EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Migrant smuggling is up five-fold in a rural stretch of Far West Texas border, and authorities on both sides attribute that to increased migration and the involvement of organized criminal gangs.

The 500% increase in smuggling cases around Fort Hancock, Texas corresponds to the first quarter of fiscal year 2021 compared to the same period in 2020, according to Border Patrol El Paso Sector Chief Gloria I. Chavez.

Border Patrol officials say encounters with unauthorized migrants have been increasing since April 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing violence, unemployment and more recently famine brought about by the destruction of farms by hurricanes Eta and Iota are driving people out of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and towards the United States.

But when the migrants approach urban areas like El Paso, what they see is a 30-foot steel wall and an army of Border Patrol agents across the Rio Grande. And with widespread confusion on whether new asylum applications are being accepted at ports of entry during the pandemic, many place their lives in the hands of smugglers who take them west to the deserts of New Mexico, or east to Hudspeth County, local officials said.

“We have noticed an increase in people trafficking” in the Porvenir, Mexico-Fort Hancock, Texas, area Chihuahua Deputy Attorney General Jorge Nava told Border Report.

He said Mexican police patrol border communities to make sure refugees and economic migrants don’t get robbed or kidnapped by drug gangs that have taken over the migrant-smuggling business.

“We are assisting people who request our help, but a lot of them go there on their own accepting offers from those who say they can cross them to the United States in exchange for money,” Nava said. “They place themselves in an environment of vulnerability” that often leads to extortion or being held for ransom.

Those who pay find themselves being led by smugglers through deserts, mountains and rocky valleys that stretch for miles on both sides.

Rural West Texas county fights back against smugglers

Monday night was an eventful one for Lazaro Salgado.

“Me and the sheriff stopped two vehicles trying to go around the (Border Patrol) checkpoint. A couple of weeks ago during the ice storm we apprehended another six trying to get onto Interstate 10. It just goes on and on,” said Salgado, chief deputy at the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office.

Immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government. But when the smugglers go straight through towns to avoid the Border Patrol or transport drugs in their jurisdiction, local law-enforcement doesn’t stand down.

“We normally help Border Patrol through HIDTA funds. We assist (the El Paso Sector), the Big Bend Sector and Culberson County whenever we can. They’ve been overwhelmed. It’s crazy,” Salgado said.

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program provides funds to all levels of law enforcement in regions where drug-trafficking reaches critical levels. As of last year, the entire U.S.-Mexico border was designated as a critical drug-trafficking area.

Map of High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas in the United States. (courtesy DEA)

Salgado said migrant smuggling incidents in Hudspeth have been on the rise for several months. “It’s not unusual to see groups of four to five, sometimes 15 people around here. Sometimes we see them (Border Patrol agents) chasing 30 to 40” and asking for local assistance for the safety of their agents, he said. “They’re just overwhelmed.”

The main concern of local law enforcement in migrant smuggling events is the possible involvement of drug gangs. Hudspeth County sits “on the pipeline” for drugs smuggled from Fabens in the outskirts of El Paso all the way to Sierra Blanca. Towns like Dell City are also detours taken by drug and migrant smugglers seeking to avoid the Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. 54, Salgado said.

“One time five vehicles came across the Mexican side and went onto a little road in one of the towns. They were coming from FM 192 toward FM 111 toward Sierra Blanca. They had marijuana, meth and 87 (migrants) in those five trucks,” the chief deputy said.

The county also gets involved when ranchers report finding dead migrants on their property. “We’ve found at least a dozen bodies in the past couple of years where they froze to death or died of dehydration. We just came off a freeze so we’re waiting on the ranchers to see how many bodies they’ll find,” Salgado said. “A lot of them (the migrants) don’t make it. They’re not in shape to walk the desert in the heat or the cold.”

The latter is something the smugglers care little about, law enforcement officials say.

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