The blue sedan looked like any other driving along a Mexican highway until the mid-morning sun glinted off long, thin pieces of metal lashed to the car’s left side: A column of rebar about 20 feet long was tied precariously to the side mirror.
In most other places in Mexico, this might have just been some workers doing construction without the right truck for the job.
But this car was driving right along the border wall in Ciudad Juárez, a city just south of the US-Mexico line, with El Paso, Texas on the other side – a city where human smuggling abounds.
Two human smugglers, called polleros in this part of the world, were in the car along with two migrants in the backseat who wanted to cross illegally into the United States. And as we would soon see, the group would use that rebar column as a makeshift ladder to hoist those two migrants up and over the wall and into the US.
Tens of thousands of migrants arrive at the US border each week, with record-setting numbers of unaccompanied minors among them. The spike in numbers has once again overwhelmed an unprepared US immigration system, which has faced this type of crisis repeatedly in years past but has yet to resolve entrenched problems like overburdened asylum courts and facilities ill-equipped for housing children.
The resurgence has also put a renewed focus on the role human smugglers play in getting so many migrants to the border.
The business of migrant smuggling
The smugglers are brothers and run the business out of their family home, smuggling people into the US with the help of one brother’s 14-year-old son. Makeshift ladders laid out in the backyard were the only real giveaway of the family business.
“It’s super light,” said the 14-year-old, picking up one of the ladders. He works with his father and uncle moving somewhere between 10 to 35 migrants per week on average, he says.
Lately, that number has been on the high side.
“Dozens are crossing everyday around here, it’s very high,” said one brother. “From the top of the wall in my backyard you can see people running, so many are jumping the wall.”
There is scant data to quantify the exact number of migrants using smugglers’ services to make this journey. But most experts agree that many have used a smuggler for at least a part of their journey, in ways that can vary from a taxi ride between towns to an “all-inclusive” service that takes migrants from start to finish.
A 2018 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that more than 800,000 migrants from around the world were smuggled into Mexico and from there, smuggled or attempted to be smuggled into the US annually, based on a review of data from 2014 and 2015.
Only a fraction of migrants avoid being caught before making it to their final US destination, despite the enormous fees required to make the trip.
Costs can range from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands depending on a number of factors, largely based on the total distance of the journey and how many borders need to be crossed, according to the report. The amounts can leave migrants penniless, many of whom are migrating in the first place due to extreme poverty in their countries of origin.
The UN report estimated that the business of trying to get people into Mexico and the US illegally was worth about $4 billion annually using data from 2014 and 2015, an estimate it calls conservative.
A cartel operation
A large chunk of money spent on smuggling finds its way into the hands of organized crime, especially in Mexico, where experts say cartels operate with virtual impunity.
“Human smuggling is a multimillion dollar industry and I would venture to guess that it’s approaching a billion dollar industry [in Mexico alone],” said Victor Manjarrez, a former Border Patrol Sector Chief in El Paso, Texas.
Manjarrez says organized crime groups have used the money to create sophisticated smuggling networks that in some cases operate transnationally. “It’s almost like a Fortune 500 company dealing with their supply chain,” he said. “It is a ruthless business. [The cartels] do look at migrants like they’re commodities, not people, and they’re definitely exploited.”
One of the two brothers interviewed by CNN who smuggles people in Ciudad Juárez said he was recruited for the job after moving into his house on the border. “Some guys asked me if I wanted to join, and I said yes. That’s why I’m here.”
In this case, the “guys” he referred to were members of the Juárez cartel—one of Mexico’s oldest and most powerful organized crime groups—which the smugglers said they work for directly.
Each migrant must pay the cartel $2,000 to cross the border here with the help of a smuggler, the two brothers told CNN. That’s in addition to whatever these migrants had to pay just to arrive at the border.
The smugglers then receive a salary, or a commission, from the cartel for their work. It’s a system that plays out across the US-Mexico border.
Different cartels control large sections of the border, commonly called plazas. Those groups then control what crosses the border illegally in these territories, whether it be drugs or people.
Human smugglers operating in these areas almost always operate in one of two ways—they either work directly for the cartel that is in charge of that individual plaza or they work independently but have to pay the cartel a tax of sorts for the right to move through that territory, the smugglers told CNN.
While the exact extent of organized crime’s role in migrant smuggling throughout Central America remains unclear, its presence is apparent in Mexico, where migrants are taking enormous risks in making their journey to the United States.
“Most smugglers involved in complex operations are either known to each other by virtue of kinship or friendship, or have entered into ad hoc partnerships with larger and better resourced groups,” according to the 2018 UN report.
The trip northward
Tens of thousands of migrants have fled their home countries in Central America this year for myriad reasons. Poverty and corruption continue to plague countries like Honduras, food insecurity is rising in places like Guatemala, and gang violence continues to be pervasive across El Salvador. Two massive Category 4 hurricanes also hit the region late last year, destroying entire communities and Covid-19 further decimated regional economies that were already struggling.
The journey itself is grueling. Stories of rape and abuse are common among migrants along the border. “They can be raped, they can be robbed, they can be extorted, they can die on the journey,” said psychologist Claudia Grisel Villalobos Esparza, who works at the government-run Nohemí Álvarez Quillay migrant shelter for unaccompanied minors in Ciudad Juárez.
At another non-profit shelter in town, a young mother from Guatemala told us she and her toddler were smuggled north by various men over the course of a few weeks. But upon arrival to Ciudad Juárez, instead of being crossed into the United States as she was promised, she was put into a house with dozens of other people.
“It was a huge house, the windows were covered with black nylon so we couldn’t see outside,” said the woman. “They gave us food some days, but one time we spent 8 days without enough food. They locked us in, we couldn’t leave.” The woman asked CNN not to reveal her identity because of her ongoing fears for her safety while she remains in Mexico.
The family of smugglers, led by the two brothers, told CNN they have heard of many such cases of abuse. They even brought up the smugglers who, a few weeks earlier, had dropped two young children over the border wall not far from their home, a case that made national headlines in the US.
“We don’t do that,” said one of the brothers. “We’re all humans. They want to arrive safely. We don’t harm them; we give them food and water and help them cross. Other people may hurt them, but we don’t.”
CNN has no way of verifying how they treat the migrants in their charge. But even if they treat them well, the family’s actions are far from selfless. Each time they are compensated for their work, they help to maintain a system that perpetuates rampant kidnapping, rape, extortion and even murder, according to experts like the psychologist at the unaccompanied minor shelter in Ciudad Juárez.
While extensive data quantifying the specific threats faced by migrants using smugglers is not readily available, a Human Rights First report released last month reported at least 492 attacks and kidnappings suffered by asylum seekers turned away from the US or stranded in Mexico since President Joe Biden took office in January.
A Medecins San Frontieres report from 2017 reported that nearly a third of female migrants entering Mexico interviewed had experienced some form of sexual abuse on their journeys north and nearly 70 percent of all interviewees experienced violence of some kind.
The smugglers CNN spoke to argue that they provide a service that helps migrants who are desperate to get to the US.
The last leg of the journey
The smugglers told us to meet them at a car park.
CNN chose to document the smugglers’ process despite the illegality of their act to illuminate what is happening along the border on a daily basis as the immigration debate rages on in the United States.
As our team sat in a minivan waiting, the blue sedan pulled out from a side street and stopped several hundred yards up the road in front of us. Two men got out and went to grab the makeshift ladder the migrants would use to go over the wall.
Once it was secured to the side, the car took off down the highway. The smugglers were looking for a good spot to try and cross, they told us later, a location where US Border Patrol would be too far away to catch them in the act.
About ten minutes of driving, the sedan slowed to a stop along a stretch of highway. One of the smugglers got out of the car along with the two migrants, one of whom grabbed the makeshift ladder.
From that point, the border wall was about 500 meters away.
A quick dash from the road and the trio made it into the sandy desert that is dominant feature of this arid landscape.
Their progress quickly slowed, forced to crawl on their hands and knees to avoid anyone along the border who might be watching.
Inching forward, dragging their metal ladder behind them, the labored haggard breathing of the migrants is the only sound apart from the occasional instruction from the smuggler.
“Get down lower!,” he shouted at one point as a Border Patrol truck drove by on the other side of the border.
Halfway to the wall, the group took a break, during which CNN only had about 30 seconds to speak with the migrants. They were Ecuadorian, a young man and woman, 18 and 20, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs and two 16-ounce bottles of water. They had paid various smugglers thousands of dollars to get to this point and they were hoping to find work in South Texas.
But the only way they could do that was if they got over the wall.
After peering over a small bush, searching intently for any sign of law enforcement, the smuggler signaled it was time for the final push to the wall. Crouched in a low run, they made up the final distance in about a minute.
The 18-year-old then lifted up the ladder and the smuggler helped him hook one end on the top of the fence, the ladder bent over the wall like a candy cane.
The young man tossed both water bottles over the fence and immediately scaled the ladder, nimbly going hand over hand until he reached the top of the wall that’s 15-20 feet high.
He quickly lowered himself down on the other side, dropping into what looked like an unused construction site, and then it was the young woman’s turn. Only slighter slower, she too made it with little problem.
They both took off through the desert on the other side and the smuggler took off back to the highway.
For the two migrants, there seemed to be little plan as to what to do next. Clearly confused and overwhelmed, they both ran toward an uncertain future. There was little but desert on that side of the wall.
Yes, they’d made it to the United States but far from being the end of their journey it was clear they had so much left to navigate. Where would they go? What would they do? How would they earn money? What would happen if they were caught by immigration authorities? These are questions we cannot answer.
For the smuggler, those were immaterial queries – the reality was simple. He had no idea what happened to them on the other side nor did he have a real interest in knowing. His job was to get them the over the wall and he’d done that. On this mission, he was successful.
He raced back to the waiting blue sedan, the migrants he’d just crossed seemingly far from his mind. It was already on to the next one. There were more migrants he had to go pick up that were still waiting to be crossed.