EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Advocates often point out that migrants fall prey to criminals on their journey to the United States. But now some of those migrants are enduring violence after they cross the border, federal officials say.
“Smuggling operations is something that’s been going on for many, many years, holding them in stash houses and trying to get family members out of money is a new trend that we’re starting to see here in the El Paso area,” said Jeffrey Downey, special agent in charge of the FBI Field Office in El Paso. “We’re talking thousands of dollars the victims’ families have been paying out.”
Authorities know of Central American and Mexican migrants who have been victimized, but there could be other nationalities involved. Border agents encountered more than 25,000 migrants in the El Paso Sector just in March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported.
The FBI and its federal, state and local law enforcement partners have made multiple arrests recently involving individuals holding newly arrived migrants for ransom. In some cases, the perpetrators are part of the same human smuggling organizations that brought them across the border for a fee but decide they need more money. In other cases, it’s a different group that takes control of the migrants, holds them against their will and demands money from them or their relatives.
“We’ve seen everything from threats of violence to videos where guns have been pointed at people’s heads to actual physical assaults on individuals,” Downey said. “Smuggling individuals into the United States is a very lucrative business. There is a lot of money to be made […] so, that’s why these groups are doing this.”
The FBI says transnational criminal organizations and their operatives in the United States are responsible for the kidnappings, extortion and violence. The agency declined to elaborate on which groups or cartels are involved.
“There are multiple groups involved in smuggling operations into the United States that are involved in kidnap for ransom extortion schemes,” Downey said. “There is cooperation on both sides (of the border) of organized groups involved in this scheme, but that’s as far as I’m going to elaborate on that.”
As far as the number of victims, Downey said it’s been “upwards of 40” just in the past three and a half months.
The agency is urging community members to alert authorities to the existence of migrant “stash houses” to ensure no one is being held against his or her will.
“I want to be cautious against defining it to any one area because I want the community keeping its eyes and ears open to what’s happening in their neighborhood,” Downey said. “After we rescue these individuals, we talk to others in the area and they start saying, ‘yes, I have seen some unusual activity.’ So it’s important for folks to feel comfortable reporting these crimes.”
Marisa Limon Garza, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute, said restoring asylum at the U.S. border and ending the Title 42 public health order allowing the immediate deportation of newly arrived migrants will go a long way in reducing violence against migrants. With no avenue for legal entry, the migrants resort to smugglers after being turned back at ports of entry or expelled through Title 42.
“It will definitely be alleviated because you’ll have a process where people aren’t stuck in (Mexico) or crossing between ports of entry,” she said. “An end to Title 42 would reduce the amount of violence that migrants experience because they’d be moving through more quickly and wouldn’t be as vulnerable.”
Limon said the migrant research and assistance nonprofit will be monitoring the reported violence north of the border. “I think the larger community needs to be mindful of human trafficking – and that it is organized crime – and we have to decide if that’s something we want to have in our community or not,” she said.