'Coyotes' who smuggle people across U.S.-Mexico border mostly Americans seeking money, drugs
BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS — Roofer Sergio Elidoro Garcia never intended to become an American “coyote.”
But the construction industry collapsed in 2008 and the man who helped build homes became homeless.
Garcia, 32, scrambled to provide for his fiancée and three children, with one more baby on the way, by hauling undocumented immigrants across the U.S. border for $50 a head.
“As it is in Brownsville, there's no job but in smuggling operations or drugs,” Garcia said in a telephone interview from a federal prison in Memphis, Tenn., where he's serving a nine-year sentence for human smuggling.
An eight-month project by a reporter with the Tribune-Review's investigations team found that it is largely America's unemployed, the mentally ill, drug addicts and people looking to make an extra buck who become the coyotes who help smuggle immigrants into the United States. They perform a wide range of jobs, including guiding illegal immigrants around law enforcement checkpoints and transporting them to stash houses, where they're hidden from the police during a long journey north.
Three out of five coyotes convicted of human smuggling in federal district courts along the Mexican border in 2013 and 2014 held American citizenship, a Trib investigations reporter found.
Human smuggling is a labor-intensive operation. The typical smuggler is a white male of Hispanic descent, about 34 years old, with little schooling. Half suffer from addiction and mental illnesses, a rate twice that of other American adults according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
A Trib analysis of 3,254 federal smuggling cases in southern Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and southern California determined U.S. citizens are a critical element to success. Most were the drivers transporting the human cargo, or the “chequedores” scouting ahead for Border Patrol and law enforcement.
American drivers and guides are the primary means for smuggling the children and the elderly — immigrants unlikely to survive long walks across harsh terrain — through U.S. ports of entry.
Critics of American immigration policy contend undocumented immigrants are flouting U.S. visa laws to steal jobs, hiking taxpayer costs for medical care and schools. Others argue that immigration can boost the economy and applaud a White House proposal to raise the number of temporary work permits for low-skilled workers who have migrated here without documentation, creating a potential path to citizenship for an estimated 11-12 million people already here. Texas has filed suit to block a Homeland Security proposal to allow adult parents here illegally to stay and get jobs.
Immigration has become an early hot topic among 2016 presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, protecting America from unlawful entry became a national security priority. Strategically, Homeland Security and other federal law enforcement agencies sought to stop illegal immigration at official ports of entry or across the long borders with Canada and Mexico.
Officials estimate that three of every five undocumented aliens use northern Mexico to cross into America.
Today, most of those entering America along the border with Mexico flow through south Texas, fording the Rio Grande River in sparsely populated places like Starr County, before homegrown coyotes drive them 50 to 100 miles east through a gauntlet of local, state and federal law enforcement.
In the dense urban tangle from McAllen to Brownsville, others in the smuggling chain help the newcomers blend in or, more often, store them in “stash houses” like two that Garcia's crew operated. Then other coyotes sneak them in vehicles or on foot to Houston, the 21st century hub from which illegal immigrants fan out across America.
The United Nations estimates that undocumented immigrants attempting to jump the border hire coyotes 90 percent of the time. The fees charged by the smugglers vary widely based on expenses -- mostly for feeding and transporting immigrants -- and the risk the coyotes run of getting caught by Homeland Security agents, court records show.
Although a small portion of illegal immigrants, Chinese nationals smuggled by car pay the highest prices — $88,000 each into Arizona, $60,000 into California. The prices are way above what it would cost to hire a lawyer to obtain a visa, immigration experts said, indicating they are entering unlawfully because the quota for those immigrants was met or they were otherwise denied entry.
Undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America pay far less. To go from a Mexican border city to Houston, about 350 miles, costs the typical illegal traveler about $3,100; $800 more takes them to most other cities, according to a Trib investigations analysis of court documents.
Like herding livestock
The likelihood of detention has increased in step with the growth of Border Patrol, the agency tasked with policing the vast spaces between official ports of entry.
Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Border Patrol doubled in size to nearly 21,000 agents, all but 3,000 of whom are stationed along the border with Mexico. That's more than nine agents for every mile of border from Texas to California, and the agency contends it never has been more effective at capturing coyotes and the illegal immigrants they bring in.
Officials point to the declining number of illegal immigrants testing border security. Over the past 14 years, apprehensions of undocumented aliens along the southern border have slumped nearly 71 percent, a level of illegal immigration unseen since the 1970s.
With a higher level of border security, coyotes like Garcia have come to regard trafficking as part hide-and-seek and part livestock herding, which makes sense in a multibillion-dollar industry that calls the immigrants “pollos” and “chivos” – Spanish for chickens and goats.
In early 2014, the ringleaders in a group of 16 smugglers made an offer a homeless man like Garcia couldn't refuse: live in a stash house for free with the pollos and collect fees their relatives wired to fund their stay and the next phase of their journey, a long hike around the Border Patrol outpost in Falfurrias, Texas, nearly 100 miles north.
To Garcia's bosses, it made perfect business sense. Armed with a valid driver's license and other identification, U.S. citizens can open bank accounts, buy groceries, collect wire payments and ferry human cargo with less risk of cops detecting them.
Classified criminal intelligence reports obtained by a Trib investigations reporter, along with reams of court documents analyzed by the newspaper, show that most smuggling cells operating on the U.S. side of the border are small, independent operations run by racially white but ethnically Hispanic bosses, who work with Mexican cartels and domestic street gangs.
In Texas' Rio Grande Valley, intelligence reports indicate that 72 human smuggling organizations operate in the 50 miles separating the riverbank towns of Roma and Mission. Five gangs remain active near the Falfurrias checkpoint.
The typical smuggling ring operating on American soil allots one coyote for every three unlawful immigrants being smuggled, according to the Trib investigations analysis.
Coyote crews usually include an American driver or two to quickly overcome the vast distances of the American West before cops catch up; a stash house caretaker to feed the illegal immigrants when hiding out; a guide, usually Mexican, to navigate them on foot around checkpoints; and an American scout to watch for law enforcement along the routes.
An American driver gets paid about $840 per head to smuggle immigrants hidden in a vehicle through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Other American drivers shuttling immigrants from the border to stash houses or drop-off points near checkpoints make about $300 per person, the investigations team's analysis of court documents showed.
A scout riding ahead earns about $450 per person and the stash house operator gets $250 for every alien that successfully makes it past Border Patrol, the same wage paid to the typical brush guide from Mexico.
Recruitment of American coyotes often turns on what law enforcement authorities call “the lure,” a pitch promising fast money or drugs for little effort.
“It was an acquaintance of an acquaintance. I had a driver's license and debit card. I was asked, ‘Do you want to make a little money?' I'd rent a car or fly to Texas and pick up some people,” said Pamela Joane Brill, 58, a widowed grandmother from Bullhead, Ariz., who was arrested in April near La Gloria, in the western stretch of the Rio Grande Valley.
Her lure: $3,700 to drive a van full of immigrants about 250 miles from the border to Ganado, Texas.
“They were already across the border. I didn't think it was illegal to drive them once they were across.” Brill said. “When I got to prison I heard from people who are real smugglers. They told me that I was the decoy. That I was set up. But that's not the way the prosecutors made it sound. They were trying to say that I was the mastermind.”
Called “suicide loads” because ringleaders count on cops to swarm these vehicles, the tactic allows a different shipment – sometimes narcotics – to drive past the dragnet in the confusion.
About a third of American coyotes caught along the border are women, based on the Trib investigations analysis of court records, but only 18 percent of the convicted ringleaders are female.
April Marie McBride, 28, a single mother from Austin, Texas, was a full-time student in 2013 when she was arrested “doing a favor for a friend” for $500.
“He didn't tell me the risk. He just told me to go and pick up a few people for him — which wasn't supposed to be 10 — and bring them back and he would give me a little money,” McBride said. “... I was in a tight spot at the moment, trying to move, and being a full-time student I figured it was worth it.”
Ronald Duane Tucker, 53, a diehard Cubs' fan from Chicago's North Side, went west to become a cowboy. Instead, he got hooked on cocaine in Tucson, Ariz.
“I needed work. A man offered me between $500 and $1,000 per head (to smuggle immigrants). It seemed like a fast way to get off the street,” Tucker said.
Two years ago and fresh out of drug rehab, his 1998 Lexus blew a tire near Rio Rico, Ariz., a 15-minute drive from the border. An Arizona Highway Patrol trooper pulled up behind him. Tucker had two Mexicans in the trunk.
“I lost my car. I lost two years of my life. I lost everything,” said Tucker, who is finishing a 20-month sentence in a Tucson, Ariz., halfway house.
Convicted in May as a coyote working a smuggling corridor in west Texas and New Mexico, Wilson Ivan Melgar-Marin, 34, was a Mexican roofer who illegally crossed the border to live with his wife, Angelica Rojas Medina, a citizen, and their children in El Paso, Texas. Her stepfather ran a human trafficking ring in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, according to federal court documents.
Speaking from federal prison in Mississippi, Melgar-Marin told the Trib that he and his wife became slaves to the organization.
“I was threatened to be killed,” he said, adding that his father-in-law “had us all monitored. He would tell my wife that if she would try to get away, he would take it out on me.”
Melgar-Marin said he didn't have access to the money the operation took in. His father-in-law “would pay me whatever was convenient for him — $20 per person. And with that I don't think I would've become a millionaire.”
The Ciudad-based cartel's boss – unnamed in court documents — died in a Mexican prison in 2012. Serving a 77-month term, Melgar-Marin fears the dead patrone's henchmen will kill him when he's deported to Mexico, so he's appealing the sentence.
Garcia, the coyote serving time in a Memphis prison, agrees with Melgar-Marin that smuggling kingpins often get sweetheart deals while lower-ranking coyotes incur long sentences. The bosses have information to trade with prosecutors and the pawns don't, he and dozens of past and present smugglers told the .
“They tried to make me say something, to get a reduced sentence, but I couldn't give them anything. I didn't know anything. I didn't even know their real names. All I had were nicknames,” he said.