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Human smuggling industry cashes in on U.S. asylum-seekers

Migrants seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border are a money-making enterprise for smugglers and powerful cartels. It’s the subject of “Border Hustle”, an investigation and short documentary from The Texas Tribune and Time magazine. Reporter Jay Root joins Hari Sreenivasan for a look inside the dangerous and expensive journeys. Watch the full investigation here.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    While the court case on family separation continues at the U.S. Mexico border, the flow of migrants seeking asylum — many arriving with their children — continues to grow. How those families get to the border and managed to cross is a money-making enterprise for smugglers and for Mexico's powerful cartels. A recent investigation from the Texas Tribune and Time documented the intricate infrastructure that's part of this "Border Hustle."

    Clip from "Border Hustle": La Técnica is one of the big jumping off point for migrants who are passing through Guatemala, mostly from Honduras en route to Mexico.

    You're not going to be able to find it on many maps. It doesn't even show up. This is a one industry town. Everyone here is involved. Everyone here seems to be making some money from it whether it's feeding them, whether it's driving the boats, whether it's driving taxis providing the hotels. It's an industry, it's a town that has sprung up around transit migration from Honduras.

    They get on these small boats, these small wooden boats. And there they cross over and get into taxis that are waiting for them on the other side and then they'll head north.

    The next big stop on the migrant route is Villahermosa. This is where the coyotes start to make bang for their buck because they can smuggle people in bulk.

    Right now we are arriving to Villahermosa which is one of the biggest hub for migrants smuggling via tractor trailers in Mexico. The migrants are going to be boarding now into tractor trailers and moving north from Mexico on federal highways, just like this one.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jay Root, investigative reporter for The Texas Tribune joins me now from Austin, Texas for more on his reporting. Now you worked on this since June, what you just described or what we just saw is a small clip of a 20 minute – 25 minute film. There's an established infrastructure here. This takes a tremendous amount of planning and money. What are the economics of this? How did human trafficking become so profitable?

  • Jay Root:

    Well, one of the things that happened is that the enforcement ramped up quite a lot. You know 15 to 20 years ago it wasn't that hard to cross and it wasn't that expensive. One of the cayotes that I talked to is for this film, a guy named Ramon and Reynosa, Tamaulipas, which is a very dangerous city told me that about 15 years ago, he could pay 50 bucks to cross the river.

    Now the cartel, the Gulf Cartel that controls that section of the U.S. – Mexico border charges anywhere between a thousand to fifteen hundred and it can go a lot higher than that. I mean, that you know it's the kidnapping capital, Reynosa is the kidnapping capital of Mexico and when these migrants come through there and they go into these safe houses there, they're pretty much held against their will in the sense that you know they have to pay and if they don't pay they're going to stay there until they do pay it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is this more profitable than smuggling drugs?

  • Jay Root:

    Well, look smuggling drugs is still a profitable industry but one of the things that's happened is that pot has been legalized and a lot of U.S. states and pot prices have sunk tremendously and the Gulf Cartel moved a lot of pot has and still does move a fair amount of pot. But they can't make near as much money on that. Ramon also told me that the cocaine is going over different areas, is moving in other areas. Still cocaine still comes across there, meth still comes across there. But they're using some of the lost profits, they're using the movement of people, smuggling people to supplant those lost profits and to boost their profits and it's quick money.

    The other thing is that when you get to the U.S. side of the equation and you have people that are trying to evade law enforcement, not asylum seekers turning themselves in but then they also have that added cost of getting across the border, past the Border Patrol, past the checkpoints north of there they have to pay a lot of money. And I talked to a guy named Emilio Trejo, who was convicted of human smuggling. And he had been in jail, he had been in prison for cocaine trafficking from 2004 for about almost a dozen years and he said that when he got out of prison, the world had changed.

    And I said you know what are you talking about and he said, the money's in the people now. And he got $2,000. He said that the going price is $2,000 a head. He got busted with 25 people in his 18 wheeler. So do the math. You know that's $50,000 dollars to go to, to drive from McAllen, Texas to Houston, seven-eight hour drive. That's a lot of money to do that – ten times that's half a million dollars.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And so was the sentence for smuggling people lower than the sentence for smoking drugs?

  • Jay Root:

    Oh yeah, yeah way lower. Emilio Trejo spent almost a dozen years for cocaine trafficking. He got 30 months. A little more than two years for smuggling 25 people.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So you've got a situation here where there's greater reward to be had and really a lower risk consequence at the end of it. All right, so you follow a family through this process from when they started from Honduras all the way through and what happened to them. And on this side of the border you say they are really cogs in a different kind of money machine?

  • Jay Root:

    Correct. One of the things that was really the sort of aha! Moment for me and the idea for this film began when I interviewed Carlos in Livingston, Texas, north of Houston and he had been separated from his daughter. That was his primary concern. But one of the problems that I found was that he was talking about how much he had to pay for phone rights to call his family, to try to call his sister who was in California.

    And I was like you know, I'm sort of looking into that it was like wow! I mean, who knew landlines could be so profitable, right? I mean, the the private prison industry is one place where landlines can be extremely profitable. And so I started looking into that and I realized that when migrants go into detention facilities they face the sort of what they describe as kind of a company town atmosphere where you know, in a lot of cases they're working for either a dollar a day or sometimes for nothing.

    And if they don't do it, they can be punished for it and I was like you know, this whole economy, where the very thing that they complained about on the way here coming through Mexico that they sort of were forced to pay all this money, this same sort of dynamic existed within the detention industry. Now the private prison companies say there's no comparison.

    But the plaintiffs lawyers are pointing out in these lawsuits that are suing Geo and Core Civic which are these private prison companies are saying that they're in violation of the Traffic Victims Protection Act, which is the same act that prosecutors use to go after trafficking, human trafficking networks. And so, there is sort of you know, they are making that tie.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the things I also was wondering was, is it cheaper for someone to cross the border with a child in tow?

  • Jay Root:

    Yes.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    I mean, this is the case that the administration has been making for, in some part, justified the 'zero tolerance' to create a disincentive to say, you know what, there are people using children as ways to get in through the asylum system instead of having to go through the border, hide in trucks, go farther inland.

  • Jay Root:

    Well, let me tell you how this works is that when somebody wants to go, the clip that we showed from La Tecnica or the reason why that's sort of an important clip is that Carlos told me that he crossed in LA Tecnica and then I started to interview and other migrants and they're all saying La Tecnica, La Tecnica and then I find out that they're all coming through there and it's like oh well. I was down in La Technique at a time when and you can't find it on a map. I mean. It's just this tiny village that's across from a tourist town. A touristy town in Mexico. And so what I, what I discovered was we talk all about a lot about these caravans.

    But most people are coming in the company of a smuggler and the way this works is, it starts in their village in somewhere in Central America and they typically go to the coyote in town and there's a there's there's a package deal. It's like it's like a travel agent. There's there's typically three levels here. The top level is about 10, it can it can go up to 10, 12, I even talked to a guy who paid $16,000 to be driven basically in whatever kind of transportation, it may be in the back of a truck or whatever but you don't have to walk for any of it and you go from your village all the way to some city in the U.S..

    The middle range, you know $7,500 to $8500, you have to walk around the checkpoint once you get across the border. But the bargain basement deal that they tell people to be most successful is if you go with the kid, with your child then they typically expect that you're going to go, they don't even have to cross the river. They put you in a boat, you go across the river, the smuggler never, never has to get on to U.S. soil. There may be on the, there may be somebody with them in the river that's on the U.S. side but they never get out of the water. The people get off and they go find a Border Patrol agent, turn yourselves in to the first person in uniform that you find and then they'll let you out. And that is the experience of a lot of asylum seekers.

    Now whether or not that fits into some political idea or not, you know, that's not what this film is about. This is about the money but they do tell you it's cheaper. And that was the situation with Carlos. They told him, if you take your kid, it's better, it's cheaper, you'll get in, you'll get out. The problem for him was he came right in the middle of this family separation issue. And it didn't happen at all like he was told.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And he is now reunited with his daughter, right?

  • Jay Root:

    Correct. Correct.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    His wife is still in Honduras. In the film you ask her whether she will be willing to go. And she says no, not after what I've seen. Again this seems like part of what the administration wanted all summer long, send out that message that says hey you shouldn't want to come here, whatever dangers there are. It's not going to be a pleasant experience, you might be separated from your children but stay where you are.

  • Jay Root:

    Well, you know I'm not sure what Claudia, the mother, would have said even if there hadn't been this child separation thing. You know what she said was she was really worried about what could happen to her on the way. And that's been true. You know, it's been hard to get through Mexico. That's why people hire smugglers. That's why people go in caravans, strength in numbers because going through Mexico without a smuggler is a really good way to get physically harmed and shaken down for every penny you have. That is the whole reason why people are particularly, when you're talking about the asylum seekers because they're not availing themselves of smuggling services past the border, past the U.S. Mexico border, it's only to get through Mexico.

    That's what a lot of people I think don't understand is that. And then when you go into these shelters, those are the people that typically aren't hiring a smuggler at least on the front end. And when you go into these shelters and you talk to people, the shelters along the way sort of, people who were trying to freelance it, they almost all say, I got robbed, I got physically assaulted, a lot of women get sexually assaulted. It's really, really a difficult thing to get through Mexico.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is there any abatement? I mean, is there any decrease in not just the traffic but the infrastructure? You're almost describing a pretty established pathway here?

  • Jay Root:

    Yeah. And it's remarkable how similar all these prices are from the coyotes to like it's typically you know, $6,000 – $7,000 for an asylum seeker with a kid. And you know, you can seek asylum without a kid. The problem is that you're probably not going to get, you're going to get detained and you're going to stay detained until you either prove you have an asylum case or credible fear and can you know, or you're going to get deported. So that's pretty much the experience of single adults. And what you see happening is, what I hear smugglers telling me is the prices are going up.

    I talked to a guy who paid $16,000 from from Nicaragua to Austin, Texas. And he described the entire thing. When he got across the river from Guatemala into Mexico, his smuggler met him on the riverbank basically said I got good news and bad news. The good news is we're going to get you a visa. HUME, a Mexican humanitarian visa that's authentic with your name on it but it's going to cost you an extra $4,000. So he was able to travel through Mexico and not be harassed by Mexican authorities, not fear getting deported but it cost him a lot of money. And then when he got to the U.S. side, he got in the back of one of these tractor trailers and went through the Falfurrias checkpoint. And you know they stop you for six seconds and ask you if you're a U.S. citizen and you go.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And this hasn't slowed the flow of migrants? I mean, even after last summer when it was so much in the public eye, you're still seeing volumes that are higher than what we've seen over the years past, right?

  • Jay Root:

    Right, with family units family units is off the charts. I mean, in some cases literally, the chart didn't go high enough to show how many people are seeking asylum and traveling here as members, as family units, members of families. And one of the things that appears to be going on is that you know, people are told now's the time to get out, you know, before the law changes. I think you do see some awareness on the ground of that, particularly among the coyotes and they use that as is for marketing. I mean, these are business people people you know. And they want to get people into the U.S. and be successful because that's good for business.

    I mean, if you find out somebody went with the coyote and they got assaulted or they got ripped off or whatever then you know, you're not going to want to hire that person. And one of the most fascinating things that I found out was this phenomenon and we show this in the documentary of where the smuggler actually takes a video of the family crossing the river and then sends it back to the family and says, hey, you know, they're there,they got across, we did our job. And that's good for business.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Jay Root from the Texas Tribune, you can see the reporting under the headline "Border Hustle. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Jay Root:

    Thank you.

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