With demand for smugglers on the rise, organized crime has moved in, with cruel and violent results.
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CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas — From the street, the little brown house was unremarkable yet pleasant. A bright yellow toy school bus and red truck hung on the hog-wire fence, and the home’s facade featured a large Texas lone star. But in the backyard was a gutted mobile home that a prosecutor later described as a “house of horrors.”
It was discovered one day in 2014, when a man called from Maryland to report that his stepfather, Moises Ferrera, a migrant from Honduras, was being held there and tortured by the smugglers who had brought him into the United States. His captors wanted more money, the stepson said, and were pounding Mr. Ferrera's hands repeatedly with a hammer, vowing to continue until his family sent it.
When federal agents and sheriff’s deputies descended on the house, they discovered that Mr. Ferrara was not the sole victim. Smugglers had held hundreds of migrants for ransom there, their investigation found. They had mutilated limbs and raped women.
“What transpired there is the subject of science fiction, of a horror movie — and something we simply don’t see in the United States,” the prosecutor, Matthew Watters, told a jury when the accused smugglers went on trial. Organized crime cartels, he said, had “brought this terror across the border.”
But if it was one of the first such cases, it was not the last. Migrant smuggling on the U.S. southern border has evolved over the past 10 years from a scattered network of freelance “coyotes” into a multi-billion-dollar international business controlled by organized crime, including some of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels.
The deaths of 53 migrants in San Antonio last month who were packed in the back of a suffocating tractor-trailer without air conditioning — the deadliest smuggling incident in the country to date — came as tightened U.S. border restrictions, exacerbated by a pandemic-related public health rule, have encouraged more migrants to turn to smugglers.
While migrants have long faced kidnappings and extortion in Mexican border cities, such incidents have been on the rise on the U.S. side, according to federal authorities.
More than 5,046 people were arrested and charged with human smuggling last year, up from 2,762 in 2014.
Over the past year, federal agents have raided stash houses holding dozens of migrants on nearly a daily basis.
Title 42, the public health order introduced by the Trump administration at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, has authorized the immediate expulsion of those caught crossing the border illegally, allowing migrants to cross repeatedly in the hope of eventually succeeding. This has led to a substantial escalation in the number of migrant encounters on the border — 1.7 million in fiscal 2021 — and brisk business for smugglers.
In March, agents near El Paso rescued 34 migrants from two cargo containers without ventilation on a single day. The following month, 24 people being held against their will were found in a stash house.
Law enforcement agents have engaged in so many high-speed chases of smugglers lately in Uvalde, Texas — there were nearly 50 such “bailouts” in the town between February and May — that some school employees said they failed to take a lockdown order seriously during a mass shooting in May because so many previous lockdowns had been ordered when smugglers raced through the streets.
Teófilo Valencia, whose 17- and 19-year-old sons perished in the San Antonio tragedy, said he had taken out a loan against the family home to pay the smugglers $10,000 for each son’s transport.
Fees typically range from $4,000, for migrants coming from Latin America, to $20,000, if they must be moved from Africa, Eastern Europe or Asia, according to Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, an expert on smuggling at George Mason University.
For years, independent coyotes paid cartels a tax to move migrants through territory they controlled along the border, and the criminal syndicates stuck to their traditional line of business, drug smuggling, which was far more profitable.
That began to change around 2019, Patrick Lechleitner, the acting deputy director at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Congress last year. The sheer number of people seeking to cross made migrant smuggling an irresistible moneymaker for some cartels, he said.
The enterprises have teams specializing in logistics, transportation, surveillance, stash houses and accounting — all supporting an industry whose revenues have soared to an estimated $13 billion today from $500 million in 2018, according to Homeland Security Investigations, the federal agency that investigates such cases.
Migrants are moved by plane, bus and private vehicles. In some border regions, such as the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, smugglers affix color-coded bands to the wrists of migrants to designate that they belong to them and what services they are receiving.
“They are organizing the merchandise in ways you could never imagine five or 10 years ago,” said Ms. Correa-Cabrera.
Groups of Central American families who crossed the Rio Grande recently into La Joya, Texas, wore blue bracelets with the logo of the Gulf Cartel, a dolphin, and the word “entregas,” or “deliveries” — meaning they intended to surrender to U.S. authorities and seek asylum. Once they had crossed the river, they were no longer the cartel’s business.
Previously, migrants entering Laredo, Texas, waded across the river on their own and faded into the dense, urban landscape. Now, according to interviews with migrants and law enforcement officials, it is impossible to cross without paying a coyote connected to the Cartel del Noreste, a splinter of the Los Zetas syndicate.
Smugglers often enlist teenagers to transport arrivals to stash houses in working-class neighborhoods. After they gather several dozen people, they load the migrants onto trucks parked in Laredo’s vast warehouse district around Killam Industrial Boulevard.
“Drivers are recruited at bars, strip joints, truck stops,” said Timothy Tubbs, who was deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations for Laredo until he retired in January.
Rigs hauling migrants blend with the 20,000 trucks that travel daily on the I-35 freeway to and from Laredo, the country’s busiest land port. Border Patrol agents posted at checkpoints inspect only a fraction of all the vehicles to ensure traffic keeps flowing.
The tractor-trailer discovered on June 27 with its tragic cargo had passed through a checkpoint about 30 miles north of Laredo without arousing suspicions. By the time it stopped three hours later on a remote road in San Antonio, most of the 64 people inside had already died.
The driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., one of two men indicted on Thursday in connection with the tragedy, said that he was unaware that the air-conditioning system had failed.
The 2014 incident at the stash house in Texas resulted in the arrest of the perpetrators and a subsequent trial, providing an unusually vivid look at the brutal tactics of smuggling operations. Though kidnapping and extortion happen with some frequency, such trials with cooperating witnesses are relatively rare, federal law enforcement officials say. Fearing deportation, undocumented relatives of kidnapped migrants seldom call the authorities.
That case began in the thick brush country eight miles from the Rio Grande, in Carrizo Springs, a popular transit point for people trying to elude detection. “You could hide a million elephants here, this brush is so thick,” said Jerry Martinez, a captain in the Dimmit County Sheriff’s Office.
Mr. Ferrera, 54, the torture victim, first migrated to the United States in 1993, heading to construction sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he made more than 10 times what he earned back in Honduras. He returned home a few years later.
“In those days, you didn’t need a coyote,” he said in an interview from his home in Maryland. “I came and went a couple times.”
When he set out in early 2014, Mr. Ferrera knew that he would have to hire a smuggler to breach the border. In Piedras Negras, Mexico, a man promised to guide him all the way to Houston. Mr. Ferrera’s stepson, Mario Pena, said he wired $1,500 as payment.
After reaching Texas, Mr. Ferrera and several other migrants were delivered to the trailer in Carrizo Springs.
Before long, Mr. Ferrera’s stepson received a call demanding an additional $3,500. He said he did not have any more money.
The calls became frequent and menacing, Mr. Pena recalled in an interview; the smugglers let him hear the sound of his stepfather’s shrieks and groans as a hammer came down on his fingers.
Mr. Pena managed to wire $2,000 via Western Union, he said, but when the captors realized they could not collect the cash because it was a Sunday, they intensified their assaults.
Mr. Pena called 911.
Law enforcement agents found Mr. Ferrera in the trailer “severely, severely physically harmed, with lots of blood all over him, laying on a sofa” in the living room, according to testimony by one of the agents, Jonathan Bonds.
Another migrant, stripped down to his underwear, was squirming in pain, his bludgeoned hand held aloft, in the front bedroom. In the rear bedroom, agents encountered a nude woman, another migrant, who had just been raped by a smuggler who emerged naked from the bathroom.
The house’s owner, Eduardo Rocha Sr., who went by Lalo and was identified as the leader of the smuggling ring, was arrested along with several others, including his son, Eduardo Rocha Jr. The younger Mr. Rocha testified that their cell was affiliated with the Los Zetas cartel and that over two years it had funneled hundreds of migrants into the United States and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The elder Mr. Rocha was sentenced to life in prison. His son and the man who had carried out most of the physical abuse received 15- and 20-year sentences.
Mr. Ferrera testified at their trial. As a victim of a crime who had assisted law enforcement, he was allowed to remain in the United States. But his new life had come with a cost, which he displayed when he held up his right arm for the jury, the fingers now lifeless. “This is how my hand ended up,” he said.
Susan C. Beachy contributed research.