Preying on hope, 'coyotes' traffic in human cargo Aliens brave risks to get into U.S.

July 05, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Mexico City Bureau

TIJUANA, Mexico -- A few weeks ago, Juan and 16 other illegal immigrants were crammed on top of each other in a van that had just crossed the U.S.-Mexican border and was heading toward Los Angeles.

The driver and his companion had promised the immigrants safe passage into the United States. The cost for the journey was $300 per person.

Following orders, Juan lay still in the van and tried to take his mind off the danger of the journey by thinking about his wife, who was waiting for him in Los Angeles. But those thoughts were interrupted by the faint sound of police sirens.

The driver of the van mumbled something to his companion and swerved the vehicle off the highway, Juan says.

"He kept speeding up and speeding up," says Juan, a 34-year-old man from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. "Then the two of them jumped out. I looked out the front window. All I could see was stars. Then I felt the van tumble again, again and again."

The van rushed over an embankment.

"We trusted these people," he says. "And they would have killed us just to save themselves."

Stories like these have made alien smugglers -- called "coyotes" or "polleros," roughly translated as "chicken herders" -- a chief target of U.S. immigration enforcement officials.

In the past few weeks, the experiences of aliens being smuggled into the United States have been widely publicized. They have worked as indentured servants to repay smugglers for bringing them into the United States. They have been kept by the dozens in cramped garages. Some tell of being raped or tortured by smugglers.

"Alien smugglers are absolutely the lowest form of life I have ever encountered," says Gustavo de la Vina, chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. "They are the worst violators of human rights. They treat people like cargo that can be discarded or destroyed."

But some officials in Mexico see the smugglers as doing more good than harm. Javier Valenzuela, chief of a team of plainclothes officers who patrol the Tijuana side of the border, says that except for occasional rogues, most smugglers have relatively noble ambitions: to protect aliens from assaults by petty thieves and police officials; to help their compatriots achieve their dreams of good jobs and decent housing; to reunite Mexicans with relatives in the United States.

"The 'pollero' has been turned into some type of monster to justify the work of the [U.S.] Border Patrol, so that if they shoot one of these people or beat him, they appear to be doing a public service," Mr. Valenzuela says. "In reality, it is more often the case that the smugglers protect the immigrants from the Border Patrol.

Like travel agency

"It's like a travel agency that you pay to get you safely from one place to another."

The border between the United States and Mexico stretches about 2,000 miles. Alien smuggling has become most prominent in the San Diego-Tijuana area, recognized as one of the most popular gateways into the United States for immigrants from all over the world.

Policing the border is a practically overwhelming task. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says that about 1.2 million illegal immigrants are arrested and deported each year. Almost all of those apprehensions, agency officials said, are made along the U.S.-Mexican border, and about half are in the San Diego-Tijuana area.

INS officials estimate that about 500,000 illegal immigrants successfully enter the United States each year.

9 Although the number of U.S. Border Patrol officers along the border has been increasing every year, there are still too few agents to effectively stop the influx. Mr. de la Vina says that at any one time, he has only 100 agents patrolling the 66-mile border area for which he is responsible. Since October, his officers have made about 388,000 arrests.

The inlets off the coast of the Mexican state of Baja California are also secluded and poorly patrolled, allowing ships carrying immigrants to come ashore undetected.

In April, a group of 300 Chinese immigrants arrived just south of Tijuana as stowaways on a Taiwanese ship. Police found them cramped in two small sheds in Tijuana, where they were being held while smugglers prepared their passage into the United States.

The arrests of Chinese immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border have increased dramatically from 52 in 1992 to 500 so far this year.

'Big business'

"Alien smuggling has become big business," says Mr. de la Vina.

The methods vary in sophistication.

"What you find is everything from mom and pop operations where people cross on inner tubes along the Rio Grande, to operations that bring in aliens on large international vessels," said Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington. "Sometimes the smugglers get false documents and send people through our international airports.

"There are huge profits being made," he said.

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