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American Coyotes

How we did it

| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 12:17 p.m.
Carl Prine
Carl Prine
Justin Merriman
Justin Merriman

One thing really does lead to another.

Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine, researching a story on illegal immigration in Western Pennsylvania, found few deportations.

What he did find amid the court filings was a probation transfer order from the Southern U.S. District Court of California. On Oct. 27, 2008, federal Border Patrol officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry south of San Diego nabbed Justin David Mitchell, a college student and Washington County, Pa. native for being a “coyote” — someone who smuggles undocumented people into the United States.

Mitchell was caught trying to sneak three Mexicans, hidden inside a Chevy Silverado truck, through the inspection lane. He spent 15 months in prison and returned to his parents' home in Pennsylvania to serve his probation.

The United Nations estimated that 90 percent of all illegal immigrants entering the United States paid coyotes to smuggle them past increasing security. The Trib wanted to know how many Americans like Mitchell are involved in smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Answering that question wasn't easy.

Using the online PACER system for federal court records, searching district by district for those charged with violating 8 U.S. Code 1324.F, Prine found that 92 percent of all convictions in the United States were tied to just the southernmost counties of four states along the Mexico border. Between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2014, 3,254 smugglers were convicted.

To understand the illicit networks, the Trib pored through court records and built — keystroke by keystroke — a database containing the convicts' identities, aliases, ages, hometowns, nationalities, connections to other smugglers and organized crime on both sides of the border, where they got caught, where they were arrested and by whom, where they were going, the number of illegal immigrants they were smuggling, where the migrants were from, how much the illegal immigrants paid to get into the United States, and much, much more.

Prine then crafted additional databases based on information gathered from probation or prison records, and federal intelligence on cartels that was leaked to the newspaper.

What the Trib learned was that three of every five coyotes caught in the southern borderlands were U.S. citizens who smuggled illegal immigrants in exchange for money, drugs or both. Americans play key roles in the smuggling operations, especially driving undocumented aliens across vast distances and interfacing with other Americans.

Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman then spent two months traveling more than 1,900 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, from the southern toe of Texas to the Pacific Ocean. Traveling by vehicle, boat, and on foot, they interviewed dozens of people along the way to document the impact of smuggling on human residents and communities there — and beyond.

This series presentation involved the teamwork of numerous Tribune-Review editors, copy desk editors, and other staffers.

Special acknowledgement goes to:

Senior designer: Elizabeth Kane Jackson

Web programmers: Randy Wright and Steve Segal

Chief of Photography: John Schisler

Chief of Graphics: Bob Newell

Investigations Team Editor: Jim Wilhelm

To see more work by the Tribune-Review investigations team, go to:

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