Border Patrol officials in Laredo see surge in tractor trailers smuggling immigrants

4,500 so far rescued by U.S. Border Patrol, 132% increase

A longstanding way of transporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants, tractor-trailer smuggling, has been on the rise in the U.S. Border Patrol Laredo sector.

LAREDO, Texas – A longstanding way of transporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants, tractor-trailer smuggling, has been on the rise in the U.S. Border Patrol Laredo sector.

“We see that smuggling tactic being used all too often,” said Matthew J. Hudak, the sector’s chief Border Patrol agent.

Even more so now, Hudak said.

Since October, 4,500 people have been found stuffed into the back to commercial cargo trucks, Hudak said, an increase of 132%, that goes along with the even larger increases in apprehensions and in the discoveries of stash houses.

Hudak said it came as no surprise that the semi-truck drove up from Laredo before being pulled over Thursday at a truck stop at Interstate 10 and Foster Road on the city’s far East Side.

Although Hudak couldn’t speak about the incident being investigated by the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, Hudak said most cases have involved people being loaded onto trailers in and around Laredo.

Being the nation’s largest inland port for commercial truck traffic with at least 16,000 big rigs crossing daily, Hudak said smugglers are trying to beat the odds that they won’t be detected at the checkpoint north of Laredo.

“They certainly take the gamble of the numbers game, trying to get through our checkpoints,” Hudak said.

He said given the huge volume of traffic, his agents can’t stop each and every truck, so they rely on trained canines and radar imaging, tips from the public and whoever else can alert authorities, as well as agents, themselves, when they are able to speak to the drivers.

Hudak said it’s not uncommon to see hands waving if they can, through vents in the back of the trailer trying to signal to passing motorists, like someone did last week in that smuggling incident.

He also said the migrants are sometimes able to call 911 on their cellphones.

Hudak said these are not individual incidents.

“There’s a criminal enterprise that’s running all that smuggling,” Hudak said.

He said smugglers who are using vehicles, tractor trailers, train cars, tankers, and stash houses to traffic people, are part of a criminal enterprise.

Migrants pay as much as $8,000 with fees tacked on as they go, to reach wherever they’ll be unloaded once in the U.S., Hudak said.

“It ends up being a lot more expensive than what they expected,” Hudak said. “Now they’re in debt to a criminal organization, which is certainly not a good situation for them.”

Hudak said it certainly won’t be for the drivers who are paid thousand of dollars to transport them, if they’re caught.

“It’s career ending, if not freedom-ending situation in terms of criminal prosecution,” Hudak said.

Professional drivers know that if they’re convicted, they could lose their commercial driver’s license for life.

Hudak said the Border Patrol has been working with the trucking industry, trucking schools and trucking publications to warn drivers of the risks.

So now, he said, smugglers are resorting to using inexperienced drivers without CDL’s.

“They have no experience driving tractor trailers and they’ve got a large number of people in the back of it,” Hudak said. “These organizations are desperate. They will recruit anybody that they can that’s willing to fall victim to the lure of easy money.”

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About the Authors:

Jessie Degollado has been with KSAT since 1984. She is a general assignments reporter who covers a wide variety of stories. Raised in Laredo and as an anchor/reporter at KRGV in the Rio Grande Valley, Jessie is especially familiar with border and immigration issues. In 2007, Jessie also was inducted into the San Antonio Women's Hall of Fame.

Before starting at KSAT in August 2011, Ken was a news photographer at KENS. Before that he was a news photographer at KVDA TV in San Antonio. Ken graduated from San Antonio College with an associate's degree in Radio, TV and Film. Ken has won a Sun Coast Emmy and four Lone Star Emmys. Ken has been in the TV industry since 1994.