EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Cartel infighting for control of migrant smuggling is driving up homicide rates in Chihuahua, the state’s top prosecutor says.

That’s because local gangs are trying to get an ever-bigger cut of an illicit activity that generates $50 million to $70 million in monthly profits just in an area that stretches from the eastern edge of Big Bend National Park in Far West Texas to the New Mexico-Arizona state line. The area roughly corresponds to the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, which remains the busiest in the nation in terms of migrant encounters or apprehensions.

“It is clear to us what is going on. Criminal groups are having disputes and there is an increase in homicides related to people-trafficking,” Chihuahua Attorney General Cesar Jauregui said. “They are disputing control (of territory) and that has led to people being murdered for being involved in people-trafficking.”

The Mexican state that borders Texas and New Mexico has recorded 571 homicides during the first three months of 2023. That compares to 424 in the same stretch of 2022 – a 35 percent increase. Most of the homicides are being committed in Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, Jauregui said.

“This war they are having over control of the migrants – or chickens (pollos), as they call them – and what people pay to get crossed to the (U.S.) side is what has brought about the increase in homicides,” the attorney general said. “It’s practically the same groups dedicated to narco-trafficking; they are also in control of this (migrant smuggling) activity. That is why we are certain that the increase is because of the events I am describing.”

Juarez police officers cordon off the scene of a homicide in the Anapra neighborhood a short distance from the U.S. border wall. (Roberto Delgado/Special to Border Report)

While Juarez is bearing the brunt of the homicides, smaller border towns also are feeling the effects of what Jauregui characterizes as a “war” between groups aligned either with La Linea (the old Juarez cartel) or the Sinaloa cartel.

The Chihuahua state police, for instance, is investigating the disappearance during a 30-day stretch of nine men and women, ages 22 to 58, in Nuevo Casas Grandes – a 90-minute drive southeast of Columbus, New Mexico. Another seven people disappeared from the town 10 months ago, and 13 Mexican migrants who in September 2021 were abducted by armed men near Ojinaga, opposite Presidio, Texas, are yet to be found.

Jauregui this week led a meeting of a multi-agency public safety coalition in the state capital of Chihuahua City. What was the main issue discussed? “That territorial dispute. […] We will continue working to prevent this from becoming a problem that is out of control,” the attorney general said.

U.S. security experts have told Border Report why the Mexican drug cartels in recent years have moved to take control of migrant smuggling. Each migrant represents between $8,000 and $15,000 in profits and, unlike drugs, the criminal does not lose money if the “merchandise” is seized by U.S. authorities because the migrant already paid the fees.

That’s why control of gateway cities or “plazas” on the U.S.-Mexico border often leads to a high body count. “Who owns that door will make a lot of money,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., director of the Center for Law and Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso. “This is a battle for real estate.”