themselves bear the cost of their journey to the border, leaving smugglers with the task of only bringing them to the wall. This means that smugglers have much less to worry about when it comes to U.S. authorities. However, if the group is caught by Mexican law enforcement and the migrants are deported, smugglers do not provide refunds.

According to Rodríguez Sanchez Lara, human smuggling poses a lower risk compared to drug trafficking, but the potential reward can be equally lucrative. The amount of money involved in this industry is simply staggering.

During our investigation, ABC News was able to witness the inner workings of a human smuggling operation led by one of Mexico’s biggest cartels. This specific group is known for transporting “long haul” migrants who are willing to pay anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 for a chance to enter the United States.

A group of people gathered around a smuggler with a cell phone, who was playing the role of a ticket checker, just after midnight.

In order to reach the border, the migrants were required to pay a final fee to the cartel. Although the exact amount varied, the majority paid roughly $5,000 to the smugglers to travel from Mexico City to the border. This payment was in addition to any expenses they incurred to travel to the capital city.

After making the payment, the migrant’s photo was captured and forwarded to the smuggler on the ground, acting as a form of digital receipt.

As he scanned through his collection of pictures, the smuggler carefully compared each one to the faces of the individuals standing before him. Only once he had successfully matched a migrant’s face with the corresponding photograph were they permitted to proceed. Conversely, those who had not yet paid their dues were left to bide their time, awaiting their turn to be processed.

Let’s do some basic math to understand the staggering amount of money being generated by the human smuggling industry along the border each day.

During that night in the desert, ABC News witnessed approximately 100 migrants, which could potentially add up to $1 million dollars if each individual paid the lowest estimated amount of $10,000. This staggering amount was solely from one small group at a particular area of the border.

Every single day, there are countless transactions like these occurring along the entire length of the border. According to estimates from the U.S. government, the human smuggling industry is making billions of dollars each year.

Large amounts of the money made from smuggling migrants does end up in the pockets of cartels, particularly in Mexico. This gives them a strong motive to keep pushing people to migrate north as fast as they can, and unfortunately, this often results in migrants being treated as mere commodities rather than human beings.

“It has to be worth it.”

The act of stuffing as many individuals as possible into an SUV is not only cruel and inhumane but also considered as the most efficient way to accommodate more people.

As per ABC News, a migrant woman who was holding a child expressed her hope for a positive outcome while seeking divine intervention. She said, “I’m only asking God to make sure everything turns out well because we want to go [to the U.S.] to work and do things right. It has to be worth it.”

According to ABC News, a migrant hailing from Senegal shared that he had to spend all his life savings and even take on debt to embark on the journey. However, he firmly believes that the move is worth it as he is optimistic about having a better life in the United States. He quoted, “It’s worth leaving Senegal to go to the United States because I will have a better life there.”

After being grouped, the migrants were driven for three hours through the rugged and winding desert until they reached a specific spot on the border wall, where they were able to walk through. Despite the usual two-hour trip, the heavy presence of law enforcement in the area that night compelled them to take a longer route.

Upon arrival, the smugglers meticulously documented the crossing of every individual and forwarded the recorded footage to their superiors. This serves as concrete evidence of their proficiency, demonstrating that they are effectively carrying out their responsibilities.

As per one smuggler interviewed by ABC News, they are not exploiting the migrants, but rather fulfilling their requests. According to the smuggler, there are other people who may mistreat the migrants, but their group is not among them.

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MBS Staff
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