In rural towns along both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, coyotes are constantly searching for prey to feed upon.
But these coyotes are not four-legged predators. They are fast-talking, greedy criminals who specialize in smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States. These coyotes or polleros – as all smugglers of humans in this part of the world are commonly known – set up monetary deals between illegals and individuals who are willing to transport them to various towns and cities within this country.
It’s a lucrative business – second only to narcotics in Mexico’s criminal trade – that encompasses a myriad of techniques – including the use of truckers and their equipment.
“The use of truckers to smuggle illegal immigrants seems to be a growing trend,” says Xavier Rios, supervisory border patrol agent for the McAllen (Texas) Border Patrol Sector. “Just looking at the past three years, the number of cases involving truckers has increased.”
Human smuggling often gets little national attention until something goes tragically wrong. The most deadly incident involving a tractor-trailer in U.S. history occurred in May when 19 undocumented immigrants died in a botched smuggling attempt. The victims, ranging in age from 7 to 91, and 54 other immigrants were loaded into the back of a tractor-trailer to be transported to Houston. But the trailer was abandoned in Victoria, Texas. A New York trucker and at least six others face charges in connection with the smuggling deaths.
According to news reports, the trucker alleges he was promised $5,000 ($2,500 was paid in advance) to smuggle 16 immigrants, but coyotes took advantage of the opportunity to pack the trailer with many more.
The lure of fast and easy cash is too hard for some people to resist. And it’s not just the rogue trucker, according to Rios. “The money might look pretty good to a trucker who has had a bad couple of months financially,” he says. “The pay can range from a few thousand dollars to as much as $50,000.”
Coyotes prefer owner-operators because they often have greater control over their equipment and routes, but they occasionally approach company drivers. They often broker deals at truckstops and hotels near the border. “I’ve talked to truckers who tell us that smugglers will offer a briefcase of cash if the trucker will leave his trailer unlocked while it is loaded,” says Rios.
Sometimes coyotes are very open about who or what they want to put in the back of a trucker’s trailer. But sometimes they’re not. Rios says this increases the potential dangers, especially when it comes to national security. “If a trucker doesn’t know what’s being loaded into his trailer, he could commit an act against the United States,” he says. “It could be illegal immigrants, narcotics, terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.”
While involvement in smuggling rings and the deadly incident in Victoria certainly are not characteristic of the trucking industry as a whole, law-abiding truckers can be a part of the solution. We encourage truckers to report any suspicious activities involving potential smuggling to the proper authorities.
“Good descriptions of the people trying to make a smuggling deal, any vehicles that may be used in the offer, the time of day and place can be very helpful,” Rios says. “They can call the Border Patrol, local authorities or simply call 9-1-1.”
The McAllen Border Patrol Sector also is trying to make sure drivers know the severity of these types of activities by handing out flyers at its port-of-entry and checkpoint locations. The flyers outline the punishment for human smuggling, which is a federal offense. Maximum fines are five years in prison and $5,000 per illegal immigrant. The penalties increase if an illegal immigrant is injured or dies – possible life imprisonment or the death penalty.
“We want truckers to think twice before getting caught up in this type of crime,” Rios says. “In the long run, a trucker is better off making honest money than trying to make some quick cash for the short haul.”