This browser does not support the video element.

Immigration

A ‘Conveyor Belt’ to the U.S. border

Smugglers in Mexico have been using express buses to deliver Guatemalan migrant families to the U.S. border in a matter of days, making the journey faster, easier and safer.

The smugglers entice families with promises that their journey will be free of the perils usually associated with travel to the border, charging up to $7,000 per adult with child. After transporting families to staging areas at ranches and hotels in southern Mexico, they organize them into bus groups and rush north along Mexican highways, “stopping only for food, fuel and bathroom breaks,” according to U.S. law enforcement reports.

This browser does not support the video element.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The smugglers organize the families into groups as large as 300 or more, directing parents and children to walk across the border and surrender to U.S. agents to start the asylum process.

U.S. officials call it “The Conveyor Belt” and have asked Mexican authorities to help stop it.

More than 70 groups with 100 or more migrants have arrived at the border since October, up from 13 groups that size during the government’s 2018 fiscal year. Several of the drop-offs have been captured by U.S. Customs and Border Protection cameras using thermal imaging.

This browser does not support the video element.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection

The express system is tailor-made for the fastest-growing segment of unauthorized migration: adults bringing children. Children generally travel free, because those who arrive at the U.S. border with a minor need only to be guided there, not across it, in order to turn themselves in and start the asylum process.

Obtained by The Washington Post

The operation allows smugglers to “minimize overhead and maximize capacity,” generating bigger profits, according to U.S. law enforcement reports reviewed by The Washington Post.

The express method allows the traffickers to cut costs and boost volume, and by some accounts, smugglers’ fees have been dropping in recent months, potentially attracting more customers.

Many of the buses have delivered migrants to the most remote stretches of the U.S.-Mexico border west of Texas, such as the area around Antelope Wells, N.M.

This browser does not support the video element.

Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post

Border Patrol official Ramiro Cordero assists other agents on patrol near Antelope Wells, where they expect large migrant groups to cross en masse.

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Sparsely populated remote areas along the border typically have few U.S. agents on patrol, so the arrival of hundreds of parents with children in the middle of the night quickly overwhelms U.S. capacity to process them.

U.S. officials say criminal organizations sometimes use the groups as a diversion, moving drugs across the border while agents are tied up with the migrant families.

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

This browser does not support the video element.

Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post

(Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

In recent weeks, large groups have been crossing the Rio Grande into El Paso, arriving at the no man’s land between the river and the tall, steel U.S. fencing. It’s an area that already has a “border wall,” but because the groups are on U.S. soil, agents take them into custody.

This browser does not support the video element.

Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post

The express bus system is one of several ways Central American families arrive at the U.S. border. Large numbers of Hondurans have been traveling in caravan groups. Others travel in smaller clusters by more conventional methods. In February, U.S. authorities processed more than 76,000 migrants, including a record number of families, as unauthorized migration reaches its highest level in more than a decade.