August 30, 2006

Tighter U.S. border control boosts smuggler profit

By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Increased security on the U.S.-Mexican
border is turning human smuggling into a multi-billion dollar
criminal industry and attracting violent gangs with ties to
Mexican drug cartels, authorities say.

The U.S. government has gradually tightened its grip on the
porous Mexican border in response to heightened concerns over
homeland security -- most recently ordering 6,000 National
Guard troops to the border in May.

Police and prosecutors in Arizona, where around half of the
almost 1.2 million illegal immigrants caught crossing from
Mexico last year were nabbed, say the success has transformed a
trade once dominated by "mom and pop" outfits into an industry
taking in up to $2.5 billion a year.

"What we are seeing here is the birth of a new organized
criminal activity," said Cameron Holmes, the chief of financial
remedies at the Arizona Attorney General's office.

"We have seen smuggling here for years, but because of
increased enforcement at the border it has grown
exponentially," he added.

The transformation began in the 1990s and gathered pace
following the September 11, 2001 attacks, after which security
along the 2,000-mile (3,200-km) border was stepped up.

Arizona state police say there are now up to 10 major
networks hauling thousands of undocumented immigrants a day to
the sprawling capital Phoenix, where they are held in as many
as 1,200 motels and drop houses until relatives stump up fees
of $1,600-$1,800.

Each network has scores of collaborators including desert
guides, short- and long-range drivers, drop house cooks and
guards, and runners who collect millions of dollars in proceeds
each day from wire transfer firms across the city.

"They are no different to a serious drug cartel ... in
terms of their organization and their desire to get this job
done," said Terri Tollefson, acting deputy special agent in
charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Phoenix.


ICE says some of the smugglers involved in the networks
come from Sinaloa state in western Mexico -- which is notorious
for drug trafficking -- and use techniques and infrastructure
honed from running narcotics over the border.

The huge cash profits from the trade also attract armed
raiders dubbed "bajadores" who frequently ambush rivals as they
transport their human cargo across the state, sometimes having
shoot-outs with pistols and assault rifles on busy freeways.

"It's like drug groups ripping other drug groups off for
their dope loads," said Tim Mason, a detective with the Arizona
Department of Public Safety.

"We are seeing more of these individuals trying to steal
humans and turn them around for a profit," he added.

Police say the trade was always dangerous for immigrants,
but is now becoming even more risky.

Gangs frequently tie up their charges and beat them to
extract more money, and have begun warehousing them in desert
staging areas where temperatures soar to above 120 degrees
Fahrenheit to maximize profits.

With border security on an upward curve, investigators say
they expect the vigorous cross-border trade to only become more
consolidated, and more violent, in the months ahead.

"They are just getting started," Holmes said. "The ultimate
draw is the job market. Until that is corrected, the phenomenon
will continue to accelerate."