How smugglers stand to profit from Trump’s border wall

JUDY WOODRUFF: The USA TODAY NETWORK published an ambitious project today exploring the complex world of those who live along the Southern U.S. border and how President Trump's proposed barrier structure might affect them.

"The Wall" combines print reports, photographs, interactive maps and video.

William Brangham will be back to talk to one of the lead reporters on the series.

But, first, here's one of its featured films, this one focusing on the cat-and-mouse game between U.S. authorities and the drug smugglers who try to evade them.

MAN: Some of these smuggling organizations have been in business 20, 30, 40, 50 years.

The amount of money is just too huge and too vast. They're not just going to walk away from that profit because now there's a wall between the United States and Mexico. They're going to look for some other means.

MAN: All right. I'm about ready to descend into the Galvez tunnel. Tell me when you're clear. I'm going to descend about 70 feet straight down the bottom.

MAN: Clear.

MIKE UNZUETA, Retired Special Agent, Homeland Security Investigations: With the advent of the infrastructure between the ports of entry, one of the unintended consequences was huge narcotics tunnels that then were created.

ROBERT "LANCE" LENOIR, Border Patrol Agent, Tunnel Task Force Entry Team: They are very effective. They are built in secret on the south side inside of a warehouse, and they end up in secret on a warehouse on the north side.

MAN: Be careful down there, Bob.

MAN: The fact that they're going to tunnel underneath our border layered with tactical infrastructure and agents topside, and they're all doing this all underneath that stuff, that is pretty audacious, if you ask me.

WOMAN: Stick one more in that one.

MAN: So, the whole idea with the infrastructure that went in between the ports of entry, the fencing, the lighting, was to drive the smugglers into the ports of entry.

ROBERT HOOD, San Ysidro Acting Port Director: We're at the San Ysidro port of entry. We're the busiest land border in the world. We probably lead the nation as far as smuggling attempts for aliens and narcotics.

ANGELICA DE CIMA, Public Affairs Liaison, U.S. Customs and Border Protection: You have anywhere from you know 90,000 to 100,000 people coming through this port of entry every day. That's like a small city coming through this port of entry on a daily basis.

MAN: The big challenge is, is most of the travelers are legitimate. They're good travelers, they're good people just coming up to do business, to visit family. And we're looking for the needles that are in a haystack.

So, our job is to ferret those people out, to find them who are hiding within that mass of people who come in every day. And that's always a fine balancing act, and it's been that way on the border forever.

MAN: One of the other dynamics that we have faced here in San Diego is the marine smuggling threat.

KURT NAGEL, Marine Interdiction Agent, U.S. Customs and Border Protection: That's a lot of ocean. They're going so far now out of our area of operations that we can't even cover that area. You know, we can't keep up with it.

Even if our aircrafts spot a vessel 500 miles north, I mean, all we can do is contact another agency and hope that they have a water asset that they can go get them.

MAN: Updated position.

MAN: Four miles away dead south of us.

MIKE UNZUETA: Every time we have done something to try and secure the border, drug smuggling organizations have tried to come up with some way to end-run us.

So, I think, sometimes, the talk of the wall or building the wall is hugely and largely a political symbol. In some areas, it has been effective.

But, at the end of the day, you build a wall along the Southwest border, and you're not going to end drug smuggling. They're only limited by the amount of time and the amount of money and ingenuity that they want to invest in their smuggling ventures.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Joining me now is one of the people who worked on this whole series.

Daniel Gonzalez is a reporter for The Arizona Republic. And he's covered immigration and the border for nearly two decades. And he helped conceive this project.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

DANIEL GONZALEZ, The Arizona Republic: Thanks for having me.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, very, very ambitious series you guys have done.

I wonder if you can just give me a sense of, what was the impetus for the whole series?

DANIEL GONZALEZ: Well, obviously, Donald Trump campaigned to build a border wall. This became kind of a signature of his entire campaign.

DONALD TRUMP, President of the United States: We're going to build the wall, folks. Don't worry about it.

DANIEL GONZALEZ: And after he became president, as The Arizona Republic and the USA Today Network, we felt like we were really well-situated to tell the story, to explain to the American people what was at stake if the United States were to go, follow through and build a border wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

We're not journalists that would just be parachuting in like other journalists. This is a subject that we know well because we have covered it for a long time.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I mean, as you say, you particularly have been covering this for over 20 years.

Was there a particular idea or series of ideas that were driven home by your reporting on this series?

DANIEL GONZALEZ: One of the things that I worked on personally as the border has become more fortified, because of how lucrative it is to smuggle people and drugs into the United States, it has attracted criminal organizations into the United States.

So, we wanted to look at, well, what would the effect be on smugglers? Would it stop the smuggling trade, which is what people might presume? And, actually, we found out that it would be the opposite, that, as you fortify the border, it becomes more difficult for people to cross, they rely even more on smugglers.

They're able to charge more money. So, the bottom line was that…

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And take these much more dangerous routes and oftentimes die in the desert, and…

DANIEL GONZALEZ: Exactly, exactly.

So, smugglers, in the end, would end up becoming richer from a more fortified border. And, also, as you mentioned, it would drive migrants to take riskier routes, and we would end up having more people likely dying in the desert.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So much of this seems to be about economics.

The border — the retired border security official that we heard from in that piece was saying, every time we tried a new innovation on the wall, the smugglers found another way around it.

And it seems like, if there's an economic incentive for people to come, for goods to come, for drugs to come, people are going to find a way to do that if they can get paid to do it.

DANIEL GONZALEZ: Yes.

And this was definitely a point that we heard over and over again. When you talk about drug smugglers, you're talking about enterprises that — where there's billions of dollars at stake.

Is a border wall going to just have people pack up and go home? No. They're going to find more innovative ways to get drugs across the border. Will a border wall solve the economic problems in Latin America that drive people to come to the United States? No. A border wall isn't going to do anything.

Unless we address these more complicated, difficult issues, a border wall is really kind of — really, in a lot of ways, a Band-Aid. That's not to say that it wouldn't be effective. There are many areas along the border where the fencing is there now, the technology that exists has been effective.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You also show in this series that, it's not a black-and-white issue. There's very, very complicated opinions about this.

In fact, there's a piece in here where you hear from ranchers who argue — who very much want this wall. They think that the increased militarization and security along the border has made things better. And they hope that a bigger, more robust wall will make it even better still.

DANIEL GONZALEZ: Yes, so are definitely people who are directly impacted by the border who live along the border who would like to see more fortification.

They have seen the criminal activity that has come in the border. They're scared by it. They have seen evidence of people being killed along the border. So, for them, a border wall is a welcome solution.

On the other hand, they also know that a border wall pushes people out into other areas, and people will continue to find ways to circumvent that wall.

We saw in our reporting smugglers that take people right over the border wall in urban areas. So, if a border wall isn't effective in an urban area, how can it be effective in remote deserts where there's 100 — it's hundreds of miles to the nearest road, and there's no Border Patrol agents in those areas?

So, people — if you have a wall, and people can get over it, but there's nobody to stop those people who have gotten across, then the border wall is ineffective.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It's really a tremendous piece of journalism.

Daniel Gonzalez of The Arizona Republic, thank you so much.

DANIEL GONZALEZ: Thank you very much for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some powerful reporting.

And you can find additional stories at TheWall.USAToday.com.

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