Shift Is Afoot on Mexican Border


By: Wall Street Journal

Security Crackdown Cuts Illegal Crossing But Aids Smugglers
By JOEL MILLMAN

EL PASO, Texas — A security crackdown on the Mexican border is believed to have reduced the number of people trying to cross illegally into the U.S. while increasing business for professional smugglers with ties to the drug trade.

Data to be released next week by the Department of Homeland Security are expected to show the number of illegal border crossers caught fell to less than one million for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, the first time that has occurred since 2003. Through the end of August, barely 800,000 apprehensions were recorded along the U.S.-Mexico border, a drop of more than 20% from the previous fiscal year.

The decline — thought to show that fewer migrants are attempting to cross — will add weight to claims by U.S. officials that heavier law enforcement is making it more difficult for migrants to sneak across the 2,000-mile border. With politicians deadlocked over how to deal with illegal immigration, trying to seal the border to catch and deter illegal immigrants has become the main policy tool.

But the crackdown also appears to be affecting the markets for smuggling people and drugs in Mexico. As tighter security makes crossing the border trickier and more hazardous, the traditional mom-and-pop operations in Mexico that used to ferry people across have been replaced by larger, more-professional criminal gangs, often with ties to the illegal-drug trade.

U.S. officials are reporting increased violence along the border, including gunfights between rival smuggling gangs, gangs hijacking each others’ customers en route to U.S. destinations and the rape or assault of migrants.

Special Agent Alonzo Peña, chief investigator for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona, says as the border gets harder to cross, fees to smugglers have increased from next to nothing to as much as $6,000 a head, making the smuggling business an attractive new market for drug gangs.

“It’s one of the unintended consequences of sealing the border,” Mr. Peña says.

Border Patrol agents have noticed that smaller-scale smugglers on the Mexican side are being replaced by more-sophisticated ones who appear to have ties to Mexico’s cocaine cartels. Smugglers are carrying higher-caliber weapons and sometimes dress in camouflage uniforms and use military tactics to evade capture.

“Drug cartels have more resources,” explains Border Patrol agent Martín Hernandez, now in his fifth year monitoring the busy corridor between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

In El Paso, the border has become much more difficult to cross. More than 2,000 agents patrol a 268-mile border stretch that covers busy urban centers in this binational metroplex of three million people, as well as remote patches in the New Mexico desert, where ranches harbor safe houses used by smugglers.

By adding 500 agents in each of the past two years — with another 500 expected next year — the Border Patrol has nearly doubled its strength here. High-tech cameras, motion sensors and miles of reinforced steel fence choke off smuggling routes. The addition of 6,000 National Guard troops along the border for part of this year has also increased vigilance.

The crackdown, together with a slower U.S. economy, has helped stanch the flow of illegal crossers in several ways. The higher risk of getting caught and higher cost of crossing has prompted many illegal workers in the U.S. to stay put rather than return home every year to do things like celebrate Christmas with their families. For those who still want to cross, the higher risk means putting their lives in the hands of more-organized criminal groups with the means to get them through.

Authorities are beginning to see commingling of drugs and human loads and are frequently seizing migrants who apparently are paying for their trip by carrying drugs for traffickers. “Drug smugglers use them as mules,” the Border Patrol’s Mr. Hernandez says, with loads of as heavy as 60 pounds each being walked across the desert.

U.S. agents have noted that people smugglers are starting to follow drug-smuggling routes protected by Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, a cocaine-trafficking organization, either paying a transit fee to the cartel or sharing operations with the drug traffickers.

That may explain the apparent paradox that while the smuggling of people across the border is down, trafficking in narcotics is ticking upward. Department of Homeland Security data this month show a rise in border drug seizures, especially of marijuana. A total of 1.7 million pounds of the drug was seized along the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2006 and the end of August, up from 1.4 million during the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2006, and 1.2 million in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2005. Cocaine seizures rose slightly, while seizures for methamphetamines and heroin fell slightly. The increase in drug seizures is seen by border agents as an indicator of an increase in imports.

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