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Smuggling cartels still raking in cash despite lower border numbers

Miguel Angel Salazar-Estrada, who rafted over the Rio Grande, told Border Patrol agents his family paid $17,000 for him to be smuggled from Guatemala.

Juan Manuel Lara Alvarez, a Mexican arrested as he was smuggled into Arizona, said he was paying 200,000 pesos for his journey, or a little shy of $12,000.

And Yanshua Su, whom a smuggler stuffed into a compartment built under the seats in an SUV, said she was paying 300,000 yuan, or about $42,000, to be delivered from China to Los Angeles.

The Biden administration has celebrated a drop in the number of illegal immigrants attempting to sneak across the border over the last couple of months. Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has characterized it as a blow to the smuggling cartels that control the market.

But those that do try it are paying more, according to The Washington Times’ database of smuggling cases, which tracks payments in near-real time and which suggests the cartels aren’t taking as big of a hit as Mr. Mayorkas would like.

A Mexican making the crossing into the Laredo area of Texas is paying an average of $9,500, up from about $7,400 earlier this year, before the end of the Title 42 border pandemic expulsion policy in May.

A Mexican sneaking into Arizona is paying an average of nearly $10,000, up from about $9,300.

Central Americans pay even more, with Mr. Salazar-Estrada’s $17,000 payment on the high side, but by no means extraordinary. The Times has tracked several recent cases of Guatemalans paying 150,000 Quetzals, or more than $19,100 in U.S. currency, to be smuggled in.

Those from further afield can pay still more, as the Chinese migrant’s case suggested.

It all goes to enrich the cartels, said Ronald Vitiello, a former chief of the Border Patrol who said the smuggling organizations get a cut from just about every migrant that crosses.

“This administration has been a windfall for them. It’s completely changed their revenue stream,” he said.

Indeed, experts said the cartels now make more off of human smuggling than drugs.

The power of the cartels was front-and-center on Capitol Hill this month, with a series of hearings highlighting their growth and the Biden administration’s attempts to reel them in.

Mr. Mayorkas touted his new carrot-and-stick approach to the border — trying to entice illegal immigrants to schedule their arrivals and come through official ports of entry rather than sneak across the boundary — as a way to keep them out of the hands of cartels.

He said the recent drop in Border Patrol arrests at the border is evidence of success.

“We are unrelenting in our attack against the cartels,” the secretary told the House Judiciary Committee.

He would not, however, guess whether the cartels are making more money now than they did during the Trump administration.

“I do not have that data,” he said.

The end of the Title 42 border policy in May marked a major change.

Border Patrol arrests along the U.S.-Mexico boundary dropped from more than 200,000 a month at the start of this year to slightly fewer than 100,000 in June. Meanwhile, the number of unauthorized migrants showing up at border crossings, as Mr. Mayorkas wants, rose from roughly 20,000 a month late last year to more than 45,000 in June.

Mr. Mayorkas suggests those migrants coming through the ports of entry don’t need to pay the smugglers, which saps them of money.

Mr. Vitielo says he’s probably wrong.

For one thing, to schedule appointments the migrants generally have to be in northern Mexico. That means they have to get there from homes in Central America or further away, and that can mean paying smugglers.

There have also been reports that the migrants waiting for appointments are vulnerable to extortion by both Mexican officials and cartel operators. It was so bad that the U.S. stopped scheduling appointments at a crossing into Laredo.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, Florida Republican, confronted Mr. Mayorkas about that at the hearing. The secretary denied it.

“That is false,” Mr. Mayorkas said.

Mr. Gaetz then introduced into the committee record three news accounts detailing the shutdowns.

Rep. Dan Bishop, North Carolina Republican, challenged Mr. Mayorkas over the cartels’ income.

“Have they become strong or weaker on your watch?” the congressman prodded.

Mr. Mayorkas responded by calling the cartels a “challenge.”

The congressman then asked if Mr. Mayorkas could say whether cartels are making more now than they did three years ago. The secretary said he didn’t have that data.

The Times’ database indicates that the cartels are making substantially more.

In fiscal year 2019, a typical payment for a Mexican illegal immigrant caught sneaking into Arizona was $7,500, and agents caught 32,489 of them. Compare that to the first nine months of fiscal year 2023, when agents in Arizona’s two sectors reported nabbing 146,121 Mexicans, who on average paid more than $9,000 to smugglers.

Border-wide, The Times last year calculated that the total smuggling market was at least $20 billion over the previous 12 months.

It’s more difficult to get a handle on the total size of the economy now, given the shift in how people are arriving.

The Times’ data is based on court cases prosecuting smugglers at the southern border. In many cases, the smuggled migrants serve as witnesses and agents record the amount the migrants say they were paying. The Times has been compiling that data for five years.

The money that is paid goes to drivers, stash house operators, foot guides and the coordinators who put it all together for the cartels.

It’s difficult to say what cut the cartels themselves take, though most migrants who sneak across the border pay what agents call a “mafia fee,” or tax for using their routes to cross. That fee, which can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, is clear profit for the cartels and totaled more than $2 billion annually in The Times’ calculations.

That includes payments like the 40,000 pesos mafia fee — about $2,400 — forked over by Primitivo Antonio Ayala. Caught by agents in Arizona after he snuck up the bed of the San Pedro River, he said he was paying $10,500 more for the actual smuggling.

The stories the migrants tell agents belies the suggestion that the migrants are asylum-seekers fleeing persecution back home.

Lidia Escobar-Guillen said she left El Salvador because there was “no future, no jobs.” She said she came to the U.S. illegally because she already had family here —  one brother in California, one in Maryland and eight brothers in Las Vegas. She was headed to live with her Maryland brother.

She was borrowing $15,000 from her in-laws to pay the smuggling fee, including $7,000 back home in El Salvador and $8,000 once she reached Houston.

Her journey involved buses, cars, an airplane flight and lots of walking.

She stayed in homes of people she didn’t know, holed up on the Mexican side of the border then rafted across the Rio Grande, was held at another stash house, then was shunted into a semi-truck sleeping compartment — which is where agents discovered her when the truck tried to go through a Border Patrol checkpoint earlier this month.

Not everyone is paying more. Some migrants report fees of just a few thousand dollars. But the top-end payments are higher than before, and the average trend is toward higher payments too.

Given the cash involved, there is no shortage of people willing to smuggle.

One woman told agents she’d been recruited over Snapchat and was promised $14,000 if she drove her Jeep Renegade from Oklahoma to Arizona, picked up a family at the border and smuggled them deeper into the U.S.

When Juliana Rubio-Corral got to the border, she told agents four men jumped into the Jeep and she sped off with them, only to be snared by the Border Patrol 10 minutes later.

Antonio Javier Inquanzo, whom agents arrested in Laredo, Texas, told them he was getting $600 for two smuggling attempts. Asked why he took the job, agents said he told them he wanted the cash to throw himself a birthday party.

Aimee Laine Barnett, also arrested near Laredo, told agents she started working for one smuggler who paid $1,500 per migrant, making about a half-dozen trips to smuggle 20 people. She and her husband then switched to another smuggler who was paying $2,000 for each migrant delivered from Laredo to San Antonio.

She figured she’d made another half-dozen trips for the second smuggler, with two or three migrants each time.

On the trip where she was arrested, agents said she was carrying one illegal immigrant from El Salvador. Maria Angela Bonilla said her family was paying $15,500 for her to be smuggled into the U.S. and delivered to Salinas, California.

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