Cartel control over smuggling has made it far more dangerous

Former ICE deputy director explains how the illegal industry has evolved

SAN ANTONIO – Almost 40 undocumented immigrants were found in a tractor-trailer at a Southwest Side Walmart this weekend.

Ten of those people have died, and authorities believe more than 100 people might have been in the truck. One of the immigrants told law enforcement the Zetas cartel was in charge of the smuggling.

A former ICE deputy director explained human smuggling has become one of the cartel's most lucrative operations.

Like many before them, the immigrants found Sunday were risking it all with the American dream in mind.

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"It's telling about how bad it is in the countries that they're leaving. Those people are growing up in abject poverty, the violence especially where you have the MS-13 gang members recruiting kids, and there's no jobs, no work," said former ICE deputy director Alonzo Peña.

It's not a new concept but Peña explained, cartel control has made it much more dangerous than in the past.

"They were mom and pops, just a family member, somebody else that did it that we refer to as a ‘coyote,’ who was a smuggler but he wasn't linking or having to pay a cartel a fee to go through their territory," he said.

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He saw cartels get more heavily involved when the U.S. started securing the border after 9/11. 

"Unfortunately it’s a collateral consequence of the way we have tightened the border and it’s harder to come in now and a person can’t just find somebody and pay them a few bucks to bring them across. They have to go to an organized smuggling group that’s linked to the cartels. And it’s made it much more profitable for those cartels," he explained.

Now, smuggling organizations pay cartels to move through certain areas. Peña said those organizations pay drivers either per immigrant, or by distance traveled.

San Antonio has also become a big hub for smuggling.

"I think with San Antonio, its proximity to the border is what we need to be focused on. We’re going to see more activity because it’s a major metropolitan area so close to the border that they can come in, avoid detection and then they can, the routes out of San Antonio lead to all parts of the country. So I think geographically where San Antonio sits is a prime location for smuggling organizations to be based out of," Peña said.

It's become such a huge business because it's lucrative.

Peña said some Chinese immigrants are paying anywhere from $20,000 to $30,000 to be smuggled into the United States. Central Americans are paying $6,000 to $10,000. Mexicans are paying somewhere around $1,500.


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A big key is educating those who consider taking the risk. Some countries have even invested in ad campaigns trying to warn people not to believe the smugglers or give them money.

"These people are driven by greed. They're driven by how they can make money off of you. They're not your friend. They're not somebody that's looking out for you. They are there to profit off your misery," Peña said.

That misery is disguised by tricks and lies. 

"They put them in a tractor-trailer and they tell them, "Oh you're just going to go a few miles and they're going to let you out, and don't worry if you don't have any water." They do it to them when they drop them off in the desert with no water. They tell them, 'Houston is right up there, see those lights?' That's not Houston. Those are refineries," he said.

In the past, Peña said penalties for smuggling were not strong enough. Now, they are much more aggressive and he believes they should stay that way.

He also believes all levels of law enforcement should share intelligence with foreign countries, where people are being smuggled.

However, he said until countries can provide their citizens better jobs, education and safety, there will be a need for them to leave. He believes more people would try to come to the U.S. legally if it were easier. 

"We haven’t fixed our immigration system. We definitely need to have a comprehensive immigration reform and fix the system where people that want to come that are willing to come and work and only want to come work and send money home, go back when they’re done, that we have a system that affords that to happen," Peña said.

He said it is a non-partisan issue and once reform is made, the smuggling situation could be more easily relieved.

About the Author:

Courtney Friedman is a KSAT anchor and reporter. She has an ongoing series called Loving in Fear, confronting Bexar County’s domestic violence epidemic. She's also covered Hurricane Harvey, the shootings in Sutherland Springs and Santa Fe, and tornadoes throughout Texas. She’s a California native and proud Longhorn who loves calling SA home.