Mexico: Crimes at the Border

Miguel Unzueta

Miguel Unzueta

Miguel “Mike” Unzueta works as the special agent in charge (SAC) of the San Diego office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Miguel “Mike” Unzueta works as the special agent in charge (SAC) of the San Diego office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). He spent the early part of his career working on a narcotics task force, but, since 9/11, his job and his office have focused more on immigration issues. Here, he talks with FRONTLINE/World producers about the threat of corruption among border agents, the organizational make-up of human smuggling groups and the difficulty of containing such a large problem.

Q: Do you think that the increased enforcement of the border has also increased the need for human smugglers to corrupt U.S. border officials?

A: You’ve got to understand that these criminal organizations, these human smuggling organizations, are only in business for one thing, and that’s to make money. That greed is a huge motivating factor. So, as you’ve got additional border patrolmen on the line and as additional equipment is placed on the border, and fences go up, making it harder to cross the border, these smuggling organizations are using whatever methods they can to continue to operate and to continue to ensure their bottom line. That includes corrupting, or attempting to corrupt, somebody that works on the front line, on the border.

Q: The supposition is that if you want to get across the border now, more so than before, you need someone to help you across the border. So there’s more money in human smuggling now than there was before.

A: Absolutely, and we’ve seen evidence of that in the fees that are being charged by the smugglers. Once upon a time, a smuggler might charge you $200 to get you across the border. At a minimum, nowadays, you’re talking about $1,500 to get across, at least here in this area. And that’s a very simple smuggling scheme. The fees go up exponentially, depending on how you’re brought in and the level of service that the smuggling organization provides.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: Well, for example, a guide, a foot guide, is typically being paid $50 to bring a person between the ports of entry from Mexico to the United States. The smuggling organization is going to get anywhere from $1,500 to about $2,500 for that service. You compare that to somebody that’s being smuggled through the port of entry in a vehicle, and that person is going to spend probably $2,500 to $3,500. And that’s a smuggling scheme that just involves somebody going from Mexico here into the United States. Somebody coming from China and being smuggled in? Probably $30,000 to $50,000, by the time the venture is over with.           

Q: Thirty to fifty thousand dollars?

A: Absolutely. You’re talking about huge times, distances, logistics, and stopovers. The worldwide smuggling industry, at least on the people side of the equation, is estimated at about a $100 billion a year.

Q: So strengthening the border, both physically and by putting more boots on the ground, appears, from what you’re saying, to have created an unintended consequence: this elaborate human smuggling industry.

A: I think it is inevitable. You’ve got smuggling organizations that want to make dollars. That’s their motivation: financial gain. You’ve got policies that are set up and procedures set up to defeat them, and enforcement operations. The smuggling organizations are not going to walk away from that bottom line, and they’re not going walk away from their profit. They’re going to try to do whatever it is they can do to ensure their dollars.

Q: It seems somewhat ironic that, on the other side of the border, human smugglers are in many ways looked at as folk heroes, operating a business quite different from that of the drug smugglers. That they’re really providing a service.

A: It may have a different assessment, or it may have a different viewpoint, but smuggling is smuggling, whether you’re trying to smuggle a load of marijuana into the United States or a load of illegal aliens in the trunk of a vehicle. You’re still committing a violation of a federal law, and you’re really putting peoples’ lives at risk. These smuggling organizations -- they’re not concerned at all with human safety. They’re only concerned with the money they’re getting paid. 

Q: That’s not what we’ve heard from people like Professor Wayne Cornelius at the University of California in San Diego, who’s been studying this phenomenon on the other side of the border. He says that most of these human smuggling organizations depend on the good will of their contacts, both those inside Mexico and the people paying for it in the States. He says that the smugglers have to take care of their customers; otherwise they’re not going to get repeat business.

A: We’ve seen people that have been smuggled in gas tanks. We’ve seen people that have been smuggled in the dashboards of cars. We’ve seen people that have been smuggled in engine compartments and actually had to be rescued and taken to the hospital because of the burns that they sustained through that smuggling venture. That’s not taking care of these people. That is making a buck at their expense.           

Q: What’s the economic model for these groups? How do they work as a business?

A: It’s an interesting phenomenon. It’s a system of various enterprises that all come together. For example, a guide who is going to walk somebody between the ports of entry, in all likelihood, is going to be paid about $50 to $100 per person, as opposed to an individual that’s going to drive a vehicle through a border checkpoint. That person is probably going to get about $200 per person. So you’ve got foot guides. You’ve got drivers. You’ve got load-house operators in the United States, where people are amassed or collected before they’re moved to their final destination. And everybody has a different sliding scale of what they get paid by the organization.

Q: Where does the money come from?

A: The money typically comes from sponsors in the United States, and often that is a family member or a friend.

Q: So the notion that someone comes to the border with a lot of cash and pays to get across -- that’s not how it really works, right?

A: No, not really. Many of these smuggling ventures are set up in advance. People arrive at hotels near the border. They know whom to ask for; or, their contact knows that they’ll be at that hotel and contacts them. It’s not an issue of somebody coming to the border with a pocket full of money and then linking up with an organization that will provide transportation. In all likelihood, most of that has been set up far in advance.

Q: Kind of like a travel agency?

A: It’s like an informal and somewhat unsophisticated travel agency. A lot of this is done word-of -mouth. Referrals are done word-of-mouth. We’ve seen ledgers that are hand-scribbled on pieces of paper. It’s a highly lucrative business and, at the same time, unsophisticated in many respects.

Q: So it’s not a highly developed drug cartel-type situation.

A: It’s not as highly developed as the drug cartels, but it’s still very lucrative in the amount of money being made.

Q: As the border becomes more physically secure, the role of the inspector at that border -- the person who’s the gatekeeper or the border patrol agent -- becomes more critical, right?

A: Absolutely; the person on the front line, whether it’s a border patrol agent, patrolling between the ports of entry, or an inspector working at a port of entry, that’s really our first line of defense, and it’s a critical position.

Q: Have you noticed more corruption with these kinds of agents since the border became, in a sense, physically more secure?

A: Those officials are certainly targeted and ripe for organizations to attempt to corrupt, because they represent the first defense that the smuggling organization is going to face. So, if a smuggling organization is not going to tunnel underneath the fence, or if they’re not going to use the Pacific Ocean, [targeting officials to corrupt] is another tactic that these organizations are going to take.

Q: Based on your years of experience here on the border in San Diego, is there more corruption going on, or more at least being detected or suspected?

A: I would say that there have been more attempts to corrupt U. S officials, and we’ve seen a slight increase. It’s still a very, very rare occurrence, but, again, these smuggling organizations are after one thing, and that’s money. They’re going to try to eliminate anything that stands between them and their profits.

Q: When people are caught driving a vehicle attempting to transport illegal migrants across the border, are they always prosecuted?

A: Not in every instance. You know, each case is looked at on the merits of that investigation or that particular smuggling incident. There are a number of instances where people are trying to smuggle an individual into the United States, and they aren’t prosecuted. I don’t think the system would be able to handle the sheer volume; so what we’re focused on is actually identifying organizations and identifying the structure within those organizations and attacking those.

Q: What we hear on the other side of the border is that this is, in a sense, a legitimate profession. People are hired as drivers. If they get through, they get $100 or more, and they come back and do it again. And they can be stopped a couple of times by border patrol and still go back and do it again before they’re ever charged.

A: Yeah, I mean, it’s still smuggling, and it’s still a crime, regardless of how people view their role in these organizations. They are committing an illegal act -- contrary to U. S. law, many times contrary to Mexican law -- and, actually, they could face prosecution on either side of the border.

Q: On the Mexican side, it’s relatively rare.

A: It is more rare than in the United States, but there are certainly programs going on and discussions being held with the Mexican government on prosecutions of those types of cases in Mexico.

Q: Wouldn’t the Metropolitan Correction Center be overflowing if you really did arrest and charge everyone who was trying to smuggle people across the border?

A: It would be difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute every single person that made an attempt to smuggle here in this district.

Q: We’ve heard, again from Professor Cornelius, based on his studies of migrants coming from Southern Mexico into the United States, that, while they may get caught and sent back a number of times, 95 percent of them eventually get through. Does that sound accurate?

A: I don’t know. I haven’t looked at his study, and I don’t know what the numbers are in terms of ratios and success rates.

Q: He says that these human smuggling organizations only get paid when people make it successfully across the border. So, if people get caught, the smugglers will pick them up right after they are returned to Mexico, right at the gate at San Ysidro, and just recycle them again, until they get them through.

A: Here, again, you’ve got an organization that’s only going to get paid for the service that they perform, and if they’re being paid to smuggle an individual, they’re going to make as many attempts as they can to try and get that individual across the border, which is why we’ve got to take a systematic approach to identifying these organizations and eliminating them through prosecutions, top to bottom -- the drivers, the foot guides, the financiers, the heads of the organization, the people involved on the financial side. That’s why these cases take so long.