EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Dozens of men, women and children crammed into a single room with no air-conditioning or freedom of movement. Food is scarce and water bottles are passed around mouth to mouth. There is little to no personal privacy and a long line to share a single toilet.

These scenes are becoming all too familiar for Juarez Police Chief Raul Avila Ibarra, whose officers are getting increasing calls from the public regarding migrant stash houses in their city. More calls would be made, except the smugglers are telling neighbors they are running a legitimate migrant shelter.

This situation has prompted the Chihuahua Population Council to begin a census of private migrant shelters in the city. “A decision was made to duly identify and register before the (Population Council) all humanitarian spaces that mean to house people in a situation of mobility,” said agency coordinator Enrique Valenzuela.

This will allow Mexican authorities and the public to know whether a home or building in which many people are living is a legitimate shelter operated by a social services organization or a stash house run by organized crime. The council has called for a meeting of stakeholders on July 18 to iron out guidelines.

Municipal officers in June took temporary custody of 431 Central and South American migrants kept by smugglers in such conditions at Juarez homes not far from the U.S. border. The municipal police have “rescued” another 250 migrants from stash houses so far this month, Avila said. The migrants are handed over to the Mexican immigration service.

Juarez Police Chief Raul Avila Ibarra attends an event in El Paso. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

“We respond to these calls because people’s lives are in danger. They are given no freedom of movement and often treated in a cruel and inhumane way,” Avila told Border Report. The smuggler-enforced lockdowns in sweltering temperatures expose the migrants to dehydration even before they’re walked or driven to the border wall, told to go up a ladder and advised to make a run past the U.S. Border Patrol in the desert or the mountains of Southern New Mexico, often in triple-digit weather.

Juarez officials say more stash houses are popping up due to the increasing involvement of transnational criminal organizations – the drug cartels – in immigrant smuggling.

“We have observed in the past few years that criminal organizations have developed an increasing interest in migrant flows and are becoming directly involved in this activity,” Chihuahua Attorney General Cesar Augusto Peniche told Border Report.

The drug cartels in the past charged a “pass-through” fee to either mom-and-pop smuggling groups or extorted money from the migrants themselves. Now, the cartels are kidnapping or murdering independent smugglers and replacing them with their gang members, the attorney general said.

“This has generated violence because the individuals are being replaced by these criminal organizations through acts such as homicide,” Peniche said. “This means migrants who try to cross into the United States are taken by these criminal organizations for a double purpose. First, to profit from illegal migration and also to use these migrants to cross drugs into the United States.”

Peniche has seen the drug cartels in Chihuahua diversify their activities to include gasoline theft, illegal logging and the movement of stolen or illicit goods (contraband). Taking over migrant smuggling was the next logical step.

Chihuahua Attorney General Cesar Augusto Peniche (photo Julian Resendiz)

The difference is reflected in the treatment of the migrants, Mexican officials said. All semblance of customer service is gone and the person is treated like merchandise – be it dropping children over the border wall as if they were packages or holding them hostage until their relatives in the United States or their country of origin fork over more money.

“This is a three-pronged problem for our community,” Avila said. “It is a public safety problem because many migrants are subject to crimes such as extortion and abuse. It is a public health problem because we don’t know if these persons are vaccinated against COVID-19 or may carry other infectious diseases. And it will become a social problem because some of them will not make it to the United States and will need housing, schooling for their children, medical services and jobs here.”

Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada said his city has assisted migrants since the 2018-2019 surge from Central America.

“We are assisting an average of 200 migrants per day at the Kiki Romero gym. We will continue to support them,” Cabada told Border Report. “Unfortunately, we are seeing an increase of instances where migrants are kept in overcrowded houses, in an inhuman manner. The smugglers have them there, on top of each other until they have the opportunity to cross them into the United States.”

Cabada said immigration is a federal issue in Mexico as it is in the United States. Still, the city and the state have decided to get involved from the start to avoid – or make the best of – a humanitarian crisis.

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