Migrant smuggling across the border is now a billion-dollar business.

CARRIZO SPRINGS, Texas — From the street, the little brown house was unremarkable but pleasant. A bright yellow toy school bus and red truck hung on a hog-wire fence, and the front of the house had a large lone Texas star. But in the backyard was a dilapidated mobile home that a prosecutor later described as a “house of horrors.”

It was discovered one day in 2014, when a man called from Maryland to report that his stepfather, Moises Ferreira, an immigrant from Honduras, was being held and tortured by traffickers. who brought him to America. His captors wanted more money, the stepson said, and were repeatedly hitting Mr Ferreira’s hands with a hammer, vowing to continue until his family sent him away. Will keep.

When federal agents and sheriff’s deputies arrived at the home, they discovered that Mr. Ferrara was not the only victim. Traffickers were holding hundreds of migrants there for ransom, their investigation found. They mutilated and raped women.

“What happened there is the stuff of science fiction, of a horror movie – and something we just don’t see in America,” the prosecutor, Matthew Waters, told a jury as the accused traffickers went on trial. Organized crime groups “brought this terrorism across the border,” he said.

But if this was one of the first such cases, it was not the last. Migrant smuggling along the U.S. southern border has evolved over the past 10 years from a fragmented network of freelance “coyotes” into a multibillion-dollar international business controlled by organized crime, including some of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. Cartels are also involved.

The deaths of 53 migrants in San Antonio last month crammed into the back of a suffocating tractor-trailer without air conditioning – the nation’s deadliest smuggling incident ever – came as the US tightened border restrictions. Aya, which has increased due to the epidemic related public. The health rule has encouraged more migrants to turn to traffickers.

While migrants have long faced kidnapping and extortion in Mexican border towns, incidents on the U.S. side are on the rise, according to federal officials.

More than 5,046 people were arrested for human trafficking last year, up from 2,762 in 2014.

Over the past year, federal agents have raided dozens of immigrant safe houses on an almost daily basis.

Title 42, the public health order introduced by the Trump administration at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, allows immediate deportation of those caught crossing the border illegally, allowing immigrants Repeated crossings are allowed with the hope of eventually succeeding. This has led to a substantial increase in the number of migrant encounters at the border — 1.7 million in fiscal year 2021 — and brisk business for smugglers.

In March, agents near El Paso rescued 34 migrants on a single day from two cargo containers with no ventilation. The following month, 24 people were held against their will after being found in a stash house.

Border Patrol agents recently engaged in several high-speed pursuits of smugglers in Ovalle, Texas — there were About 50 such “bailouts” hit the town between February and May. — that some school employees said they failed to take the lockdown order seriously during the mass shooting in May because the traffickers had ordered several previous lockdowns while running the streets.

Teófilo Valencia, whose 17- and 19-year-old sons died in the San Antonio tragedy, said he took out a loan against the family home to pay smugglers $10,000 to transport each son.

According to Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, a trafficking expert at George Mason University, fees typically range from $4,000 to $20,000 for migrants from Latin America if they must be moved from Africa, Eastern Europe or Asia.

For years, independent coyotes paid taxes to cartels to move migrants along the border into territory they controlled, and criminal gangs stuck to their traditional business, drug trafficking, which was far more lucrative.

That started to change around 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Deputy Director Patrick Lechleitner told Congress last year. The sheer number of people wanting to cross made migrant smuggling an irresistible money maker for some cartels, he said.

Enterprises have teams specializing in logistics, transportation, monitoring, stash houses and accounting – all supporting an industry that has grown to nearly $13 billion in revenue today. $500 million in 2018According to Homeland Security Investigations, the federal agency that investigates such cases.

Migrants are transported by plane, bus and private vehicles. In some border areas, such as the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, smugglers put color-coded bands on migrants’ wrists to identify who they belong to and what services they are receiving.

“They’re organizing merchandise in ways you couldn’t imagine five or 10 years ago,” Ms. Correa-Cabrera said.

Groups of Central American families who recently crossed the Rio Grande into La Joya, Texas, wore blue armbands emblazoned with the Gulf Cartel logo, a dolphin, and the word “Intrigas” or “Deliveries.” kept – that is, they intended to hand over to the United States. Authorities and seek asylum. Once they crossed the river, they were no longer cartel businesses.

Before that, immigrants entering Laredo, Texas, wandered across the river on their own and faded into the dense, urban landscape. Now, according to interviews with immigrants and law enforcement officials, it is impossible to cross a covey linked to the Cartel del Norste, a breakaway of the Los Zetas syndicate, without paying.

Traffickers often recruit teenagers to deliver them to hideouts in working-class neighborhoods. After rounding up several dozen people, they load the immigrants onto trucks parked in Laredo’s sprawling warehouse district around Clam Industrial Blvd.

“Drivers are recruited at bars, strip joints, truck stops,” said Timothy Tubbs, who was deputy special agent for Homeland Security Investigations for Laredo until he retired in January.

Migrants mingle with the 20,000 trucks that travel daily on the I-35 freeway to and from Laredo, the nation’s busiest land port. Border Patrol agents stationed at checkpoints inspect only a portion of all vehicles to keep traffic flowing.

The tractor-trailer discovered with its tragic cargo on June 27 had passed unsuspectingly at a checkpoint 30 miles north of Laredo. When it stopped three hours later on a remote road in San Antonio, most of the 64 people inside were already dead.

The driver, Homero Zamorano Jr., one of two men charged Thursday in connection with the tragedy, said he was unaware the air conditioning system had failed.

A 2014 incident at a stash house in Texas led to the arrest and subsequent trial of the perpetrators, providing an unusually clear look at the brutal tactics of the smuggling operations. Federal law enforcement officials say that while kidnapping and extortion cases occur with some frequency, cases involving cooperating witnesses are relatively rare. Fearing deportation, undocumented relatives of kidnapped immigrants rarely call authorities.

The case began in dense brush country eight miles from the Rio Grande, at Carrizo Springs, a popular transit point for people trying to avoid detection. “You could hide a million elephants here, the brush is so thick,” said Jerry Martinez, a captain with the Dummit County Sheriff’s Office.

The tortured Mr. Ferreira, 54, first immigrated to the United States in 1993, heading to construction sites in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where he earned more than 10 times what he earned in Honduras. He returned home after a few years.

“In those days, you didn’t need a coyote,” he said in an interview from his home in Maryland. “I came and went a couple of times.”

When he left in early 2014, Mr. Ferreira knew he would have to hire a smuggler to cross the border. In Piedras Negras, Mexico, a man promised to guide her to Houston. Mr. Ferreira’s stepson, Mario Pena, said he wired $1,500 as payment.

After arriving in Texas, Mr. Ferreira and several other immigrants were transported to a trailer in Carrizo Springs.

Shortly thereafter, Mr. Ferreira’s stepson received a call demanding an additional $3,500. He said he didn’t have any more money.

The calls became more frequent and threatening, Mr. Pena recalled in an interview. The smugglers heard her uncle’s screams and moans as if a hammer had landed on his fingers.

Mr. Pena was able to collect $2,000 through Western Union, he said, but when the kidnappers realized they could not collect the cash because it was Sunday, they stepped up their attacks. .

Mr. Pena called 911.

Law enforcement agents found Mr. Ferreira “severely, severely physically harmed, with a lot of blood, lying on the couch in the living room” in the trailer, according to the testimony of an agent, Jonathan Bonds.

Another migrant, his underwear down, writhed in pain, his bloodied hand aloft in the front bedroom. In the back bedroom, the agents encountered a naked woman, another immigrant, who had just been raped by a smuggler who had emerged from the bathroom naked.

The owner of the house, Eduardo Rocha Sr., who went to Lalo and was identified as the mastermind of the trafficking, was arrested along with several others, including his son Eduardo Rocha Jr. The younger Mr. Rocha testified that his cell was associated with it. Los Zetas cartel and that in two years it transported hundreds of immigrants to the United States and collected millions of dollars.

The elder Mr. Rocha was sentenced to life in prison. Her son and the man who did most of the physical abuse were sentenced to 15- and 20-year sentences.

Mr. Ferreira testified at his trial. As a crime victim who assisted law enforcement, he was allowed to remain in the United States. But his new life came with a price, which he revealed when he held up his right arm to the jury, the fingers now lifeless. “That’s how my hand ended,” he said.

Susan C. Beachy. participated in the research.