MATAMOROS, Mexico — The smuggler led a single-file line of migrants toward the border, instructing them to hold hands. He filmed them as they moved almost silently through the brush, as they waded across the Rio Grande, as Border Patrol agents chased them down a dirt road.
Then he turned the camera on himself. Filling the screen, with a wide, toothy smile, was the face of a teenage boy.
Antonio guided his first group of undocumented migrants into the United States when he was 12. He’s 17 now, and one of the most prolific juvenile smugglers along a section of the border that’s full of them.
He’s notorious among the Border Patrol agents of Brownsville, Tex., who keep a list of the 10 most successful juvenile smugglers on the wall of their office. Some have been caught more than a hundred times. Antonio, always cautious, is up to 15.
“He knew what he was doing,” said one senior Border Patrol agent based in Brownsville. “His goal was to win.”
Since last October, U.S. immigration agents have made more than 1.5 million migrant apprehensions along the country’s southern border, the most in more than two decades. The Biden administration has pledged to dismantle the networks that transport migrants, which are often described as sophisticated transnational syndicates.
But the smugglers at the heart of one of the world’s largest human migrations — including the current surge of children and families — are often children themselves.
They are boys who grew up on the southern banks of the Rio Grande. They earn about $100 for each migrant they get across. For many, it’s a part-time job, a hole in the border economy that they can fill. Some have become famous for their smuggling feats. They are the subjects of rap songs. Images of their exploits have been shared widely on social media.
Their success is made possible by a quirk in the U.S. immigration system. Antonio and the other juvenile smugglers mostly don’t have to worry about getting caught.
It’s a long-standing practice: The U.S. Justice Department doesn’t prosecute Mexican minors for smuggling migrants. When the boys are apprehended, they’re put in white Border Patrol vans and expelled to northern Mexico, where they are free to escort more migrants across the border — sometimes within hours.
That makes them valuable tools for the criminal groups that control the trade. A policy meant to protect the boys has instead made them targets for cartel recruitment.
“Niños de circuito,” they’re called here: children of the circuit.
The work comes with an expiration date. When the boys turn 18, they’re no longer insulated from prosecution. If they’re caught ferrying migrants across the border as adults, they can be sent to a U.S. prison for a decade.
That’s when the cartels steer them toward a new role. As the boys approach their 18th birthdays, the groups recruit them for more dangerous work — as drug traffickers, for example, or hit men.
There have been months when Antonio smuggled migrants to Texas almost every day. He has memorized the curves in the Rio Grande: the way it narrows near Monsees Road, the dense brush around Browne Park, how you can cross the river by leaping between rocks at Las Rusias.
He can get over the border wall in less than a minute. He has learned to use Google Maps to navigate his way between Border Patrol checkpoints. On Facebook, he changed his profession to “smuggler.”
“In the beginning, it was like a game. You feel the adrenaline rush,” he said. “You jump over the wall. You run away from the agents. You hide. And at the end of it all, you get paid.”
Antonio turns 18 in February.
He sees two options.
There’s the first: He has already been pressured by the Gulf Cartel to move from “crossing people,” as he calls it, to a riskier role. Cartel members have loaned Antonio an assault rifle. They’ve asked him to start moving drugs.
And the second: The local government, recognizing the number of local children drawn into smuggling, has launched a program to extricate them from the business. It offers sessions with a psychologist, a path to a high school diploma and jobs to replace part of their smuggling income.
The government has even created a soccer team for the kid smugglers, their names printed on the back of the uniforms.
Soon Antonio will have to choose.
Recruited after class
Antonio was drawn into smuggling the same way as most of the boys in Matamoros.
He was walking home from sixth grade one afternoon, wearing his school uniform and toting an oversized backpack, when an older boy approached.
“He asked if I was interested in crossing people for money,” he said. “I was innocent at the time. I didn’t even know what they were talking about.”
Antonio, who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition that he would be identified only by his middle name out of concern for his safety, was struggling in school. His mom was raising him alone in the city’s red-light district. He slept on a bare mattress in the kitchen, under a poster of “The Last Supper.” Some months, they couldn’t pay the bills. His father, a veteran of the Mexican Marines, was rarely around; when he did appear, Antonio says, he was brutally strict.
For as long as Antonio could remember, migrants passed through Matamoros, sometimes within sight of his apartment, on their way to Texas. He often dreamed of joining them, and leaving this city forever.
His first time guiding a group, he was so nervous he could barely breathe. It was dark along the Rio Grande. He didn’t know how to swim. He managed to wade across the river and immediately got lost. Almost by chance, he wandered into the white truck that was waiting to whisk them away.
“In the beginning, I wasn’t that good,” he said, and laughed.
But within months, the job started to feel easier. He learned to sweep away his footprints so he was harder to track. He memorized the locations of stash houses on the northern bank of the river. His bosses called or texted him when they had an assignment. Sometimes the messages were just two words: “Let’s go.”
He learned to dash back to Mexico if the Border Patrol arrived. He got cocky. He smoked a blunt of marijuana while crossing the river. He chronicled everything on Snapchat.
Sometimes he stayed for a few days in Texas. He hit the beach on South Padre Island. He met a girl with pretty brown eyes, a U.S. citizen who was working on the Texas side of the smuggling operation.
He lost track of how much money he made. “It flew out of my hands,” he said.
He bought a closet full of new Nike shoes. He bought a car. He bought Ziploc bags of methamphetamines. He gave his mother and his girlfriend gifts and piles of cash.
“He would disappear for weeks at a time,” his mom said. “But when he came back, he always had something for me.”
Antonio honed a pep talk for the migrants. Sometimes they were kids his own age from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Sometimes they were adult men, who looked at their guide in disbelief, the final leg of their long journeys now in the hands of a child.
"They have the technology,” he would tell the migrants, channeling Al Pacino’s character in Scarface, his favorite movie, trying to sound commanding. “But we’re smarter, we’re faster, we’re stronger.”
Then he delivered his instructions for getting over the border wall: “Hold tight to the tubes and push your feet out to the sides and climb.”
The Border Patrol has grown used to catching the same boys over and over. Some, like Antonio, have become legends among the agents. One teenager in El Paso had a case file more than a foot long, a senior Border Patrol agent recalled. When he turned 18, agents in the sector celebrated.
“It’s like any sport or anything. You have a kid that’s really good at what he does,” said the agent in Brownsville, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing minors. “Very careful with the way he comes across, what he’s looking at. He knows when to move, when not to move. He knows the correct route.”
Antonio became so confident in his skills as a smuggler — and so certain of his impunity — that he began to mock the agents.
“He was one of those kids who was like, ‘Hey, I got you three days ago,’” the agent said. “It was kind of funny but annoying.”
Because the Justice Department chooses not to prosecute the boys, the Border Patrol has few options. Sometimes the agency hires dentists to examine the boys’ teeth to assess whether they are in fact under 18, and not lying about their age.
A few years ago, agents tried to detain the kids for months without trial as a deterrent, but the approach drew concern from human rights advocates and lawyers. Sometimes they return the boys to different border towns, far from their homes, controlled by rival drug cartels — another improvised deterrent that advocates say puts the children at risk.
But mostly the agents believe their only tool is persuasion.
“Kind of like a teacher, you’re hoping when you talk to these kids and tell them, ‘Hey man, next time this can happen. You can end up drowning. Something bad can happen,’” the agent said. “And you’re hoping that it sinks in for one of them.”
A revolving door
When Ivette Hernández Cavazos met Antonio, he had just been caught by Border Patrol agents for the 11th time.
He swaggered into the shelter at the Center for Attention to Border Minors, a square, one-story building in Matamoros a few blocks south of the Rio Grande where the juvenile smugglers are deposited by Mexican immigration officers after being handed over by U.S. agents.
He was a skinny 15-year-old, wearing an oversized T-shirt and a long gold chain. Tattoos lined his arm. He used slang to describe the migrants, calling them chivos, or goats.
But the facade crumbled quickly. He called his mother on the office telephone, speaking meekly into the receiver. He asked if he could take a nap.
Hernández , a 35-year-old former Mexican immigration official, had taken a job at the shelter a few weeks earlier. She was a petite woman, born and raised less than a mile from the border, with a curly ponytail. She typed Antonio’s name into a database and stared at the list of his apprehensions.
Almost every day she saw boys dropped off by Mexican authorities. Usually, they were still wearing the clothes they had on when they crossed the river. Sometimes they lost their shoes in the mud; they returned in Border Patrol flip-flops.
“How many migrants did you cross this time?” she asked each boy. Then she waited for their parents to pick them up, as if they had been suspended from school. Sometimes their mothers arrived in shiny new SUVs. Sometimes it was members of the cartel who came for the boys.
Almost always, the teenagers would reappear days or weeks later, and the cycle repeated itself.
Hernández watched as some of the boys became involved in more serious crimes. Some trafficked drugs. Some started carrying weapons. Some took supervisory roles directing newer, younger smugglers. Local officials mostly watched without intervening, as if observing a natural phenomenon.
“We weren’t offering them anything. It was a revolving door,” Hernández said. “If we didn’t reach them, organized crime would.”
Last year, with a local government grant, she started a program called “My Feet Above Our Roots,” based at the center. She reserved a soccer field for the boys and recruited a coach with a degree in psychology.
To some of her colleagues, it sounded absurd.
“They were like, ‘You’re going to form a soccer team of child smugglers?’” she said.
It would be a way to keep tabs on the kids, she explained, so they didn’t spiral deeper into the cartel. Since 2015, government data shows, at least 6,714 Mexican minors have been killed in acts of violence as cartels have increasingly recruited juveniles. On the border, careers in organized crime often begin with smuggling.
One study from the Autonomous University of Tamaulipas, based on interviews with 107 human smugglers, found that almost 80 percent knew colleagues who had been recruited by cartels to traffic arms or drugs, or do other work like operating as hitmen or kidnappers.
The niños de circuito already had links to the cartel. In Matamoros, it’s nearly impossible for smugglers or migrants to cross the border without paying the Gulf Cartel, described by the Justice Department as “one of the most violent and brutal drug trafficking organizations in the world.”
Hernández thought about Antonio. Could she convince him?
“He’s the hardest one,” she said.
On Facebook, he had begun posting photos of the Santa Muerte, the Saint of Death worshiped by many Mexican criminals. He made references to his allegiance to the Gulf Cartel. He posted a photo of the prescription drugs he had begun taking recreationally and another of himself holding an assault rifle.
By then, the city was at the center of a surge in migration. March was the busiest month along the U.S.-Mexico border in almost two decades. More than 172,000 migrants were taken into U.S. custody.
Antonio’s phone lit up with calls and Facebook messages.
“Do you want to cross some people?”
“I’ve got eight if you’re available.”
Even Antonio’s mother’s boyfriend, who worked for years as a cook at a Macaroni Grill in North Carolina before being deported, asked Antonio to get him across.
In March, Hernández persuaded Antonio to show up at a counseling session at the shelter’s cafeteria.
He sat there, his head resting on his hands, as the other kids described their descent into smuggling, the power they derived from it. When it was his turn to talk, he wouldn’t say how many times he had crossed the river, or how much he was paid — ordinarily his favorite subjects. He talked only about his mother.
“She doesn’t love me,” he said. “I don’t have anyone.”
Hernández, on the other side of the table, counted Antonio’s new tattoos and thought about all the ways boys try to disguise themselves as men.
A few months later came the first soccer practice at a municipal park, and there was Antonio. The boys’ names were printed on the back of their uniforms. Antonio wore number 10.
At practice, the boys urged each other on. Run like you’re fleeing the Border Patrol, they yelled. Jump like you’re scaling the wall.
But as the team got closer to their first game, Antonio stopped showing up.
What happened? Hernández asked the other boys.
No one seemed to know.
‘I’m trying to find you’
So Hernández went looking for him. She borrowed her parents’ red Toyota and drove through the neighborhoods tucked behind the vast industrial corridor that had consumed Matamoros in the decades since NAFTA.
There was one of the world’s largest windshield wiper factories; a plant that made steering wheels; another that made gas masks. Jobs there pay a dollar an hour. If the kids weren’t smuggling migrants, sometimes earning $1,000 a day, Hernández thought, that’s where they would work.
The city had reorganized itself so that cartel violence, mass migration and transnational commerce all coexist. Growing up in Matamoros often necessitates a familiarity with all three.
Each neighborhood seemed a little worse than the previous one, until Hernández pulled up in front of Antonio’s cinder block apartment. The wire gate was locked.
“It looks abandoned,” Hernández said. She peered through the wire gate. When Antonio didn’t answer the door, she called his cellphone.
“I’m trying to find you. Where are you?” she said.
He directed her a few blocks away. When she pulled up, Antonio leaned through the window of her car.
“What happened to you?” she asked, exasperated. “They caught me,” he said, his eyes tearing up. “They arrested my girl.”
While the soccer team had been practicing, he had gone back across the border. He met his girlfriend in Brownsville.
They had opened their own stash house, and were splitting the rent. The operation seemed to be working. More than a dozen migrants at a time slept on the floor. Antonio was climbing the ladder of the smuggling business. He felt untouchable. He changed his profession on Facebook; now it said: “Works at United States Border Patrol.”
It was a strange kind of domestic bliss. Then, one morning, the door burst open. A whole team unit of uniformed men were suddenly in the living room, shouting. They pointed guns at Antonio. Within seconds, handcuffs were on his wrists.
His girlfriend, 18, was arrested. Antonio, being a minor, was sent back to Mexico.
“My little skinny girl,” he said to Hernández.
Hernández looked at him, unsure of what to say. Before she could answer, he pleaded:
“Listen, I need help. I need money.”
Hernández looked around. A few feet away, a man watched them, a cellphone in his hand. She wondered if he was eavesdropping. Hernández was growing nervous.
“I’ll try,” Hernández said. “I’ll try.”
Newest team in the league
A few days later came the first soccer game of the season.
It was raining hard. Nine boys had shown up. Antonio wasn’t among them.
Hernández, on the sidelines in her raincoat, kept a lookout for him.
Another boy, Alexander, began a short speech.
He knew Antonio, too. They had smuggled migrants together. Alexander had pleaded with Antonio to stop — using his own life as an example.
Alexander was 18 now. He had a 6-month-old son and a serious girlfriend. He had landed a job at the edge of the city as a car mechanic. He had gravitated to the program and the soccer team the way he once had to smuggling.
“These kind of activities motivate us to work for our own good, and the good of our families,” he told the small crowd.
The whistle blew.
The boys were playing against a team of women, the Warriors, many of them factory workers. It wasn’t until the women arrived that they learned that they would be playing against a team of child smugglers.
“Are you serious?” one asked.
For days, the boys had traded jokes about how much stronger and faster they would be. But by halftime, the boys were down 4 to 1. Their bravado had faded. Wet and shivering in the rain, they looked once again like children.
“You need to focus,” the boys’ coach told them.
Thirty minutes later, it was over.
“We’ll get them next time,” Alexander said.
Hernández got in her car to leave. She tallied her list of the boys who attended, checking off their names.
She got to Antonio’s name and passed over it.
A few days later, Antonio appeared again. This time he was stumbling up to Alexander’s house, covered in blood, vomiting.
Antonio explained what happened. He had received a call from a man he had met as a smuggler, who was now working more closely for the cartel. Would Antonio be willing to kill a man for cash?
He didn’t have to think about it. He was driven in a pickup truck nearly two hours to the farm town of San Fernando — territory of the Zetas, a Gulf Cartel rival. One of his bosses told him the target.
He fired his gun, he says, but missed. His friend was shot in the shoulder. They retreated back to Matamoros.
Not long after he returned, Gulf Cartel members broke into his mother’s apartment in the middle of the night and carried him out. His mother looked on, horrified.
“They told me, ‘You’re never going to see your son again,’” she said. “I just stood here and cried.”
The cartel held Antonio for three days. They handcuffed him so tightly that the skin around his wrists was worn bare. They broke a table over his knee and punched him repeatedly in the face.
Was the cartel exacting revenge because the operation had failed? It was unclear. And to Antonio, it didn’t really matter.
He pleaded with Alexander to let him stay at his house, for just a few days.
But Alexander, his baby son sleeping next to him, worried about having someone in his house like Antonio, and told him he couldn’t stay.
So Antonio went back to his mother’s house and collapsed on a mattress. Sorting through his options, there was only one left that he could think of. He called Hernández.
“I need help,” he said.
She told him she would visit, and they would discuss his options.
But on the morning she was meant to drive to his house, her boss at the shelter stopped her. It was too risky, he said. She couldn’t be seen as meddling in the cartel’s affairs.
She called Antonio.
“I can’t come over,” she said.
She didn’t want to say why: that he was now too dangerous for her to help.
He had made his choice.