Mexican cartels offering pricey VIP package for migrants trying to get into US

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CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico − The tunnel is dark and narrow. Toxic gases rise from the dank water. Insects scurry along the sides, rattlesnakes wait, coiled. Rodents lurk along the water’s edge.

Yet this drainage network that reaches from Ciudad Juárez into El Paso, Texas, is one of the most sought-after routes for patrons of a VIP migration package offered by Mexican cartels to those with the money to pay for it.

The tunnel route costs at least $6,000, according to interviews with top Mexican state authorities, federal law enforcement officials from both sides of the border and migrants waiting to cross in encampments along the Rio Grande. Ricardo, a migrant smuggler, said he has charged as much as $15,000.

Everything in this underground world functions by a code the cartels give their VIP customers, often delivered by cellphone, that identifies which cartel “travel agency” a migrant is working with so everyone from local police to rival criminal syndicates knows not to harass them.

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Heightened U.S. security along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico and fewer legal pathways to come north have been an economic boon for Mexican criminal organizations. Instead of fixing a broken immigration system, the U.S. government is outsourcing migration policy to criminal groups, some experts say, increasing practices of corruption.

“The migrant,” said Blanca Navarrete, director of the migrant advocacy nonprofit, Integral Human Rights in Action, “is the one to pay the price for that lack of action.”

Antonio Lopez, a Venezuelan migrant trying to reach the United States, watches the news in Ciudad Juárez as U.S. President Joe Biden announces a sweeping border security enforcement effort earlier this month.
Antonio Lopez, a Venezuelan migrant trying to reach the United States, watches the news in Ciudad Juárez as U.S. President Joe Biden announces a sweeping border security enforcement effort earlier this month.

A joint investigation by Mexican and U.S. authorities has discovered that one Juárez-based cartel, La Linea, has been smuggling at least 1,000 migrants through the tunnels into El Paso every month, according to a senior Mexican official.

Experts predict the return on investment of trafficking humans has eclipsed that of trafficking drugs.

“Criminals have shifted from their primary business, which was drug trafficking,” said Arturo Velasco, head of the anti-kidnapping unit at the Chihuahua attorney general’s office. “Now 60 to 70% of their focus is migrant smuggling.

“A kilo of cocaine might bring in $1,500, but the risk is very high. The cost-benefit of trafficking a person is $10,000, $12,000, $15,000.”

Velasco says he has seen the pressure − and with it, opportunity − grow in the past two years, after economies around the world gutted by the COVID-19 pandemic led people to migrate in search of work. Natural disasters driven by climate change and violence also have spurred Latin Americans to leave their countries.

A draft study by the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez, expected to be published later this year, estimates record-breaking payments made to migrants in Mexico by family members in the U.S.

“Remittances in cities like Ciudad Juárez have doubled to nearly $90 million per trimester so far in 2024,” said Ines Barrios de la O, an immigration specialist at the college. That is up from between $40 million to $60 million in the border town in 2015, she said.

“Migrants walk around with a price on their heads,” she said, “desperate to cross, scared for their lives.”

'Everyone is in on it'

For the VIP transit to work, key people must be in on the action. Interviews with migrants and government officials suggest the system relies on an already established flow of bribes that reach from high-level Mexican immigration bureaucrats to the city’s municipal police.

“Corruption in Juárez, or in any other Mexican border city, must be in collusion with authorities,” said Oscar Hagelsieb, a former assistant special agent in charge of the U.S. Homeland Security Investigations unit in Ciudad Juárez who now runs a security consulting firm in El Paso.

Velasco said investigations by his office have found that Mexican National Guard and immigration authorities turn migrants over to cartels and sell migration permits that allow people to legally transit through the country.

“We know of federal law enforcement that traffic migrants,” Velasco said. “From inside shelters, they, along with officials from the National Institute of Migration, send information on people and then, outside, these people are abducted by criminal groups.”

Requests for comment sent to the National Guard by phone and messaging app were not returned. The National Institute of Migration declined to comment.

Local police abduct migrants for profit as well, Velasco said. And they are a crucial part of the migrant smuggling operations in Juárez networks in the city.

In Juárez, municipal police Chief Cesar Omar Muñoz Morales denied the allegations of corruption, saying it’s “difficult and complicated” to “address things that are not formally documented.”

“It’s tough to respond to your question when there are no formal complaints for our department to follow up on,” Muñoz said. He described his department as clean and efficient, adding, “We’re doing the best we can.”

Velasco, however, confirmed that police officers are kidnapping migrants, who are then held in safe houses − in one case, just feet from the homes of one officer − until they come up with the amount they agreed to pay the cartel before starting their journey.

Belongings of migrants near the Rio Bravo River, border between Mexico and the United States in Ciudad Juárez.
Belongings of migrants near the Rio Bravo River, border between Mexico and the United States in Ciudad Juárez.

State investigators documented municipal police participating in kidnapping of migrants arriving at the Juárez International Airport. This year, that has resulted in several shootouts between government and rival human smuggling groups, which has turned the airport area into the latest turf war for organized crime.

The migrant smuggler who spoke with USA TODAY confirmed that municipal police play an integral role for his organization as well, including transporting migrants from the safe houses to the tunnels.

“They load people onto their trucks, and they care for them so that another cartel doesn’t abduct them,” Ricardo said.

The officers not only bring clients to drain entrances, he said, but they provide cover for him and his fellow smugglers to head into El Paso. For this service, Ricardo said, he pays a police commander nearly $600 a migrant.

“It’s millions of pesos in extortions, and everyone is in on it,” said Tony Payan, director of the U.S.-Mexico Center at Rice University who has written a book about the political situation in Juárez.

“In other words,” Payan said, “it’s an extortion force.“

The promise of a bus ride, free of hassles

Ciudad Juárez is at the heart of tensions of migration and immigration policy.

Last year, El Paso recorded 427,000 encounters with Border Patrol authorities, the most of any sector along the southern U.S. border.

Migrants come to the city from all over the globe. Some, like the Chinese, pay exorbitant fees of up to $75,000 for the VIP packages, according to Ricardo.

Others fall short or run out of money and find themselves among hundreds camping on the banks of the Rio Grande.

There they say they feel like hostages, stuck between a desire to stay away from criminal groups yet within reach of the U.S. Standing between them and their destination are hundreds of Texas National Guards members in Humvees and in helicopters hovering above.

Ronald, a 29-year-old migrant from Venezuela, speaks to his family from along the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande River while searching for an entry point into the United States from Ciudad Juárez.
Ronald, a 29-year-old migrant from Venezuela, speaks to his family from along the dry riverbed of the Rio Grande River while searching for an entry point into the United States from Ciudad Juárez.

Andrés, a 25-year-old Venezuelan, naps in a sleeping bag in an area he knows as “no-man’s land.” Nearby, others sleep on flattened cardboard boxes.

One recent afternoon, Andrés, who asked to be identified by only his first name, recounted how he came north on the promise of a “VIP package” advertised on social media. The package described crossing through the Darien Gap on a horse, he recalled, followed by a bus ride, free of hassles.

He navigated his trip through his cellphone, communicating with a chain of regional cartel representatives starting in his hometown, Caracas, all the way to the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Everything went as planned until he reached Juárez, Andrés said. By then, he had paid half of the $15,000 fee to the cartel, but he had no money to cover the other half. As a result, his cartel travel agency stopped responding.

His family loaned him $750 to pay for a code provided by local criminal groups.

It’s especially helpful, he said, when he needs to cross the street next to the Río Grande, where his camp is located.

As Andrés sat on the banks of the river, he pointed to men in pickups with high-powered weapons. Below, on a highway, municipal police cars drove up and down. All had demanded his code, he said.

Members of the Texas National Guard stand guard near a razor wire fence to inhibit the crossing of migrants into the United States from Ciudad Juárez.
Members of the Texas National Guard stand guard near a razor wire fence to inhibit the crossing of migrants into the United States from Ciudad Juárez.

Andrés was growing desperate. He saw his only option as jumping over, or crawling through, the concertina wire between him and the United States. Then he would make a dash past Texas National Guardsmen and into the arms of U.S. immigration authorities.

Down the road, in central Juárez, Ricardo talks about the promising future his job has provided. In just five years, he has gone from being a low-level guide to managing 15 migrant smugglers. He said he smuggles about 50 migrants a month into the U.S. and gets paid thousands of dollars per person.

Much like the people he brings through the storm drains, he, too, has a dream.

“I want to buy my mother a car, a house, everything,” he said. “In fact, construction is already underway."

This article is published in partnership with the Puente News Collaborative, a bilingual nonprofit newsroom, convener and funder whose mission is to provide high-quality news and information about the U.S.-Mexico border. Alfredo Corchado is executive editor and correspondent for the collaborative. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mexican drug cartels offer migrants VIP package for passage into US

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