Smug­glers of­fer rigs as ‘VIP treat­ment’ to US

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

When Thomas Ho­man, the act­ing di­rec­tor of US Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, was awak­ened Sun­day morn­ing with news that mi­grants were found dead in­side a swel­ter­ing trac­tor-trailer out­side a San An­to­nio Wal­mart, his mind flashed back to 2003, when he stood at the back of a truck about 200 km south­east of San An­to­nio that car­ried 19 dead mi­grants. “It is sad that 14 years later peo­ple are still be­ing smug­gled in trac­tor-trail­ers,” he said. “There still isn’t wa­ter, there still isn’t ven­ti­la­tion. These crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions, they’re all about mak­ing money.”

The strik­ing sim­i­lar­i­ties of the Texas tragedies demon­strate how smug­glers have found a durable busi­ness model car­ry­ing large groups - of­ten in big rigs through an elab­o­rate net­work of foot guides, safe house op­er­a­tors and driv­ers. A crim­i­nal com­plaint about Sun­day’s dis­cov­ery that 10 were dead and dozens in­jured in the truck opens a win­dow on their de­gree of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and or­ga­ni­za­tional mus­cle: Pas­sen­gers had color-coded tape to split into smaller groups; and six black SUVs awaited them at one tran­sit point to bring them to their des­ti­na­tions.

Big rigs emerged as a pop­u­lar smug­gling method in the early 1990s amid a surge in US bor­der en­force­ment in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, which were then the busiest cor­ri­dors for il­le­gal cross­ings. Be­fore that, peo­ple paid small fees to mo­mand-pop op­er­a­tors to get them across a largely un­guarded bor­der. As cross­ing be­came ex­po­nen­tially more dif­fi­cult af­ter the 2001 ter­ror strikes in the US, mi­grants were led through more dan­ger­ous ter­rain and paid thou­sands of dol­lars more.

Guadalupe Cor­rea-Cabr­era, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist who teaches at Univer­sity of Texas, Rio Grande Val­ley, said mi­grants she in­ter­viewed last year in South Texas paid $2,000 to $3,000 more to ride in the crammed trac­tor-trail­ers, con­sid­er­ing them more ef­fec­tive, faster and safer than walk­ing through the desert to a pickup point far from the bor­der. Hun­dreds of bor­der crossers per­ish each year in the desert, get­ting lost and de­hy­drated in ex­treme heat.

The grow­ing use of trucks co­in­cided with in­creased trade with Mex­ico un­der the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment, al­low­ing smug­glers to more eas­ily blend in with cargo, par­tic­u­larly on In­ter­state 35 from Laredo, Texas, to San An­to­nio, Cor­reaCabr­era said. Walk­ing in the open desert more eas­ily ex­poses them to US Bor­der Pa­trol agents. Women, some car­ry­ing chil­dren, think they are less likely to be raped on a truck than in the open desert be­cause there are more wit­nesses, Cor­reia-Cabr­era said. Rid­ing in a big rig, she said, is “the VIP treat­ment”.

For smug­glers, the ad­van­tage of trac­tor­trail­ers boils down to scale. “It’s like any other busi­ness: the more they move, the more profit they make,” Ho­man said. “Rather than tak­ing four in a car, the profit mar­gin on trac­tor-trail­ers is a lot more.” Truck driv­ers are low-level cogs in a big ma­chine, re­cruited in the US at casi­nos and other places where smug­gling or­ga­ni­za­tions look for peo­ple who are down on their luck, des­per­ate for quick cash and dis­in­clined to ask ques­tions.

—AP

James Mathew Bradley Jr, 60, of Clear­wa­ter, Florida is es­corted out of the fed­eral court­house fol­low­ing a hear­ing on in San An­to­nio. Bradley was ar­rested in con­nec­tion with the deaths of mul­ti­ple peo­ple packed into a trac­tor-trailer.

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