Migrant smuggling in trailers a booming business in Texas
The average sentence for human smuggling is just 15 months
At the Southwest border, people smugglers are inviting another mass tragedy. Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint north of Laredo have discovered groups of 145, 124, 110 and 95 undocumented immigrants in sealed semitrailers this year amid a proliferation of illicit transports.
David McKeon, 67, of Laredo, was approached at his birthday party in April by people who knew he had an expired commercial driver’s license. He told investigators they pressured him into accepting the job. At 11 p.m. on April 20, he pulled into the checkpoint and handed agents his shipping manifest.
They went to the back of his trailer to compare its seal to his manifest and heard noises coming from inside. They opened a vent door and discovered 124 people, all in the country without papers.
McKeon told a Homeland Security Investigations agent he had been instructed to haul the trailer to San Antonio, drop it off, then follow a vehicle to a hotel to receive payment of a few thousand dollars, according to court records.
The country’s busiest land port, with thousands of trucks streaming in and out on Interstate 35 every day, Laredo is the epicenter of a multibillion-dollar migrant smuggling industry, where coyotes bring people they have led across the Rio Grande to stash houses before their associates load groups of them onto trailers tucked away in the city’s warehouse district.
Laredo, population 260,000, is a shipping hub due to its location, said Raúl Casso, a former Laredo federal prosecutor and city attorney.
“The thing about Laredo, unlike El Paso, I mean you cross into El Paso and you’re in the desert. You’re in the middle of nowhere. Laredo you’re on I-35. It’s a big thoroughfare. And just up the highway, 150 miles, is San Antonio, which is a huge population base. … You go further down river, like Brownsville, that’s big. But you cross into Brownsville, you’re in South Texas and you are miles away from where the action is. Laredo, you’re right on I-35,” he said.
Though Border Patrol agents use X-ray machines and dogs to sniff out stashed drugs and migrants at Laredo’s four ports of entry with inspection facilities, and another checkpoint 30 miles north of town, they only inspect a small percentage of all vehicles.
For smugglers, it’s a numbers game, said Casso: “They’re going to blitz through, and nine out of 10 cases are going to make it. Just because there’s not enough people, you just can’t catch them all. There’s too many.”
Homero Zamorano, 46, made it past the Border Patrol’s Laredo North checkpoint on June 27 hauling a trailer with registration numbers matching those used by a legitimate trucking company.
A few hours later, after he stopped the truck on a rural road in southwest San Antonio, 911 calls led to the discovery of the bodies of 46 migrants who had overheated in the trailer, which had no working air conditioning. Another seven died at the hospital.
Police found Zamorano, reportedly high on meth, hiding in nearby bushes. In custody and facing a possible sentence of life in federal prison, he said he did not know the air conditioning had gone out.
Three other men have been indicted in connection with the tragedy.
Immigrant advocates were quick to blame Title 42, a Trump-era policy with the stated aim of preventing the spread of Covid-19, by which millions of migrants have been promptly expelled from the country and not allowed to apply for asylum.
President Joe Biden tried to end the policy but was ordered to keep it in place after 24 red states sued to block the move.
But experts say even without Title 42, impoverished migrants coming to the U.S. to work will continue to rely on smugglers, as there is no legal way for them to enter the country. In fact, many of the people who died in San Antonio came seeking employment, not to file asylum claims.
Mexican cartels that used to specialize in drug running have taken over the human smuggling business at the Southwest border and turned to brutal tactics – rape, torture and extortion – far different than the mom-and-pop coyote businesses that used to guide people across the Rio Grande.
The Border Patrol launched deterrence strategies in the ‘90s during the tenure of President Bill Clinton, concentrating agents in areas where immigrants frequently crossed into the U.S., to force the most determined to take dangerous routes across deserts and remote scrub brush where untold thousands have died from dehydration and exposure.
But people keep coming in search of better lives. And with the federal government continuing to pour resources into border enforcement – U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the nation’s largest federal law enforcement agency – following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, smuggling has become an estimated $13 billion business.
“So more and more, these smugglers or coyotes have become networked, more organized in associations, organizations, not just people here and there, like before,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a George Mason University professor who received a State Department grant to study organized crime and human trafficking in Central America and Mexico.
The truckers caught smuggling migrants in Laredo this year are not all locals – some are from North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Louisiana. Correa-Cabrera believes it is illogical to think they are entrepreneurs acting independently.
“It’s not like I’m a driver and I’m going to do it because it’s a business,” she said. “There must be some type of arrangement that maybe even incorporates corrupt authorities.”
“It’s very difficult to know how they do it, what they are thinking, what are their tactics,” she added. “And it seems that sometimes they understand how to evade X-rays and certain surveillance practices of law enforcement.”
So it struck her as wrong that only one person, driver James Matthew Bradley Jr., was charged after 10 of the 70 to 100 immigrants he transported in his trailer with no functioning air conditioning from Laredo to San Antonio in July 2017 died from hyperthermia.
His cargo had taken turns breathing through the one unobstructed ventilation hole in his trailer and banging on its walls to get his attention, according to his criminal complaint. He took a plea deal and was sentenced to life in federal prison.
Correa-Cabrera has interviewed dozens of immigrants about coming to the U.S. She said they pay fees ranging from $3,000 to $20,000, depending on where they start their trip, or if they hire smugglers to bring children unaccompanied by their parents or guardians.
But, she said, just a handful she spoke to were transported in trailers because it is more expensive than foot guides. “I mean it’s the VIP trip. That’s what they tell me.”
Those smuggled in trailers typically make agreements with a different person. “They don’t deal with the driver,” she said.
While truckers convicted of transporting immigrants who die in their trailers face punishment of up to life in prison or the death penalty, the typical sentence for human smuggling is relatively light.
Of the 3,551 people convicted of the federal crime in fiscal year 2021, their average prison sentence was 15 months, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission data.
Dedrick Coleman, 49, of DeSoto, a Dallas suburb, pleaded guilty in April after a K-9 alerted to his trailer at the Laredo North checkpoint and Border Patrol agents found 95 people hidden in his trailer.
Despite the number of noncitizens, he was sentenced to just 24 months in late June.
Casso, the former Laredo assistant U.S. attorney, said judges are constrained by sentencing guidelines that dictate how much time a defendant should receive based on their charged offenses and criminal history.
“It’s really like tic-tac-toe. There’s not much figuring,” he said.
But, he added, judges can depart down from the guidelines if the defendant cooperates by testifying against their associates, for instance. Or up, if firearms were involved.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, which includes Laredo, declined to discuss trends. But it seems not a week goes by without it announcing at least one conviction of a human-smuggling trucker.
On Monday, Marthin Rueda Alcorta, a 36-year-old Mexican national, pleaded guilty to transporting 110 people in his refrigerated trailer after he was caught May 24 at the Laredo North checkpoint. As noted in his plea deal, he had sought out a migrant smuggler for a job and agreed to drive the group from Laredo to San Antonio for $5,000.