Dangerous Cargo

Wanted: Desperate owner-operators willing to risk their livelihood for easy cash.

Truckers face many ill-advised temptations on the road.

One of the more unusual ones comes with huge penalties and is particularly suited to owner-operators: smuggling illegal aliens.

“Just looking at the past three years, the number of cases involving truckers has increased,” says Xavier Rios, an agent for the McAllen (Texas) Border Patrol Sector.

The most deadly incident involving a tractor-trailer in U.S. history occurred May 14 when 19 undocumented immigrants died in a botched smuggling attempt. The victims, along with 54 other immigrants, were loaded into the back of a tractor-trailer near the border to be transported to Houston. The trailer was abandoned in Victoria, Texas. A New York trucker and at least six others face charges over the incident.

“The money might look pretty good to a trucker who has had a bad couple of months financially,” Rios says. “The pay can range from a few thousand dollars to as much as $50,000.” Coyotes, as immigrant smugglers are known, prefer owner-operators because they often have greater control over their equipment and routes. They can also become desperate for quick cash because of the pitfalls of running their own businesses.

Smugglers often broker deals at truck stops or 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. In such cases, the trucker could be vulnerable to even more serious problems, such as a terrorist group loading weapons of mass destruction.

Truckers who take part in smuggling operations also put themselves in danger by associating with criminals, says Dennis Smith, spokesperson for the Del Rio Border Patrol Sector. “Some of these people who set up these deals are pretty ruthless,” he says.

Border Patrols are handing out flyers that outline the penalties for human smuggling. Maximum fines are five years in prison and $5,000 per immigrant. If an immigrant is injured or dies, the penalties go up to possible life imprisonment or the death penalty.

“In the long run, a trucker is better off making honest money than trying to make some quick cash for the short haul,” Rios says.


Truckers who witness any of these things should report them to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection at (800) BE-ALERT or to local authorities at 911:

  • Tractor-trailers parked in out-the-way spots.
  • Unusual noises coming from trailer.
  • Objects sticking out of a trailer, which could be a signal for help.
  • Roll-up trailer doors blocked by objects to keep them partially open.
  • Drivers buying abnormal amounts of food and water.
  • Trailer seals or locks that appear to be tampered with or broken.
  • Reefer units that appear to have been modified for ventilation.
  • Drivers asking about routes to avoid border patrol checkpoints.
  • Drivers who are evasive about their loads or routes when asked.
  • Unusual cash transactions.
  • People in a cab who try to avoid being seen.