Criminal organizations in Mexico set up a profitable new operation of smuggling that uses express buses to deliver the Guatemalan migrant families to the US border in a few days, making the journey faster, easier and safer, according to reports from the US military and US and Guatemalan officials.
The smugglers attract families with promises their trip will be free from the dangers usually associated with travel to the US border, along with assurances that by handing over to the US authorities will be released in the country in a few days.
By paying up to $ 7,000 per adult with child, families are transported to rest areas at ranches and hotels in southern Mexico, where they are organized into bus groups and rushed north along the Mexican highways, "stopping only for food, fuel and bathroom breaks, according to the documents of the United States forces
The model is aimed particularly at families, minimizing some of the most intimidating and unpleasant aspects of the traditional Mexican smuggling operations, known for cramming migrants into squalid hiding places, where Central Americans are regularly abused and extorted for additional payments.The bus system has avoided such dangers, generating little reports of violence or ill-treatment, US officials say.
Within 72 hours of leaving the parking areas, the buses arrive at pre-established take-off points a few steps from the border of he United States. Migrant families are grouped into groups that have sometimes exceeded 300 adults and children, and walk directly across the border, in some cases overcoming barriers in long ordered rows. They then surrender to US border patrol officers and initiate asylum applications.
The previously unrevealed details of the smuggling system are outlined in reports of US military forces reviewed by The Washington Post . The official who shared them did so on condition of anonymity to disclose details of internal operations. They describe a new, highly profitable entrepreneurial venture designed to exploit the dysfunction in the American immigration system and the sentences of US courts that provide for the release of families from prisons while asylum applications are being processed.
The success of the operation is the most extreme example of the ability of smugglers to exploit the transition to unauthorized migration in the United States characterized by a very high number of adults traveling with children.
Using the direct bus method, smugglers can eliminate the need for hiding along the border where they would normally have kept migrants under the surveillance of armed guards before sneaking through the border. Express routes "minimize overhead costs and maximize capacity", according to US documents, allowing smugglers to reduce "operating costs to a minimum".
Since October, US border agents have met at least 70 large groups of 100 or more migrants, from 13 of these groups during the 2018 fiscal year. About 12,000 parents and children have arrived in groups, generating tens of millions of dollars in smuggling fees.
U.S. officials call the "The Conveyor Belt" system and asked the Mexican authorities to help him stop it. But the model of the transporter has continued for months, part of a record wave of crossings by the families that the White House has declared a "humanitarian and security crisis at the borders". Last month, 40,325 arrived in family groups, up 67% from January.
Arrests at borders peaked at 1.6 million in 2000 and began to decline, falling to 303,000 in 2017, the lowest point in half a century. But National Security officials claim to be able to meet nearly one million unauthorized people during the current fiscal year, as the arrests reach their highest level in over a decade . a breaking point, "US Customs and Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan told reporters last week.
Migrants continue to flow to the border in various ways, with a large number of Hondurans forming groups of caravans and other Central Americans who make the journey smaller clusters and with more conventional means. But by describing the buses expressed to journalists last week, McAleenan said that the "shorter smuggling cycle" offered by smugglers cut the length of the journey from several weeks to "four-seven days".
"The availability of these express-route buses means that more children are coming to our borders, and we are seeing migrants arriving with diseases and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers", has said.
Tailored to the new, booming US unauthorized expansion – parents carrying children – the The success of the new express bus system would not have been possible in earlier times, when the vast majority of migrants were single adults from Mexico whose goal was to avoid being discovered.
Instead, recruiters are selling clients in Guatemala on the journey with presentations similar to the benign tone of a travel agency. They offer a range of price points at different levels of comfort for passengers, according to US and Guatemala officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive details on smuggling network operations.
Customers who pay a minimum of $ 2,500 are typically made to drive trucks or livestock cars, while others who buy packages for $ 7,000 or more receive a premium bus service. Children generally travel for free, because those who arrive at the United States border with a child only need to be guided to the limit, not to smuggle it.
Express travel is generally financed by relatives of migrants who are already working in the United States or with microloans that use homes and property as collateral, in some cases with notarial documents that allow smuggling organizations to collect unpaid debts. In a particularly worrying sign for US officials, the price of travel has fallen in recent months as fast bus routes allow smugglers to reduce costs and increase volume.
"Without any change in US policies or other factors, such as the increase in smuggling taxes, the Central Americans will arrive at an increasing rate", a report warns.
In most cases, crossing the border migrants express the fear of persecution if they home mothers, the first step towards the asylum request in the United States. Some come with detailed stories of gang threats, police violence and inaction, and documents to support their claims.
But many other Guatemalans seem to head north for jobs in a buzzing American economy that is facing a labor shortage. In November, Guatemala became the main source of unauthorized migration in the United States, surpassing Mexico for the first time.
A Guatemalan father, reached by telephone in Houston where he was reunited with his wife and two children last month, said he paid $ 5,500 to bring all three family members to the border. He spent $ 8,000 a year ago when he made the trip alone.
"They traveled on a nice bus, with their seats," said his father, who described his family's trip on condition of anonymity because his wife now has a request for asylum in the United States.
A Guatemalan official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss express buses, said the United States relied on its government to suppress the smuggling pipeline. But he said government strategies are based mainly on social media messaging – like the one with the hashtag # NoMigraciónIrregular – but these approaches lack credibility alongside personal testimonies from friends, relatives and neighbors who completed the journey in security and with relative ease.  Critics of the Trump border policy state that US efforts to limit the number of migrants authorized to seek asylum daily at official entry ports have forced families to cross the border across desert areas remote.
But the conveyor system depicted in the reports indicates that decisions about where the groups arrive are not made by the migrants themselves but by smugglers looking for the best places to quickly deliver large numbers of their customers to US agents.
Mass "gifts" allow migrants to skip lines at official entry points, and can wait for processing on the US side of the border, where it is safer.
The model has become so routine that US officials say some large groups form their tails while presenting their documents to the agents, as if they were waiting in the arrivals hall of an international airport.
if it is a sort of regular immigration process, in a single file, as if they were verifying, "said a US official, who spoke about the condition of anonymity to discuss the model." It's incredible. "
With increasing numbers of arrests, the demands for a border wall have intensified. But in recent weeks, large groups have crossed areas near the center of El Paso, where high and modern barriers are already present. 39; steel. Wading through shallow stretches of the Rio Grande, migrants reach American soil and wait to be arrested on the narrow strip of no-man's land between the river and the border fence.
The number of migrants taken into custody in the border Patrol's El Paso sector has risen by 434% in the last five months compared to the same period last year, show the CBP statistics.
Marta Sánchez Soler, sociologist and activist for migrant rights in Mexico City, said that rapid operators are part of a wider divergence in the way Central American groups reach the United States.
While the Hondurans and Salvadorans have joined the caravans and are staying in the shelters run by the churches, the Guatemalan families "are all victims of trafficking," he said.
"We find many Guatemalans in shelters," said Sánchez Soler.
In December, two Guatemalan children died in the El Paso area of CBP after arriving with large groups. Their autopsy reports were not released, but initial assessments indicate that the children may have contracted the flu or another illness. In response to the deaths, CBP has expanded medical examinations for all children in custody. Hospital arrests have almost tripled in the last five months, says the agency.
The compromise on border security reached between President Trump and the Democratic Chamber last month includes $ 415 million to improve care and treatment of migrants, including funds to build a new transformation center in El Paso for alleviate the dangerous overcrowding in containing cells.
The agents took 700 migrants to El Paso one night last week, including groups of 252 and 112. Among them was an unaccompanied 2-year-old.
Avoiding the danger
The lower Rio Grande Valley of southern Texas has long been the main entry point for Central American migrants, facing the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. But the warring factions between the Gulf Cartel and the Los Zetas criminal organization have left the area with a terrifying reputation for kidnapping, rape and abuse, one of the reasons caravans clearly avoided those areas, despite a shorter distance from the US border.
Gunmen stopped a bus that traveled through Tamaulipas last week and kidnapped 19 migrants, loading them in pickup trucks, Mexican authorities said. Another 25 migrants disappeared after a similar incident at the end of February.
Such incidents seem to be one of the reasons why express bus operators depart from that part of northern Mexico, opting for longer routes to the El Paso area and points further west to New Mexico and Arizona .
United States officials say they have given specific information to the Mexican authorities on the location of ranches and compounds in the southern states of Chiapas and Oaxaca, as well as the names of individuals who appear to coordinate the buses.
A resting place United States Law enforcement officers identified a property surrounded by a seven-meter high concrete wall near the center of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, in Chiapas, where a fleet of gray buses loaded up to 150 migrants at a time, the documents show. A truck loaded with Guatemalan migrants crashed along a highway near the city last week, killing 25 people and leaving more than 30 wounded, the authorities said.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December, sought a contrast with the immigration policies of this predecessor, promising to be more welcoming to Central American migrants. More silently, his administration has collaborated with an experimental US policy to make Central American Americans wait in Mexico until US asylum cases are resolved.
I mmigration the imposition at the border between Guatemala and Mexico remains light and the documents of the Central Americans traveling on Mexican highways are not systematically controlled, according to the reports of the United States.
"The buses are regularly inspected by the Mexican authorities for smuggling, however, the authorities do not conduct immigration checks", the documents state.
Mexico is looking for more details on bus lines and operators, according to a senior government official who spoke about the condition of anonymity to describe what has become a new source of tension with the Trump administration.
"If they sent the information, they did it through the wrong channels," the official said.
The Mexican Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero, the country's highest immigration official, met with Secretary of the National Security Department Kirstjen Nielsen in Washington last week to discuss border numbers in increase.
Sánchez Cordero told The Post that his government wants a more intimate intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States to hit traffickers more aggressively, stating that Mexico has "already arrested several" smugglers , without providing further details.
"We have been in office for only (three) months," he said. "We want close cooperation with the United States."