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"You have to be careful with the Zetas. They cut you in pieces and videotape it," he said.
Speaking always in the third person, he said a smuggler dresses to blend in with the 10 to 15 migrants he moves at a given time. Like most smugglers, he first went to the U.S. as a migrant, where he worked as a cook and learned some English.
Casillas, the migration expert, said the migrant smuggling business is a complex corporate structure. Guides at the border usually work for honchos who run the operation from afar and only pocket a fraction of the price charged to the migrants. One of the most important coyotes moving immigrants from El Salvador lives in Texas, he said.
"It’s a criminal chain that has two segments. The invisible segment ... is dedicated to administration, organization and finances," he said. "They don’t necessarily even see the migrants."
The guides often don’t know who they are working for, he added. The big guys rarely get caught. While federal officials along the U.S. border seem to roll out cases against human smugglers almost on a weekly basis, the targets are largely drivers and stash house operators.
Coyotes get their business through social networks, from friends and family, or referrals from prior customers. Those headed for Texas generally charge half of the money up front, collect another installment by bank deposit or wire transfer along the way, and the final payment upon delivery. California-bound immigrants may pay the full fee when they arrive.
Many smugglers take their charges from Mexico’s southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca to Mexico City on La Bestia, the decrepit freight train. From there, they choose one of three main routes: to Reynosa in Tamaulipas, Ciudad Juarez in Chihuahua, or cross the Sonoran desert to the outskirts of Mexicali.
Most now opt to go to Tamaulipas, the shortest, but most dangerous route because of its warring drug cartels. The number of family units and unaccompanied children arrested by the Border Patrol in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley increased 362 percent in the first nine months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year.
The border in South Texas is difficult to police. The Rio Grande twists and doubles back on itself as it makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Its banks are overgrown with carrizo cane and other brush. It takes little time for a raft or someone paddling an inner tube to reach the other side, but few attempt it these days without a guide.
The Gulf cartel and Zetas control swaths of the Mexican side of the border and collect a tax for everything that passes through — people, drugs, weapons or merchandize.
Rafael Cardenas Vela, nephew of former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cardenas Guillen, testified in great detail at the 2012 trial of another cartel member about how this arrangement worked.
When Cardenas Vela ran the Rio Bravo "plaza" for the cartel from 2009 to 2011, he collected $250 to $300 for a Mexican immigrant, $500 to $700 for a Central American and about $1,500 for someone from Europe or Asia, he testified. He also collected a flat 10 percent fee from the smugglers to allow them to work.
"People have to view the cartels like organized crime," said Janice Ayala, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s special agent in charge in San Antonio. "Where there’s a dollar to be made they want a cut of that particular dollar."
Unlike the drug trafficking organizations that tightly control their loads, human smuggling organizations are much more flexible and willing to work with various groups to keep people moving, Ayala said. They are more like independent contractors who may specialize in one segment of the journey, whether it is getting them through interior Mexico, across the Texas-Mexico border, into a stash houses or to the interior U.S.
All who help along the way must be paid, and their fees are a fixed part of the cost determined by the smuggling network.
Mexican youths often serve as lookouts, or guides ferrying migrants across the river to the United States because if they get caught, they’re just sent back across the border instead of being prosecuted.
A Mexican official familiar with human smuggling at the border but who is not authorized to speak about it publicly said child guides can make as much as $100 per immigrant.
A young U.S. citizen living in South Texas told authorities after her arrest that she was to be paid $150 per immigrant she picked up near the Rio Grande and drove to a stash house. She got $200 a person for driving them to Houston, according to court records.
Sometimes the person feeding and watching immigrants at the stash house is in the country illegally, too, and is working off his smuggling fee. In other cases, a local has been paid $20 per person per day for the job.
"It’s like a little chain, everyone is earning," the Mexican official said.
Associated Press writer E. Eduardo Castillo reported this story in Tecun Uman, Guatemala, and Christopher Sherman reported from Reynosa, Mexico. AP writers Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.
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