EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The arrest in Juarez of eight alleged members of the ‘Mexicles’ criminal organization in separate incidents this month is but the “tip of the iceberg” of drug cartel migrant-smuggling activity in the region, current and former law-enforcement officials say.
Juarez police on Aug. 5 stopped a convoy of three sport utility vehicles transporting Central American migrants. Six men and one woman who allegedly identified themselves as members of the ‘Mexicles’ were arrested, and three guns were seized. On Aug. 17, another alleged ‘Mexicle’ was arrested while trying to round up an Ecuadoran man who’d left a safe house holding another 12 migrants.
While drug-trafficking organizations such as the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel have been involved in migrant smuggling for several years, the migrant surge that overwhelmed the region since last October has presented new opportunities for other Mexican gangs, said former Border Patrol El Paso Sector Chief Victor Manjarrez Jr.
“It’s interesting how this has evolved over the years. Cartels in South Texas have always kind of dabbled in immigrant smuggling. Here, in the (El Paso-Juarez) area, not so much beyond selling the right to pass-through,” said Manjarrez, associate director for the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Now it’s a growing trend to see cartels and street-level gangs turn to human smuggling because it’s profitable and less risky than smuggling narcotics. If your drugs are seized, there’s no profit. If your migrants are apprehended, they already paid you upfront.”
El Paso has traditionally been an illicit crossing point for Mexican males traveling by themselves and utilizing local “guides” they met near the end of their journey, while already in Juarez. But in the case of Central and South Americans, Cubans and even Africans — all of whom have been part of the recent surge — hiring end-to-end transportation and safe passage involves dealing with criminal organizations, Manjarrez and others said.
“It’s very rare to see (a migrant) make the trip to the U.S. border 100 percent by himself, navigate through Juarez undetected and not have to pay someone to ultimately make it to El Paso,” said Fidel Baca, a spokesman for the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. “You have the Mexicles, you have the Aztecas and they’re subdivided into other smaller cliques. “
Officials on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border sometimes refer to those two groups as “street muscle” or “foot soldiers” for the larger drug cartels.
“They may not be the cartels, per se, but they work for the cartels. Just like law-enforcement agencies have a chain of command, criminal organizations have a hierarchy,” Baca said.
How profitable is migrant smuggling?
Manjarrez said the fee a migrant from the Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — pays for transportation from his or her country to the United States has quadrupled in the past two years.
“They were paying something like $1,500 as early as 24 months ago. Now they’re charging them $8,000 to $9,000. It’s gone up with the demand, and it’s usually paid upfront,” he said.
The money is spread around as migrants cross the imaginary lines of each Mexican cartel’s domain. A teacher from Michoacan recently interviewed by Border Report recalled how he initially tried to make his way to Reynosa to enter the United States near McAllen, but his bus was stopped at a roadblock set up by the Zetas, who hadn’t been paid their “right-of-way” fee. The teacher had to hitchhike to Monterrey, unable to pay his $300 tariff.
According to a February 2019 report by Stratfor, a Texas-based geopolitical intelligence company, Mexico is currently divided into three areas of cartel influence. Remnants of the Zetas and the Gulf cartel control Northeast Mexico; Jalisco New Generation, Knights Templar and the Michoacan Family operate in Central Mexico and Veracruz; while the Sinaloa Cartel controls most of the rest of Mexico save for Baja California, where Tijuana cartel remnants are active.
In Juarez, much of the violence often involves the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco cartel, the latter operating from Guadalupe to the east of Juarez. Remnants of the old Juarez cartel, known as La Linea, also have influence in the area.
In this region, the usual rate could be around $3,000 per migrant, Baca said.
“In Lordsburg, we just caught a large group of 200. Do the math ($600,000) and you see they make pretty good money. And really all they have to do is take them down to the border and tell them which way to walk. Most times, they don’t even want to run the risk of getting apprehended by us,” Baca said. “That’s one message we have been trying to get across: it’s all organized.”
Immigrants increasingly turning to smugglers
The huge migrant caravans from Central America vanished after Mexico deployed soldiers to the border with Guatemala, under threat of economic sanctions from the Trump administration. While the number of migrants reaching the U.S. border has dropped significantly since then, the cartels continue to market trips and safe passage north, Manjarrez said.
“Gangs are going to charge you more because it’s more difficult to get across. And now, since requesting asylum is also more difficult, they’re starting to ‘guarantee’ you’ll get across no matter what. It might not be true, but that’s what they’re selling,” he said. My experience is that, in the past 35 years, profit margins never go down for human smuggling.”
Meantime, Juarez officials celebrate small victories over migrant smugglers, such as the recent arrest of the ‘Mexicles.’
“The drug gangs are diversifying, they’re now smuggling people as well as drugs. People like the Mexicles and the Aztecas are even starting to cooperate, which make them more dangerous,” said Juarez City Councilman Alfredo Seanez Najera. “Things could get more difficult for us but, as you have seen, our police officers are doing their jobs, they are arresting some of these people. We have proof of that.”