COCHISE COUNTY — Human smuggling, an enterprising and cruel business along the United States’ southwest border with Mexico, is flourishing locally, as law enforcement authorities see a sharp rise in the arrests of undocumented people smuggled into the area.
Both U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector and the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office report more apprehensions of smuggled individuals so far this year, as compared to 2018.
In fiscal year 2019 to date — October 2018 to July 2019 — Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector, which includes Cochise County, have arrested 58,591 undocumented individuals. That’s almost 6,500 more people than the 52,172 individuals nabbed in fiscal year 2018, said Tucson Sector Border Patrol Agent Jesus Vasavilbaso.
A similar situation is being seen by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Mark Dannels. This past July alone, the Sheriff’s Office arrested 200 undocumented individuals who were being smuggled across the border. That’s compared to just under 50 arrests in July 2018, said Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carol Capas.
In just the last month, local law enforcement and Border Patrol have caught motorists harboring undocumented people in their vehicles in Bisbee and near Hereford. One of the undocumented men was a convicted sex offender who had been deported from the U.S. twice before.
Why the increase in human smuggling arrests? Authorities say larger groups consisting of entire families from different countries, as well as Mexico, are trying to get into the U.S. The figures cited by the U.S. Border Patrol include the arrests of men, women and children.
The only way these people can get across the border is to pay and pay big. And if an undocumented person can’t fork over the exorbitant fees that human smugglers — known as coyotes — demand these days, the undocumented person’s fate is in the hands of that smuggler until the cash is paid, law enforcement officials say.
“I call it modern-day slavery,” Dannels said. “These people (the undocumented coming across the border) are being exploited by these coyotes, by the cartels.”
Dannels said the going rate to cross into the U.S. now is about $6,000 per person.
“Who has $6,000?” he asked rhetorically. “So what happens is that these people become indebted to the coyote, to the cartels. Sometimes the women are sexually abused, and the men are beaten. The families they leave behind in Mexico (or other countries) are also sometimes in danger and are threatened.
“Americans need to stand up to this. This is modern slavery at its worst.”
Tucson Sector Border Patrol Agent Jasmine Conley says everyone who crosses the border into the U.S. “has a connection.”
“You have to think of this as a business,” Conley says. “Everyone who crosses the border has to pay. Rarely do you see someone who just makes it across,” she said, without them first arranging to pay someone to help them.
Every situation is different, Conley and Vasavilbaso said. Undocumented persons planning to cross over make their arrangements with the coyote. Sometimes it involves several coyotes — one who walks the undocumented people through the desert, then others who meet them at the border and spirit them away in a bus or car into the U.S.
“Many times they’ll rent a room somewhere (at a motel) where they can keep these people hidden for a while,” Vasavilbaso said.
But paying a coyote does not guarantee anything. Vasavilbaso said Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector, as in other sectors, have rescued hundreds of undocumented people who were separated from their group, or could not keep up with their coyote’s pace. And of course, their money was not returned.
In fiscal year 2018 for example, Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents rescued 923 people, records show.
But the reality of being left behind by a cruel coyote in the unrelenting desert, doesn’t seem to deter people desperate enough to leave their countries.
In a 2017 study, Wayne Cornelius, Director Emeritus of the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at the University of California — San Diego, found that there is very little that affects an undocumented person’s decision to cross illegally into the U.S., including “tighter U.S. border enforcement and large scale deportations.”
Coyotes are well aware of the desperation of their undocumented charges, authorities say, and they take advantage of it.
“It’s really very sad to see people paying these coyotes to come across the border and what happens to them,” Dannels said.