US citizens play growing role in human smuggling at Mexico border
By MARIA SACCHETTI | The Washington Post | Published: November 1, 2019
EAGLE PASS, Texas — The teenagers jumped into a pair of pickup trucks and headed away from the border, speeding along through the rain-soaked night on a barren country road where few venture after dark.
One of the trucks was out front, allegedly scanning the terrain for authorities. Nine migrants who court records say had promised to pay the local teens thousands of dollars for a three-hour ride to San Antonio, a city of 1.5 million people where they could disappear, were huddled in the back of the trailing white F-250. When a sheriff's deputy appeared — spotting the unusual caravan where normally there would only be deer, turkey vultures and packs of wild hogs — authorities say the teens floored it. One of the trucks skidded into a turn and rolled over.
"Bodies flew everywhere," said Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe, who was there the night of June 21, calling in ambulances from other counties and searching for victims. A Mexican man was killed, a woman's arm was amputated, and others suffered broken limbs, ankles and backs.
The chase and horrific crash north of this border town, across the Rio Grande from Piedras Negras, Mexico, has led to charges of murder and human smuggling against six teens, a group that includes former high school football players, a track runner and a student active in church. It also has revealed a growing trend as the Trump administration tries to crack down on illegal immigration along the southern border — the deep involvement of U.S. citizens.
The U.S. government has assailed smugglers as the henchmen of international cartels and gangs, but more than 60 percent of people convicted of smuggling in federal courts in recent years have been U.S. citizens, the majority of them with little or no criminal history, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
More than 4,100 people were charged with smuggling during the first nine months of fiscal 2019, the highest number since the federal court system began tracking such prosecutions in 2001 - a 31 percent spike since President Donald Trump took office. The number of U.S. citizens convicted last year is not yet available, but experts say many are looking to cash in on the lucrative smuggling business.
The smugglers who have been caught include down-on-their-luck truck drivers, single mothers, oil-field workers and high school students, according to federal court and state court records in Texas, where smuggling is also charged as a local crime.
Authorities say some smuggled for a few hundred dollars, while others charged thousands. Some said they did it to buy diapers, pay for college tuition, resolve a debt, or give a favor. Most are men, with an average age of 33, according to the Sentencing Commission.
U.S. citizens are pulled into smuggling through word of mouth and social media, according to court records, law enforcement officials and researchers. Smugglers have been recruited by relatives, spouses and friends - even their bosses at work - and typically communicate via cellphone with the migrants and their guides in Mexico.
The U.S. citizens involved in smuggling usually act as couriers, often taking migrants from the border to their final destinations in the United States. Some pick up migrants in Mexico, hide them in their vehicles and drive them through legal checkpoints into the United States. Others work mainly on the U.S. side of the border, meeting migrants on remote ranch roads or stash houses after they cross the Rio Grande.
A video went viral online last week after two U.S. citizens with migrants in their white Mercedes allegedly filmed themselves while leading Texas authorities on a high-speed chase near the border. Authorities stopped the car in Jim Hogg County, southeast of Laredo, and the citizens - a 19-year-old woman and 22-year-old man - tried to flee with a group of several migrants, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The man and woman have been charged with smuggling and other offenses, authorities said.
Convicted smugglers typically are low-level operatives in need of cash, part of much larger operations with roots in countries such as Guatemala, where smugglers are still advertising their services on the radio. Many of the U.S. citizens do not know that they are tying into Mexican cartels or larger smuggling operations and often do not know many details about the arrangements, according to experts and law enforcement officials.
The recruitment of more U.S. citizens is a sign of the smuggling industry's agility amid tougher border security in the United States and Mexico, analysts say. And the expectation is that smugglers will not give up - they are likely to charge more and seek alternative ways to sneak people across the border.
"It's pretty lucrative if you can get away with it," said Brady Waikel, the U.S. Border Patrol's assistant chief agent in Del Rio, Texas, in a sector that includes Eagle Pass and Kinney County. "Nobody thinks they're going to get caught."
Noncitizens accounted for about 80 percent of convicted smugglers in the mid-1990s, when U.S. authorities were logging more than 1 million apprehensions at the border each year, according to the Sentencing Commission. A teen from Mexico also is charged in the case involving the Eagle Pass teenagers.
But as the government heightened border security, smugglers turned to U.S. citizens for their flawless English and knowledge of local roads, which can help migrants bypass Border Patrol checkpoints after entering the United States.
Immediately after Trump took office in 2017 with promises to quickly deport unauthorized immigrants, the number of border apprehensions plunged. But smugglers quickly pivoted from a typical clientele of single adults to asylum-seeking families and unaccompanied children - especially Central Americans - when they figured out that they could cross the border and secure a quick release into the United States. Hundreds of thousands of such migrants surrendered en masse at the border to claim asylum.
In response to the influx, the White House pressured Mexico in June to allow the United States to turn back thousands of migrants to await their U.S. immigration hearings in Mexico. Border apprehensions since have fallen more than 60 percent. "The U.S. Border is SECURE!" Trump tweeted Oct. 8.
But the tactic created a massive pool of desperate migrants - and potential smuggling customers - in Mexico's high-crime border cities.
Days after the Mexico deal, Border Patrol agents arrested a U.S. citizen, Ramon Sauceda, 49, driving around Southern California with a ride-hailing sign glowing on the dashboard and several migrants in the back. Authorities said the migrants paid $7,000 to $8,000 each for the trip into the United States, and Sauceda has been sentenced to 10 months in prison.
Authorities arrested a string of U.S. Marines over the summer and accused them of involvement in smuggling operations. Two active-duty Marines at Camp Pendleton were arrested July 3 and accused of picking up migrants in a black BMW in Southern California. Migrants said they paid $8,000 to be smuggled to New Jersey and Los Angeles. The Marines have pleaded not guilty in U.S. District Court.
Several other Marines have been charged in military court in connection with alleged smuggling and other offenses, including perjury, according to a Marine Corps statement. On July 10, Border Patrol agents arrested a Marine from a different unit on smuggling charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University law school, said he expects migrants to shift away from orderly surrender to U.S. authorities at the border and toward a return to riskier clandestine trips, crossing the rushing Rio Grande or hiding inside tractor-trailers.
"It has now gone back to, oddly, where we started," Chishti said. "It's gone back to sneaking in."
'No crying in the courtroom'
In the border city of Del Rio, a string of smuggling defendants shuffled into a cavernous wood-paneled room to appear before Judge Alia Moses in U.S. District Court this month. Many wore orange jumpsuits and shackles as their relatives fought back tears.
In the hall outside, a sign warned: "No crying in the courtroom."
Among those pleading guilty in federal court was Victor Manuel Rojano, who said in court records that he had smuggled migrants multiple times.
Authorities arrested him and his wife in 2016 near Freer, Texas, with 13 migrants divided between two trucks, appearing "tired, dirty with wet and muddy clothing," per court records. Authorities said Rojano claimed a man named "Saulo" in San Antonio had asked him to smuggle migrants for $400 apiece.
He knew it was illegal, authorities said in court records, but he chose to do it because he was "in need of money."
After more than one year in prison, Rojano was arrested again in July on suspicion of smuggling four migrants in a pickup truck. Authorities said Rojano admitted he was going to be paid $2,700 to drive the immigrants to San Antonio and an additional $3,000 to take one to New York.
His attorney did not respond to a request for comment after he pleaded guilty; Rojano's sentencing is scheduled for March.
Other defendants that week told the judge they had struggled with drug problems, mental illness and depression. One man owed $62,000 in child support.
Jaime Barragan, a 36-year-old oil-field worker who is a citizen, pleaded guilty to helping his brother smuggle one migrant in exchange for $500. Officials stopped their Volkswagen in April on a remote road an hour outside Laredo, a border city.
Barragan said he pleaded guilty hoping for a lighter sentence.
"Who wants to go to jail for giving someone a ride?" Barragan said in a brief interview outside the courthouse.
The average sentence for migrant smuggling was 16 months in prison in 2018, according to the Sentencing Commission. Others received more time if they smuggled a child or harmed an immigrant in the process.
'Who wants to go?'
The Eagle Pass teenagers were indicted in July on charges of murder, human smuggling, human smuggling of a minor and engaging in organized criminal activity.
It is unclear how the teens came together that June night on a remote ranch road flanked by miles of wild prairie, a one-hour drive north in Kinney County. Most of the students who have been charged attended Eagle Pass High School; the driver of the borrowed truck that flipped, Domonik Martinez, attended C.C. Winn High School, also in Eagle Pass.
Martinez's grandmother and great-grandmother said in interviews that he did not know the other teens well. Some of his friends told them that smugglers sometimes advertise jobs on social media, promising easy cash and asking, "Who wants to go?"
His family and friends said he is a polite young man who strove to graduate from high school despite a string of family traumas. His father is in prison for money laundering, and his mother died of cancer last year, according to family members and court records. He dreamed of attending welding school, but he worried about paying the $20,000 tuition, his relatives said.
"He was in school," Martinez's grandmother Patricia Delgado said as she sat outside her house after visiting him in jail on his 18th birthday. "I'm just so shocked. We all are. . . . Why, why?"
The parents of Felipe Miranda, a 17-year-old accused of being in the truck with Martinez and the migrants, denied being involved. He told his parents that he had been beaten up that night by thugs who broke his arm when he tried to visit a girl who lived in the area.
"My husband and I don't understand what happened," Ana Miranda said, wringing her hands. "He says he wasn't in this, and we're trusting in that."
Authorities say the teens agreed to smuggle migrants from the border to San Antonio, about 150 miles to the east.
Four teens in the truck that traveled ahead to scan the road for law enforcement were supposed to earn $1,000 each, according to charging documents obtained by The Washington Post. In the truck, authorities say, were Jorge Guardado, 19, a former guard for the Eagle Pass High football team, and his former classmates Fernando Martinez, 18, Angel Esquivel, 17, and Jose Ramirez, 17. Guardado and Fernando Martinez graduated in the spring, school records show.
Domonik Martinez and Miranda followed in a white pickup truck with the migrants, in exchange for $10,000 that they were to share, authorities said.
All are being charged as adults except a minor from Mexico, the suspected guide who led the migrants across the border. Domonik Martinez remains in custody on more than $170,000 bail. The others are free on bond, the sheriff said.
"I think it was the lure of the easy money," said Coe, the sheriff and a retired Border Patrol agent. "They're kids. You dangle a thousand bucks in front of the kid, 2,000 bucks, especially to these kids that need it, oh yeah, they're going to go for it."
Michael Bagley, the elected district attorney handling the Eagle Pass case, said he charged the teens with murder in addition to smuggling because he believes it was the right thing to do. The teens' attorneys did not respond to requests for comment; Guardado said only that he does not yet have an attorney.
Authorities said that the case is in its initial stages and that the teens are expected to plead not guilty.
The family of Jose Areli Suarez Jurado, who was killed when the pickup truck flipped, is "not blaming anybody" for his death, said a niece, Veronica Suarez.
Suarez said that Suarez Jurado had lived in the United States for about 35 years, working in landscaping and construction. He owned a small house in a small town - McGregor, Texas, population 5,200 - and he had a wife and relatives there, along with a son and new grandson in Georgia. A court clerk said Suarez Jurado was convicted of drunken driving in 2017, and Suarez said her uncle was deported to Mexico after he completed his sentence.
She said Suarez Jurado immediately made plans to cross back into the United States and to get back to McGregor, which is about five hours from the scene of the crash. Now he is buried there.
"This is the place he knew as home. He didn't have anyone in Mexico," she said. "He wanted to come home."