Pubdate: Mon, 23 Mar 2009
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Page: Front Page
Copyright: 2009 Los Angeles Times
Author: Josh Meyer
Bookmark:  Mexico Under Siege (Series)

Mexico Under Siege


As They Expand Their Enterprise From Drugs to Human Smuggling, a 
Bleak Situation Is Worsening, Experts Say.

Mexican drug cartels and their vast network of associates have 
branched out from their traditional business of narcotics trafficking 
and are now playing a central role in the multibillion-dollar-a-year 
business of illegal immigrant smuggling, U.S. law enforcement 
officials and other experts say.

The business of smuggling humans across the Mexican border has always 
been brisk, with many thousands coming across every year.

But smugglers affiliated with the drug cartels have taken the 
enterprise to a new level -- and made it more violent -- by 
commandeering much of the operation from independent coyotes, 
according to these officials and recent congressional testimonies.

U.S. efforts to stop the cartels have been stymied by a shortage of 
funds and the failure of federal law enforcement agencies to 
collaborate effectively with one another, their local and state 
counterparts and the Mexican government, officials say.

U.S. authorities have long focused their efforts on the cartels' 
trafficking of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines, which 
has left a trail of violence and corruption.

Many of those officials now say that the toll from smuggling illegal 
immigrants is often far worse.

The cartels often further exploit the illegal immigrants by forcing 
them into economic bondage or prostitution, U.S. officials say. In 
recent years, illegal immigrants have been forced to pay even more 
exorbitant fees for being smuggled into the U.S. by the cartel's 
well-coordinated networks of transportation, communications, 
logistics and financial operatives, according to officials.

Many more illegal immigrants are raped, killed or physically and 
emotionally scarred along the way, authorities say. Organized 
smuggling groups are stealing entire safe houses from rivals and 
trucks full of "chickens" -- their term for their human cargo -- to 
resell them or exploit them further, according to these officials and 

Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) said greed and opportunity had 
prompted the cartels to move into illegal immigrant smuggling.

"Drugs are only sold once," Sanchez, the chairwoman of the House 
Homeland Security border subcommittee, said in an interview. "But 
people can be sold over and over. And they use these people over and 
over until they are too broken to be used anymore."

The cartels began moving into human smuggling in the late 1990s, 
initially by taxing the coyotes as they led bands of a few dozen 
people across cartel-controlled turf near the border.

After U.S. officials stepped up border enforcement after the Sept. 11 
terrorist attacks, the price of passage increased and the cartels got 
more directly involved, using the routes they have long used for 
smuggling drugs north and cash and weapons south, authorities said.

Sometimes they loaded up their human cargo with backpacks full of 
marijuana. In many cases, they smuggled illegal immigrants between 
the two marijuana-growing seasons, authorities said.

Kumar Kibble, deputy director of the Department of Homeland 
Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office of 
operations, said the cartels made money by taxing coyotes and 
engaging in the business themselves.

"Diversification has served them well," Kibble said.

Unlike the drug-trafficking problem, the cartels' involvement in 
human smuggling has received scant attention in Washington.

That is the case even as the Obama administration and Congress 
increasingly focus their attention on Mexico, fearing that its 
government is losing ground in a battle against the cartels that has 
resulted in the deaths of more than 7,000 people since the beginning of 2008.

At one of many congressional hearings on the subject last week, Sen. 
Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) unveiled a chart that he said described 
the cartels' profit centers: drugs, weapons and money laundering.

"I would add one thing, senator," said Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry 
Goddard, who then described to Durbin his concerns about the cartels' 
movement into illegal immigrant smuggling. "It is really a four-part 
trade, and it has caused crime throughout the United States."

Arizona has become the gateway not only for drugs, but also illegal 
immigrants. Fights over the valuable commodity have triggered a spate 
of shootings, kidnappings and killings, Goddard and one of his chief 
deputies said in interviews.

In Arizona, the cartels grossed an estimated $2 billion last year on 
smuggling humans, Goddard said.

Senior officials from various federal law enforcement agencies 
confirmed that they were extremely concerned about the cartels' human 
smuggling network.

In recent years, the U.S. government has taken significant steps to 
go after illegal immigrant smugglers on a global scale, setting up 
task forces, launching public awareness campaigns and creating a 
Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center to fuse intelligence from 
various agencies.

But at the southern border, the effort has stumbled, in part because 
Homeland Security and various Justice Department agencies have 
overlapping responsibilities and are engaging in turf battles to keep 
them, Goddard and numerous other federal and state officials said.

The vast majority of ICE agents cannot make drug arrests, for 
instance, even though the same smugglers are often moving illegal immigrants.

The reason: The Drug Enforcement Administration has not authorized 
the required "cross-designation" authority for them, according to 
Kibble and others. A top DEA official said that was partly to prevent 
ICE agents from unwittingly compromising ongoing DEA drug 
investigations and informants working the cartels.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives 
focus almost exclusively on cartel efforts to smuggle large 
quantities of American-made weapons into Mexico.

"The only way we're going to be successful is to truly mount a 
comprehensive attack upon the cartels. They're doing a comprehensive 
attack on us through all four of these different criminal 
activities," Goddard told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee.

"I'm afraid in this country we tend to segregate by specialty the 
various areas that we are going to prosecute. And our experience on 
the border is we can't do that. We've got to cross the jurisdictional 
lines or we're going to fail."

Kibble agreed, saying that the cartels' diversification will require 
federal agencies to work together. "It means we need more teamwork so 
things don't slip through the cracks."

He added: "We are very focused on it and applying law enforcement 
pressure to all aspects of the cartels' activities."

Asked for comment, Justice Department officials referred calls to 
Homeland Security.

But authorities are also hampered by budget shortcomings and other obstacles.

Even though ICE has primary responsibility over illegal immigrant 
smuggling, it has only 100 agents dedicated to the task, Kibble said.

There is no line item in ICE's budget for human smuggling, so no one 
knows how much money is being spent on it, he told Sanchez's border 
subcommittee, before acknowledging that the agency needs more 
resources to fight the problem.

There are also not enough resources for providing medical treatment 
and protection for those illegal immigrants who are caught, so many 
of them are not available to testify, said Anastasia Brown, the 
director of refugee programs for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As a result, there have been relatively few prosecutions and convictions.

In fiscal 2008, ICE initiated 432 human smuggling investigations, 
including 262 cases of alleged sexual exploitation and 170 cases of 
suspected labor exploitation.

Those efforts resulted in 189 arrests, 126 indictments and 126 
convictions related to human smuggling, according to Homeland 
Security documents provided to Congress.

Cameron H. Holmes, an assistant Arizona attorney general at the front 
lines of the fight against cross-border human smuggling, agreed that 
federal authorities were trying to collaborate better.

"Are they working together enough? Absolutely not. Are they being 
successful? Look around," Holmes said, before describing details of 
illegal immigrant smuggling cases in which people were killed or 
enslaved for years.

"We have a multibillion criminal industry that has grown up in the 
last 10 years and it all involves violations of federal law. I would 
not call that a success."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Richard Lake