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Trade pact aided illegal immigrant smugglers

| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 11:38 a.m.
A Border Patrol agent stands with a K-9 searching for smuggled illegal immigrants in a lane for tractor-trailers at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A Border Patrol agent stands with a K-9 searching for smuggled illegal immigrants in a lane for tractor-trailers at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.
Border patrol agents search a tractor-trailer at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Border patrol agents search a tractor-trailer at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.
Doyle E. Amidon, the Patrol Agent in Charge of Border Patrol's Falfurrias, Texas station.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Doyle E. Amidon, the Patrol Agent in Charge of Border Patrol's Falfurrias, Texas station.
Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint along I-10 west in Las Cruces, N.M.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint along I-10 west in Las Cruces, N.M.

SARITA, Texas — Jaime Noe Vela nosed his tractor-trailer truck into the primary inspection lane of the Border Patrol station here, about an hour's drive north of the Mexican city of Matamoros.

Sensing that the shipping seal slapped across the trailer doors was bogus, U.S. Border Patrol agents ordered the Houston-bound truck to the “X-ray” lot, where a mammoth machine scanned Vela's rig.

Vela, 37, told a Tribune-Review investigative reporter that he was as shocked as Border Patrol to find who was huddling for warmth behind the refrigerator compressors on this Dec. 6, 2013, stop: 18 Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Mexicans, including a woman who was nine months pregnant, and a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, both unaccompanied by adults.

“You never know who's entering the truck. You never see them,” Vela said.

The passengers paid coyotes $2,000 to $4,000 each for the chance to nearly freeze to death in a rig operated by Vela, a former member of the prison gang Syndicato Tejan who was fighting a losing battle with drug addiction.

Vela isn't alone. In 2013 and 2014, federal courts from south Texas to Southern California convicted him and 93 other commercial truck drivers of human smuggling, a Trib investigations team reporter found. Seventy-five of those truckers were U.S. citizens. Most were white, middle-aged men living in Texas or small towns across the South, Illinois and Kansas.

When arrested, more than half were mentally ill or drug addicted, court documents show.

Regulatory changes resulting from the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement slowly loosened restrictions on foreign, over-the-road truckers, allowing an increasing number from Mexico to transport goods into the United States and Canada. NAFTA also allows American drivers to pick up freight south of the border and haul it north, often with humans hidden in the cargo.

Federal investigators, anti-trafficking advocates and major shipping fleets are concerned about the growing role big-rig operators have in human smuggling. Experts worry many immigrants are bound for modern-day slavery: debt peonage, the sex trade, and other forced jobs.

Vela and the other drivers analyzed by a Trib investigations team reporter comprise only a sliver of the 3.6 million licensed truckers plying America's highways, but federal law enforcement officials know that they play an oversized part in the trafficking of illegal immigrants.

When Border Patrol agents bust a semi driver, for example, the average load has 14 undocumented aliens onboard -- three times the size of the typical haul in a coyote's car or pickup truck, a Trib investigative analysis of federal documents found.

In early 2014, Border Patrol agents in Laredo, Texas, freed 89 Mexicans, Ecuadorans and Dominicans after spotting a truck with fake license plates, weight inspection forms and bills of lading.

Twice before 2013, Vela had been caught with illegal immigrants onboard, and he went free. That's because Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement agencies face what they call “prosecution thresholds.”

In 2013 and 2014 throughout much of southern Texas, a trucker wouldn't draw smuggling charges unless caught transporting six to nine adults — a number that shifts depending on the prosecutors' caseload and the amount of federal detention space for undocumented aliens, said Doyle E. Amidon, 45, patrol agent in charge of Border Patrol's Falfurrias, Texas, station.

“If he has five, he walks out the back door,” Amidon said. “He'll be treated as an administrative smuggling case.”

Squeezing three illegal aliens inside the wind deflector above the cab or the rear sleeping compartment carries less risk of prosecution, but that's changing in Texas. In Border Patrol's Rio Grande Sector, for example, prosecutors add up all the immigrants a driver was transporting over the span of several incidents to reach the magic number for charges.

Over the past two years, Amidon's Falfurrias station averaged a successful coyote trucker conviction every seven weeks, one of the highest prosecution tallies along the border.

Laredo's coyote trucker conviction rate is even three times higher and stems from the city's unique spot on the map: It links Mexico's busy Federal Highway 85 with San Antonio, Dallas and Kansas City on a 1,568-mile journey north to Minneapolis, making it a preferred drug-and-human smuggling corridor.

A smuggling conviction can kill the careers of Texas truckers. The state's “Texas Hold 'Em” law, begun in 2008, can permanently strip commercial operator licenses from convicted human or drug smugglers. The Texas Department of Public Safety and Gov. Greg Abbot's office declined to comment on whether the initiative has deterred smuggling or to estimate how many licenses had been rescinded since the program began.

“I think I'm going to lose my license,” said Vela, who is serving his five-year sentence at a federal prison in Indiana. He said he thinks it's an unfair hand to deal to ex-inmates trying to transition to life outside prison, especially those dogged by the addictions that drove them to commit crimes in the first place.

After a previous arrest, Texas temporarily revoked his license and ordered him to pay for substance abuse counseling.

“I had to go to classes. But I had no job. How do I pay for classes?” Vela asked.

“Finally, I got the money to pay. I went to the classes. All (the instructor) did was talk about deer hunting.”

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