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Tractor trailer scanned in Laredo TX

The 'phenomenon' of human smuggling by tractor-trailer has agents conducting more rescues


Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera had talked to hundreds of migrants while studying human smuggling on the U.S.-Mexico border, and to her the thought of hundreds of illegal migrants locked in the back of a tractor-trailer is “unimaginable.”

“That means that probably the demand for the smugglers that utilize these devices has increased enormously,” Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said. “This is a phenomenon that has been magnified.”

The Laredo Sector Border Patrol said this year they have rescued over 700 illegal migrants from human smuggling operations, which is a 25 percent increase from the year before. And of the total smuggled, over 300 have been from tractor-trailers at the Laredo North traffic checkpoint.

Laredo North traffic checkpoint
Vehciles pass through the Laredo North traffic checkpoint.

“In the trailer itself you can mix anything with your regular cargo load. We’ve had a number of cases where we’ve had over 50 people trying to be smuggled inside the trailer of a tractor truck,” Michael Lata, patrol chief in charge at the Laredo North Border Patrol Station, said.

The Laredo North checkpoint is located 30 miles north of the port of entry in Laredo, Texas and is one of the largest checkpoints in the country. On average, 1.2 million tractor-trailers pass through it on a daily basis, meaning agents have a lot of trucks to check.

"Once they legally enter the United States through there, this is a layered approach that any illicit activity was conducted from when they crossed from Mexico to the U.S. we will stop them or prevent them from furthering their route into the United States going up to California or San Antonio, this is the place where we stop it,” Lata said.

And the layered approach can come in handy since both Lata and Correa-Cabrera said lately it has seemed illegal migrants will cross the border into the U.S. by foot, and then get into the tractor-trailers on the U.S. side.

Lata said more media attention about stronger immigration laws in the U.S. have seemed to lead to a decrease in the number of illegal crossings into the U.S., but that it has also led human smugglers to a “more dangerous state of mind” when smuggling illegal migrants across the U.S.

“If the alien smuggling organization decides to put illegal aliens that they are trying to illicit across the border, they’ll put them in the truck, they’ll put them in 120 degree circumstances without them having the ability to get out or scream for help,” Lata said. “All the smuggler cares about is is he going to get paid and is he not going to go to jail."

And in July, almost 30 illegal migrants were found in the back of a tractor-trailer in a San Antonio, Texas Walmart parking. A human smuggling operation that resulted in 10 deaths. “What we saw in San Antonio and in the past month and in July was a phenomenon that was expected due to the fact that the strengthening of border enforcement makes smugglers and migrants to look for better ways to cross,” Correa-Cabrera said.

But Correa-Cabrera said despite the dangerous methods, migrants think it’s worth the risk. “Their countries do not provide them with opportunities. They have to pay an extortion fee to the gang members. Their kids are in danger of being recruited or their daughters are being in danger of being caught like the litter of the gang and raped,” Correa-Cabrera said. “People see this as an opportunity to have a better life, and they do have a better life.”

Correa-Cabrera said the use of tractor-trailers to smuggle people over the border began with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in the early 1990s, but was thought of as a “VIP” trip because it was an expensive option, but also thought of as safer and more effective. But now, she said with the high number of migrants found in the back of tractor-trailers, it has seemed to become a more popular option.

And Border Patrol has several methods to try to combat the illegal activity. Once the tractor-trailers get to the Laredo North traffic checkpoint, their license plates are scanned, the Border Patrol agents ask the drivers a couple of simple questions, and if there seems to be any suspicious activity agents will send the truck over to go through a x-ray scanner.

"It’s a fabulous tool that helps Customs and Border Protection the United States Border Patrol keeps up the commercial trade and travel as well as secure the border by stopping illicit activity," Lata said.

Border Patrol also works with the Texas Department of Public Safety on a program called Texas Hold’ em to cancel Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL) of driver’s who have been caught in human smuggling activities.

Since 2008, the Laredo Sector has canceled over 600 licenses, and over 400 have been in relation to human smuggling operations.

But Correa-Cabrera isn’t convinced that the Border Patrol’s efforts are actually effective. "People are still coming, so how effective is that? It's like they get the driver, but there is another driver. They get this small smuggler, this guide, but there is another guide, because there is a lot of money. This is organized," Correa-Cabrera said.

Correa-Cabrera said human smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border is a multi-million-dollar industry, and if Border Patrol really wants to put a stop to it, they need to get to the root of the problem.

"Why people are going to the United States? Because somebody gives them a job So if you really don’t want people coming, then don’t give them a job,” Correa-Cabrera said. “How you enforce that is you put in jail the people that are giving migrants a job.”

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