Cartels Reopen Old Migrant Routes Through Arizona, New Mexico

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Border Patrol agents have found several large Central American migrant groups crossing the US-Mexico border along remote stretches of desert — a smuggling tactic that requires the buy-in of larger criminal groups.

Since October, criminal organizations have smuggled more than two dozen migrant groups to the desolate region near the Antelope Wells port of entry in southwest New Mexico, US Border Patrol officials said in a news release. The groups — each numbering in the hundreds — have all surrendered to authorities upon entering.

Last Wednesday, a group of 274 migrants — composed mostly of Central American families and children seeking asylum — crossed just after midnight. Border Patrol officials later said that the crossing was used as a distraction while two suspected drug mules moved 265 pounds of marijuana across the border. A group of 115 migrants surrendered the next night in the same region.

“Unscrupulous organized smugglers are exploiting the area,” the Border Patrol said in its statement.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Human Smuggling

Smugglers were also accused of aiding a group of 376 migrants who tunneled under a border fence near the southwest tip of Arizona on Jan. 14. The group — with the help of the smugglers — dug seven short, shallow holes under the steel barrier ten miles east of the border crossing in San Luis, and then turned themselves in to authorities, ABC News reported.

A Guatemalan man told the news outlet that he had paid a coyote $5,000 to get him and his 12-year-old daughter to the border with that group.

InSight Crime Analysis

The sudden movement of large groups of Central American migrants to remote stretches of the US-Mexico border is a sign that smugglers are profiting from this tactic, which requires coordination with Mexico’s larger criminal organizations.

Smuggling these migrants is a large revenue stream for organized crime groups. Payments first must be made to several so-called “coyotes,” or “polleros,” traffickers who shepherd migrants to the US. These traffickers make protection payments to Mexico’s drug cartels, which control migrant and drug smuggling routes in border regions. The cartels profit from these payoffs and through other criminal enterprises, such as the kidnapping and extortion of migrants.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The last time large groups illegally crossed the border in New Mexico and Arizona was in the early to mid-2000s when criminal groups used them as a diversion to smuggle loads of marijuana, said Jeremy Slack, a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, who has written about the relationship of coyotes and drug trafficking organizations.

Thousands of migrants fleeing crime and poverty have recently reached the US border in caravans, but they have largely been stopped at ports of entry in places like Tijuana, California.

The bottleneck of asylum seekers from President Donald Trump’s crackdown on the border is responsible for the smugglers’ return to moving large groups, Slack told InSight Crime. And their prices are likely increasing.

“This is going to be a bonanza for them,” he said.

Such large operations, however, cannot be carried out without the aid and approval of criminal organizations.

“I guarantee that whoever the smugglers are with these big groups,” he said, “they are paying off the cartels.”

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