DHS: Cartels earn up to $6 billion a year from smuggling migrants

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Smuggling migrants into the U.S. earns cartels and others involved in the practice as much as $6 billion a year, a senior Homeland Security official told Congress.

That staggering figure is much higher than other public estimates, though experts said they wouldn’t be surprised if the actual amount were higher still.

The figures underscore the stakes for the Biden administration as it tries to contain an unprecedented surge of migrants, who are enriching the smugglers with record profits.

Smugglers know how to negotiate the harsh terrain and arrange passage through the approaches to the U.S. border, and most migrants end up paying for the service, helping fuel the underground economy, John Condon, acting assistant director of international operations at ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, told Congress.

“U.S.-bound human smuggling and related criminal activities are estimated by the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center to produce revenues of between $2 billion to $6 billion per year,” Mr. Condon told the House Homeland Security Committee’s oversight subcommittee.

The Washington Times tracks smuggling cases along the border and it’s easy to see how the money can pile up.

The Times’ database found Mexicans paying from $3,600 to $18,000 to enter the U.S. in June, though $8,000 to $9,000 was a typical rate. Migrants from the key Central American countries paid from $4,500 to $30,000, with the typical payment coming to between $9,000 and $10,000.

That doesn’t include extra cash to pay for food along the way or, in many cases, a final release fee smugglers charge the migrants’ families — which can add on thousands of dollars. 

Analysts guess that at least three-quarters of migrants are paying a smuggling organization for the journey.

Customs and Border Protection said it encountered 188,829 unauthorized crossings, and, according to law enforcement sources, missed at least another 30,000 crossings. 

Of those caught, about 40% were from Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala, slightly more than one-third were from Mexico and the remaining quarter were from elsewhere.

Some were repeat-offenders who paid once, got caught, and then tried again on the same original payment.

Using very conservative limits, figuring three-quarters of migrants are paying the typical rates, and even discounting a 38% recidivism rate, migrants would have paid $840 million in June alone.

Experts say this will be a record-breaking year for cartel profits off human smuggling.

That includes one woman who paid $15,000 to enter the country in March, when she was pregnant, so she could give birth to a baby on U.S. soil, automatically earning the child U.S. citizenship.

The woman, Denise Flores-Dominguez, still owed $10,000 to her smugglers, so she began smuggling other migrants to pay off her debt, according to Border Patrol agents who caught her on a highway near the border wall in New Mexico on June 24.

One Honduran woman told agents she paid $30,000 to reach the border and be sneaked across the Rio Grande in Texas. Dania Melendez-George was arrested along with a juvenile traveling without parents, and she said the smugglers had tried to make it seem like she was the boy’s mother.

In Arizona, Paulino Sanchez-Julian told agents he paid $9,500 — $8,000 for the smuggling, plus a $1,500 “mafia fee” to the cartel that controlled that section of the border — to be sneaked in. When agents started following the vehicle he was in, the driver made him and the other migrants jump out while the vehicle was still moving at 30 mph, Mr. Sanchez-Julian told agents.

Smuggling someone involves a large network of operators, most of them loosely associated with a cartel.

Those networks begin with recruiters that range from plazas in Central America to villages in Pakistan, and include underground travel agents who plan the routes to and through Mexico to the U.S. border. 

Their operations continue with the foot guides who smuggle them through the desert of ferry them across the Rio Grande and end with the stash house operators who house them and the drivers who get them through the Border Patrol’s highway checkpoints and on into the interior of the U.S.

Robert Almonte, a retired U.S. marshal who conducts police training on combating cartels, said the money is distributed throughout the network, but the main cartel operations still get the lion’s share.

“Most of the money goes back to the cartels, that’s why they’re so heavily involved,” he said.

Mr. Almonte said the business is attractive because there’s less financial risk smuggling humans than drugs.

With people, they pay thousands of dollars up front, and if the migrants are captured, the cartels already have that cash in hand. With drugs, it’s the opposite — the cartels have to invest upfront and only earn their money when the drugs are successfully delivered.

Mr. Altamonte said the $6 billion top end of the Homeland Security Investigations’ estimate is, if anything, on the low side.

“The Mexican cartels have definitely increase their activity in human smuggling and human trafficking and they’re making a lot of money on that,” he said.

Todd Bensman, a national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said the massive spread of the HSI estimate made him question its reliability.

“No one really knows,” he said of the actual amount of money being made.

Indeed, Customs and Border Protection, which along with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement constitutes the government’s immigration law enforcement agencies, delivered a different estimate to lawmakers at the same hearing last week.

Francis J. Russo, acting deputy executive assistant commissioner at Customs and Border Protection, pointed to a 2019 Rand Corporation study that calculated smuggling people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the key Central American countries, churned between $200 million and $2.3 billion.

Experts also aren’t sure how much of the smuggling cartels’ income is from moving humans versus drugs, though they say it’s almost certain the drugs are a larger percentage.

U.S. governments have made myriad attempts over the years to target the cartels or try to blunt their effectiveness, with only small successes. The cartels adapt as well as any global business to changes in U.S. policy.

When asylum standards began to loosen during the Obama administration, more undocumented immigrants began to claim asylum as a way to gain a foothold in the U.S., and the cartels advertised that back in the sending countries.

While the Trump administration erected more walls along the border, cartels sent drugs over them by using drones or catapults, and dug more tunnels underneath the boundary.

The Biden administration has said it considers taking out the smuggling organizations a key part of its border strategy.

It has announced a cross-government operation aimed at identifying and punishing the smuggling transnational criminal organizations by freezing their assets and revoking travel visas to the U.S. of those tied to the organizations.

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