Cartels shift focus to smuggling Chinese, Brazilians and drugs, U.S. officials say

Border Crime

As Mexico shuts border with Guatemala and America tightens screws on Central American asylum seekers, criminal organizations look for profits elsewhere

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — The face of unauthorized migration into the United States continues to change, and much of that can be attributed to international criminal organizations, federal officials say.

For most of 2019, immigration agencies struggled to accommodate tens of thousands of families and unaccompanied children from Central America. Many of those families had been sold the American Dream for $5,000 to $6,000 back in their neighborhoods and villages in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, federal officials say.

But as migration from that region has plummeted — after Mexico deployed soldiers to the border with Guatemala and the U.S. made more asylum seekers wait south of the border for extended periods of time — families from the interior of Mexico are now arriving at the border.

And in the past few weeks, the U.S. Border Patrol has come face to face with Brazilian and Chinese migrants either trying to file for asylum or attempting to sneak past them.

“Criminal organizations are always going to change their tactics if they don’t see success in one certain area or with one type of smuggling,” said Mario Escalante, spokesman for the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. “They’re asking Brazilians to do the same thing that was being asked of Central Americans: to bring kids, to come as a family unit to seek asylum. (They’re) doing that with Brazilians and they’re doing it with Mexican nationals.”

And they’re also going back to what they’re best known for: smuggling narcotics, said another federal official.

“When we were dealing with family units we know a lot of that was attributable to smuggling organizations. They were certainly making profits from that whole enterprise,” a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) official told Border Report on Friday. “As that market dries up, they’re going to shift to other enterprises and I think that’s why we are seeing more narcotics.”

Drug seizures at the Southwest border were up 45 percent in October while only 10,000 migrants traveling as families were apprehended. Back in May, apprehensions topped 132,000 in the region.

A lot of those drugs are heroin, cocaine, methanphetamines and fentanyl, an opiod blamed for thousands of deaths in the United States.

“What happens here on border ties into the rest of the country,” explained the senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition that he not be named. That not only applies to the drugs but also to some of the people who are coming across, he said. In October, border agents caught 315 foreigners with criminal records trying to sneak into the country, an increase over the 261 detained the previous month.

In October, there were 42,450 migrant apprehensions at the Southwest border, a 14% decline when compared with September. That compares to more than 132,000 in May.

“Although our overall numbers (of apprehensions) are going down and the demographics are shifting, challenges remain. The progress we are seeing are a result of MPP and other initiatives that are paying off for us on the field,” the federal official said. “We are seeing some improvement here on the border, but we are not out of the woods yet.”

Big gangs, big profits

“If there’s a market, these organizations will find a way to profit from it, I think that’s what we’re seeing now,” the federal official said.

He added that the Mexican drug cartels are sophisticated operations that partner with other transnational criminal groups to bring in the Chinese for up to $25,000 per individual, but rely on small, regional gangs to get them across the border.

“The larger cartels may claim ownership over a large area of real estate, but what we typically see is smaller organizations that the cartels work with as part of their network. … Specific areas will be led by smaller groups that align themselves with larger organizations. The challenge is that there’s a lot of different groups and sometimes multiple groups operate in the same area,” he said.

Groups of Chinese migrants have been caught in the past two months in Marfa and in Mission, both in Texas. The way to Marfa is through the Big Bend Sector, whose border with Mexico is more than 500 miles long yet is only covered by 4 miles of border wall. CBP officials rely on technology such as sensors and cameras, and on helicopter patrols, to maintain control of such vast region.

As for the Brazilians, some who are passing through El Paso are bona fide families, others have been coached by the cartels, officials said. “What we are seeing now is an increase in Brazilians that are claiming family units and what we’re noticing on some of these is that some are not actually family units,” Escalante said Friday in El Paso.

Both federal officials emphasized the influence the transnational criminal organizations have had in goading migrants into coming north. The senior CBP official said the cartels, particularly, have been trying to exploit loopholes in U.S. asylum law.

“We’ve had success with programs like (Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP) and such. The challenges with that is that a lot of those are new programs that unfortunately continue to be challenged. The gains that we are seeing right now are really borne on the shoulders of those new programs. so, if they become at risk I think those gains that we are seeing in terms of increasing safety and border security along the border will be jeopardized,” he said.

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