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Cross-border smuggling has increasingly become the purview of cartels in the past decade

Authorities investigate an area of the railroad tracks next to U.S. Highway 90 near Knipp and Sabinal, Texas, on Friday. Two people died among the 17 found suffocating in a train car.
Joey Palacios
/
Texas Public Radio
Authorities investigate an area of the railroad tracks next to U.S. Highway 90 near Knipp and Sabinal, Texas, on Friday. Two people died among the 17 found suffocating in a train car.

Over the weekend, three migrants lost their lives and several more were hospitalized in two separate incidents in South Texas. Both events are being investigated as human smuggling cases by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Since last year, efforts to transport migrants illegally have increased along Highway 90 between Del Rio and San Antonio.

Jenny Clark, an associate professor of political science at South Texas College and a founding member of the Rio Grande Anti-Human-Trafficking Coalition, said there doesn’t seem to be an uptick in smuggling incidents.

“Apprehensions are down in general a little bit from last year, given that last year was pretty high,” she said. “These smuggling operations have been going on for years. The only difference is they’ve become much more sophisticated, say, over the last 10 years. Smuggling operations have gone from coyotes that used to be sort of family friends to huge sophisticated networks controlled by the cartels, basically.”

These cartels have networks of stash houses in the U.S. and often recruit lookouts and smugglers from border towns, Clark said. Migrants who are voluntarily being smuggled across the border from countries like El Salvador or Honduras pay an average of $12,000 for the trip.

“Often when these migrants make it to the United States, they’re forced to work to pay off their debts,” she said. “So you have that dynamic taking place.”

With restrictive measures along the border – including those that make it harder for asylum-seekers to enter the U.S. – more and more migrants turn to smugglers, Clark said.

“We need a much more humane immigration policy,” she said. “When we create more restrictive measures along the border that pushes migrants into the hands of smugglers, smugglers then take that opportunity because they can make a lot more money. And so smuggling operations have gone from making millions of dollars to billions of dollars.”

Clark said the possible upcoming end to Title 42, a pandemic-era border policy instituted by the Trump administration, could also push more migrants toward smugglers.

“When they remove Title 42, if they do in the upcoming months, they need to be able to process migrants into the United States and not keep the Remain in Mexico policies that they have,” she said. “Because that just makes them much more prone to either being kidnaped by smugglers and extorted or they become desperate living in those camps. And then they appeal to a smuggler to help them cross the border.”

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