Illegal Crossing Increases; Border Issues Grow Complicated

Anne Marie Mackler, FNS Editor

Since the beginning of the year, the U.S.-México border has seen illegal immigration double or even triple, particularly in key areas such as the sister cities of Aguas Prieta/Douglas. The U.S. is detaining record amounts of immigrants, and México has seen a larger influx of immigrants making their way through the country and headed to the U.S. than ever before. Border security forces have been increased on both sides, but it appears that large criminal gangs are organizing much of the smuggling networks and are difficult to stop. Immigrants from Asia and throughout the Americas are taking dangerous and expensive risks to reach an improved lifestyle in northern México or the U.S.

According to the Mexican Federal Preventative Police (PFP) the market for this type of illegal activity is stronger than it has ever been and more globally active than it has ever been. They report that last year 156,656 people were detained as they tried to illegally enter México.

The Network

The criminals behind the booming business of bringing immigrants across the U.S.-México border illegally are an international group, and according to Braulio Gutiérrez Almuina, a delegate for the National Migration Institute (INM), they have a well-defined modus operandi. “Polleros,” or chicken farmers, has come to be the popular name for the “guides” because they often use chicken trucks to transport the immigrants, or may use chicken farms as shelter along on their route. Many in the network are multi-lingual and are believed to work out of the U.S.

Initially, the typical route starts with polleros picking up immigrants in Asia. They take them through Europe, usually to Spain, where they start out to México, which apparently acts as “a trampoline,” according to Luis Benavente Alvarez, of the U.S. Border Patrol. The group may then make stops in Central or South America where additional immigrants are picked up. Large groups accumulate, often over 100 people, including children, and most travel with official passports that have been stolen and altered, which is part of their package deal. A trip, with the promise of getting an individual into the U.S., can cost anywhere from U.S. $200 to $3,000. One “truckload” could bring up to $300,000 to the immigration cartel.

Once the immigrants are in Cd. México, the typical route they travel is to Cd. Chihuahua, often by plane, then to ranches in the northern Mexican town of Janos by bus or truck and then by the same means to the border town of Agua Prieta, Sonora/Douglas, Arizona where more members of the network will finish the job and help the immigrants cross the border. Polleros, however, are not always helpful. They may just point out directions, or act as a guide, but they tend to use more and more dangerous routes with little concern for the immigrants because they’ve already received their money.

According to El Diario, residents from several of these northern México cities have called these polleros a “mafia” group whom they know to also be involved in crimes of kidnapping and drug trafficking. The immigrant transportation activity has also been said to work under the protection of authorities at all three levels of government, according to the “Special Anti-Kidnapping Force” established by Chihuahua security forces.

Collaboration on these stories has come from residents of Agua Prieta, Nuevo Casas Grandes and Ascensión, according to El Diario. Residents from the area say they know of police authorities at all levels accept bribes to look the other way as the trucks make their way to Douglas, Arizona across from Agua Prieta.

The Leaders

It was reported by Notimex on April 3 in El Diario that the Mexican federal government initiated a “cruzada” or campaign to break up the criminal organizations that illegally take immigrants into the country and then across the border. The effort was ignited by the capture of Carlos Martínez Terán (El Yato) who directed one of the most powerful networks of traffickers. Martínez was captured in Piedras Negras, and after he was detained, his wife Rosa Elba Aquino Rodríguez and her mother Mercedes Rodríguez Vilaseñor allegedly continued in the illegal business but were caught on March 20 along with another in-law, Antonio López Torres.

Also in early April, the Mexican Federal Preventative Police identified Ricardo Tarango as the leader of a large immigrant trafficking ring. Tarango, according to Notimex, is considered an outlaw and with his assistant Adán Martínez controls the states of Chihuahua and Sonora. However, as of April 3 he remained at large, escaping the authorities.

On April 7, René Palacios, not only an alleged immigrant smuggler but an assassin and drug trafficker, was arrested in Ascensión on charges of murder. Although not a leader of the gang, he is believed to work closely with the Herrera family, who has strong criminal influence in both Ascensión and Agua Prieta and head up an immigration cartel. The group’s leaders are allegedly Eduardo Herrera (La Bruja or El Chino) and Oscar Herrera (El Cholo). Apparently they work the route from Chihuahua to Janos to Agua Prieto, keeping immigrants at a ranch outside of Janos.

The principal immigrant trafficker for the Asian arm of the network is Saleh Ahmad Salman.

Part of the difficulty in capturing the polleros is that the key witnesses, the immigrants won’t name gang leaders as they fear for their lives. However, their silence also increases the dangers.

The Immigrants

As of early April, the U.S. Border Patrol had arrested 63,000 Mexicans who had illegally crossed into the U.S., and the U.S. Border Patrol detained 156,656 people in all of 1999 who were trying to cross.

Isidoro Cruz Estrada, assistant delegate of INM, said that the Mexican border region includes four distinct points: the Paso Del Norte bridge in El Paso/Cd. Juárez, Caseta Porfirio Parra, Zaragoza and Ojinaga. These areas received 24,684 persons in the first three months of the year, where last year it was 8,216, and last year’s total for the region was 75,988. At the current pace, 100,000 would be arrested in these four regions this year.

According to the Department of Family Development (DIF), in 1999 there were 8,000 Mexican children deported from the U.S., and so far this year, some 1,000 minors were detained after failing to cross the border. There are eighteen orphanages on the border to care for the children who have been returned by the U.S., failed to get over or left behind by family hoping to come back for them.

Estrada said that the number of Central Americans detained has doubled since 1999. Last year, 400 people were detained while already this year 800 illegal immigrants have been caught.

Since 1997, when the flow of illegal immigrant traffic increased in the Calexico desert region south of California, there have been 140 drownings according to the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation (CRLAF). This area is a popular alternative to crossing closer to San Diego.

Crossing Is Only The Beginning of the Trouble

The Department of Labor in El Paso is trying to locate 29 undocumented Mexican laborers to appear as witnesses in a complaint filed against a New Mexican farmer, Larry Rivers, from Rodeo, New Mexico who allegedly violated U.S. federal labor law between July and October of 1999.

It is believed that he hired workers whom he housed in dangerous conditions, and did not pay them according to the Federal Minimum Salary laws. The identity of any workers who appear will be kept confidential and the Labor Department also made it clear that they have no jurisdiction to deport immigrants.

According to Phoenix New Times there are 1,000 “stash” houses in the Phoenix area of Arizona. These are temporary residences established for immigrants who have made it that far into the U.S., but don’t (yet) have the funds necessary to continue their travels. So they wait for money to be wired from friends and family already working, or they find work themselves. It was reported that one immigrant was happy to make $80/day working at carwash in Phoenix compared to $40/week in Culiacán for work that might not last, depending on the economy.

According to Tessie Borden of the Arizona Daily Republic, the border town of Agua Prieta is flooded with 20,000 to 50,000 people a month who don’t make it across and are sent back. The small town of 80,000 is unable to handle the huge influx of people that are released into the city by the U.S. Border Patrol. It is believed that this area has become a primary location for illegal entrance because the U.S. Border Patrol forces have been dramatically strengthened along other areas of the U.S. México Border.

Vicente Teran Uribe, mayor of Agua Prieta, is so frustrated by the recently increased population in his small border town that he has released flyers and radio and television ads urging immigrants to demand formal hearings by U.S. immigration courts when they are stopped by the U.S. Border Patrol. He hopes to “bring the entire U.S. system to its knees.” If immigrants request a formal hearing, as is their right, by law it is required that they remain in custody for several days. This may curb the flow, Uribe believes.

However, according to Sharon Gavin, spokesperson for the regional office of the Border Patrol in Laguna Niguel, California, it doesn’t matter whether the mayor tells them their rights, or the U.S. Border Patrol does. The bottom line is that if they request a hearing, and are denied asylum, they could be faced with federal charges if they try to cross again. If they deny the right to a hearing, they have a “clean slate” and can try to cross again because “there is no record of them.”

Sources: El Diario, El Norte, Phoenix New Times, El Paso Times

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