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‘The Conveyor Belt’: U.S. officials say massive smuggling effort is speeding immigrants to — and across — the southern border

Video from U.S. Customs and Border Protection thermal imaging cameras shows buses delivering migrants to the border on Feb. 11 near Ajo, Ariz. (Video: U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Criminal organizations in Mexico have mounted a lucrative new smuggling operation that uses express buses to deliver Guatemalan migrant families to the U.S. border in a matter of days, making the journey faster, easier and safer, according to U.S. law enforcement reports and U.S. and Guatemalan officials.

The smugglers entice families with promises their journey will be free of the perils usually associated with travel to the U.S. border, along with assurances that by turning themselves in to U.S. authorities they will be released into the country within days.

Paying up to $7,000 per adult with child, families are transported to staging areas at ranches and hotels in southern Mexico, where they are organized into bus groups and rushed north along Mexican highways, “stopping only for food, fuel and bathroom breaks,” according to the U.S. law enforcement documents.

The model particularly appeals to families by minimizing some of the more intimidating and unsavory aspects of traditional Mexican smuggling operations, known for cramming migrants into squalid stash houses, where Central Americans are regularly abused and extorted for additional payments. The busing system has skirted those dangers, generating few reports of violence or mistreatment, U.S. officials say.

Within 72 hours of leaving the staging areas, the buses arrive at predetermined drop-off points within walking distance of the U.S. border. Migrant families are clustered into groups that have at times exceeded 300 adults and children, and they walk directly across the border, in some cases stepping over barriers in long, orderly lines. They then surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents and initiate asylum claims.

Previously undisclosed details of the smuggling system are outlined in U.S. law enforcement reports reviewed by The Washington Post. The official who shared them did so on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal operations details. They depict an upstart, highly profitable entrepreneurial operation that is designed to exploit dysfunction in the American immigration system and U.S. court rulings that mandate families be released from custody while their asylum claims are processed.

The success of the operation is the most extreme example yet of smugglers’ ability to capi­tal­ize on the shift in unauthorized migration to the United States characterized by soaring numbers of adults traveling with children.

Record number of families, a cold new reality at the border

By using the direct-bus method, smugglers can eliminate the need for stash houses along the border where they would normally keep migrants under the watch of armed guards before sneaking them across the border. The express routes “minimize overhead and maximize capacity,” according to the U.S. documents, allowing smugglers to reduce “operational costs to a minimum.”

'Breaking point'

Since October, U.S. border agents have encountered at least 70 large groups of 100 or more migrants, up from 13 such groups during fiscal 2018. Approximately 12,000 parents and children have arrived in the groups, generating tens of millions of dollars in smuggling fees.

U.S. officials call the system “The Conveyor Belt” and have asked Mexican authorities to help stop it. But the conveyor pattern has continued for months, part of a record-breaking surge in crossings by families that the White House has declared a “humanitarian and border security crisis.” Last month, 40,325 arrived in family groups, up 67 percent from January.

Border arrests 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 Homeland Security officials say they are on pace to encounter nearly 1 million unauthorized border crossers during the current fiscal year, as arrests reach their highest level in more than a decade.

The influx has left U.S. border security “at a breaking point,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan told reporters this month.

Migrants continue to stream to the border in a variety of ways, with large numbers of Hondurans forming caravan groups, and other Central Americans making the trip in smaller clusters and by more conventional means. But describing the express buses to reporters, McAleenan said the “shorter smuggling cycle” offered by the smugglers had cut the length of the journey from several weeks to “four to seven days.”

“The availability of these express-bus routes means that more young children are arriving at our border, and we are seeing migrants arrive with illness and medical conditions in unprecedented numbers,” he said.

Tailored to the new, booming aspect of unauthorized U.S. migration — parents bringing children — the new express-bus system’s success would not have been possible in previous eras, when the vast majority of migrants were single adults from Mexico whose goal was to avoid getting caught.

Instead, recruiters are selling clients in Guatemala on the journey with presentations akin to the benign pitch of a travel agency. They offer a range of price points at different levels of passenger comfort, according to U.S. and Guatemalan officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share sensitive details about smuggling networks’ operations. 

Customers paying as little as $2,500 are typically made to ride in trucks or stand in cattle cars, while others buying packages for $7,000 or more get premium bus service. Children generally travel free because those who arrive at the U.S. border with a minor need only to be guided to the edge, not smuggled across it. 

The express journey is typically financed by migrants’ relatives already working in the United States or with microloans that leverage homes and property as collateral, in some cases with notarized documents that allow the smuggling organizations to collect unpaid debts. In an especially worrisome sign for U.S. officials, the price of the journey has been dropping in recent months as the rapid-bus routes allow smugglers to cut costs and boost volume. 

“With no change to U.S. policy or other factors, such as increasing smuggling fees, Central Americans will arrive at increasing rate,” one report warns.

'It's unbelievable'

In most cases, upon crossing the border the migrants express a fear of persecution if deported back home, the first step in seeking U.S. asylum. Some arrive with detailed stories of gang threats, violence and police inaction, and documents to back their claims.

But many other Guatemalans appear to be heading north for jobs in a humming U.S. economy that is facing labor shortages. In November, Guatemala became the leading source of unauthorized migration to the United States, surpassing Mexico for the first time.

One Guatemalan father, reached by phone 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 journey alone. 

“They traveled on a nice bus, with their own seats,” said the father, who described his family’s journey on the condition of anonymity because his wife now has a pending U.S. asylum claim.

A Guatemalan official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the express buses said the United States has been leaning on his government to crack down on the smuggling pipeline. But he said that the government’s strategies rely mostly on social media messaging — such as one with the hashtag #NoMigraciónIrregular — and that those approaches lack credibility alongside the personal testimonies of friends, relatives and neighbors who have completed the journey safely and with relative ease.

Critics of the Trump administration’s border policies allege that U.S. efforts to limit the number of migrants permitted to seek asylum each day at official ports of entry have forced the families to cross the border through remote desert areas.

But the conveyor belt system depicted in the reports indicates decisions about where the groups arrive are not made by the migrants but by smugglers looking for the best places to quickly deliver large numbers of their clients to U.S. agents.

The mass “give-ups” let migrants skip lines at official points of entry, and they can await processing on the U.S. side of the border, where it’s safer. 

The pattern has become so routine that U.S. officials say some large groups form their own queues as they present their documents to agents, as if they were waiting in the arrival hall of an international airport.

“They line up as if it’s some kind of regular immigration process, in single file, like they’re checking in,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the pattern. “It’s unbelievable.”

With the swelling arrest numbers, calls for a border wall have intensified. But in recent weeks, large groups have crossed in areas near central El Paso, where tall, modern steel barriers are already in place. Wading through shallow stretches of the Rio Grande, the migrants reach U.S. soil and wait to be taken into custody on the narrow strip of no man’s land between the river and the border fence.

Across the U.S.-Mexico border, Customs and Border Protection agents are grappling with huge numbers of Central America migrants seeking asylum. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The number of migrants taken into custody in the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector has soared 434 percent in the past five months compared with the same period last year, CBP statistics show.

Marta Sánchez Soler, a sociologist and migrant rights activist in Mexico City, said the rapid-bus operators are part of a broader divergence in the way Central American groups reach the United States.

While Hondurans and Salvadorans have been joining caravans and staying in church-run shelters, Guatemalan families “are all trafficked,” she said.

“You won’t find many Guatemalans in the shelters,” said Sánchez Soler.

In December, two Guatemalan children died in CBP’s El Paso sector after arriving with large groups. Their autopsy reports have not been released, but initial assessments indicate the children might have contracted the flu or another illness. In response to the deaths, CBP has expanded medical screenings for all minors in custody. Hospital referrals have nearly tripled during the past five months, the agency says.

The border security compromise reached between President Trump and House Democrats last month includes $415 million for improved migrant care and treatment, including funds to construct a new processing center in El Paso to alleviate dangerous overcrowding in holding cells there.

Agents took in 700 migrants in El Paso one night in early March, including groups of 252 and 112. Among them was an unaccompanied 2-year-old.

Avoiding danger

The lower Rio Grande Valley of South Texas has long been the main entry point for Central American migrants, opposite the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. But warring factions of the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas criminal organization have left the area with a fearsome reputation for kidnapping, rape and abuse, one reason the caravans have conspicuously avoided those areas, despite a shorter distance to the U.S. border.

Gunmen stopped a bus traveling through Tamaulipas this month and abducted 19 migrants, loading them into pickup trucks, Mexican authorities said. Another 25 migrants went missing after a similar incident in late February.

Such incidents appear to be one reason the express-bus operators veer away from that part of northern Mexico, opting for longer routes to the El Paso area and points further west into New Mexico and Arizona.

U.S. officials say they have given Mexican authorities specific information 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 be coordinating the buses.

One staging location U.S. law enforcement officials have identified is a property ringed by a seven-foot concrete block wall close to the center of Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, where a fleet of gray buses loads up as many 150 migrants at a time, documents show. A cargo truck loaded with Guatemalan migrants crashed along a highway near the city this month, killing 25 and leaving more than 30 injured, authorities said.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office in December, has sought a contrast with his predecessor’s immigration policies, promising to be more welcoming to Central American migrants. More quietly, his administration has been cooperating with an experimental U.S. policy to make Central Americans wait in Mexico until their U.S. asylum cases are settled.

Immigration enforcement at the Guatemala-Mexico border remains light, and the documents of Central Americans traveling on Mexican highways are not systematically checked, according to the U.S. reports.

“The buses are routinely inspected by Mexican authorities for contraband, however, authorities do not conduct immigration checks,” the documents state.

Mexico is seeking more details about the bus routes and operators, according to one senior government official who spoke on 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.

Mexican Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero, the country’s top immigration official, met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in Washington last month to discuss the soaring border numbers.

Sánchez Cordero told The Post that her government wants a more intimate intelligence-sharing relationship with the United States to target traffickers more aggressively, affirming that Mexico has “already arrested several” smugglers, without providing further detail. 

“We’ve only been in office for [three] months,” she said. “We want truly close collaboration with the United States.”