NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Federal investigators are finding more and more people in Albuquerque illegally. Homeland Security Investigations said human smugglers have helped hundreds across the border, often subjecting them to dangerous and inhumane conditions. The agency said the smugglers use stash houses to hide large groups of migrants on their way to other parts of the United States. Since October 2022, local and federal law enforcement have responded to an unprecedented increase in stash house discoveries in Albuquerque. KRQE Investigates previously reported on those federal stash house investigations, detailing recent cases, showing who is behind the crime, and answering why smugglers are using Albuquerque as a stop.  

“They’re not going through someone who’s going to look out for their best interests, who’s going to take care of them, ensure that they have good accommodations,” said Homeland Security Investigations’s Deputy Special Agent in Charge Jason Stevens. “They’re going through a transnational criminal organization, and that organization is here strictly to make money, and they don’t care how they make it.”

“Mostly fear is what leads people to hire smugglers. Not only are they fleeing from their countries due to fear, persecution, harm, threats, but also the fear of crossing to the U.S.,” said Anna Trillo with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center. Trillo is a first-generation American working as a legal fellow for the nonprofit organization. She explained many people consider smuggling safer and quicker than the legal entry process. “We know our immigration system right now is very broken,” she said. “It is very, very backed up.” Trillo added this means it can take months to even get an appointment through the potentially difficult-to-access federal government app, CBP One, which can force people to wait at the border in what can also be unsafe conditions.

When they do get that appointment, Trillo said migrants need to prove “credible fear.” “It’s very subjective to the hearing officer, the immigration officer on if they decide if your fear is credible enough,” Trillo shared. “Just saying it’s horrible in my country and I decided to come to the U.S. because it’s better. That’s not enough.” Plus, Trillo added, it is important to cross the border because you have to be in the U.S. to apply for asylum. “People think, you know, people are just coming because they think it’ll be easy in the U.S. But no, it’s literally they’re coming to safety is what they’re looking for,” said Trillo. “They’re looking to save their lives, their children’s lives. And that’s the reason. It’s desperation more than anything.”

(Scroll down to view an extended interview with Anna Trillo.)

To understand how hundreds are smuggled across the border to Albuquerque and why they choose that route, KRQE’s Investigative Reporter Ann Pierret and photojournalist Kenneth McGlothin rode along with the U.S. Border Patrol. They joined two agents in the border town of Sunland Park, New Mexico on an early morning shift. “The Santa Teresa Border Patrol station was the busiest station in the sector,” Agent Fidel Baca explained. “I think as of right now it sits at second, but it’s constantly been, yeah, even earlier in the year it was – it would be top five in the nation.” The station is part of the El Paso Sector, which includes parts of West Texas and the entire state of New Mexico.

While approaching the border wall, Agent Baca said they do see people climb the wall; but, every day, all day people utilize Mount Cristo Rey for entry. The wall does not run south of it.

While looking up the mountain, Agent Sean Coffey, spotted a suspected smuggler. “He sits up there all day and he sends groups down all day,” he explained. “There he is. He’s moving.” Using a cell phone, Agent Coffey said, to give directions to those trying to cross based on where the agents are patrolling. With eyes on Border Patrol’s every move, the agents said it is not safe to go after the men at the top unless a team could surround them.

“All this is organized,” Agent Baca said. “You know, you cannot come in illegally to the U.S. without paying what is known as some type of quota.” That’s a fee, often thousands of dollars, paid to those smugglers. “They have people in the bus station recruiting, you know,” Agent Baca explained. “They can kind of see, hey, this guy fits the profile. You know, ‘Hey, man, you’re looking to cross over? I’ll help you out.’”

A few hours into the ride-along, the agents were called to respond to an illegal entry. They located three people – a married couple and an older man – attempting to get across. After the agents brought the three to the patrol car to pat them down, Agent Baca asked a few questions for KRQE Investigates.

“Are they okay?” Investigative Reporter Ann Pierret asked. “Nah, they’re in good health. They’ve been up there about two hours,” Agent Baca responded.

“Were they meeting up with the smuggler?” Pierret questioned. Agent Baca translated, “So the instructions that they were given was to keep going straight, passing the main road, and that they were going to get picked up at 1 p.m.”

That’s typical, the agents said, and that pick-up would have taken the three to their first of many stash houses. The married couple told Agent Baca they were headed to Minnesota. The older man wanted to get to New York for a painting job. All three also shared they previously tried to enter legally. They explained to the agent that they paid 5,000 pesos to someone who promised a work visa but never gave them one. So, they resorted to illegal entry and admitted it was not their first time getting caught.

So how did Border Patrol agents spot the three? Using motion-sensing and infrared technology. One type is similar to a doorbell camera and provides the dispatcher with a photo, so the agents know what the migrants look like. “Yes. And I’m not sure if you heard, they did tell us the number. They can tell us what they’re wearing,” Agent Baca explained.

That camera is not visible, but the autonomous surveillance towers are. Agent Baca said the nearly two dozen throughout the El Paso Sector are mobile and powered by solar energy. Using artificial intelligence and combined with the other equipment, they can provide the direction a person is headed.

But, even with extra eyes, Agent Baca admitted people do still get past them, which is why Albuquerque is discovering so many stash houses. “It’s a three-prong approach,” he explained. “We need a good combination of infrastructure, technology, and manpower.” And recently, he said, the agency’s been so overwhelmed with people crossing, that manpower is hurting. “So, what’s going to happen is that we’re going to move agents from the border to our processing facilities to care for these people,” Agent Baca explained. “So, then we’re going to have less agents on the border.”

Records showed highway checkpoints struggle with manpower, too. So when staffing is low, cars are waved through without an inspection. A green light that the smugglers are paying attention to.

Beyond that, Agent Baca said the smugglers are calculated. He explained they’ll send a group of moms and children through on one side to distract from a separate group entering miles away. “Like I mentioned, this is all organized crime,” he said.

Towards the end of the ride-along, Pierret, still thinking about the three caught, asked, “They looked just distraught. Upset, defeated. That got to me. What’s that like for you?” “It doesn’t affect me. And let me tell you why…I take ‘em to the stations and I see the records that come back – murders, people with convictions of assault on children,” Agent Baca explained. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you, you know, everybody has a record. They don’t. A lot of people are looking for a better living. They are looking to send money back to their families. The thing is that we cannot, as a country, not know what’s trying to come into our country.”

In the last year, the U.S. Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector reports more than 420,000 encounters with people trying to illegally cross the border into El Paso or New Mexico. The agency also found more than 3,600 people in 281 stash houses across the sector. Agent Fidel Baca said the human smuggling organizations are recruiting American teenagers to drive people smuggled into the country up to Albuquerque or other parts of the U.S. It’s a dangerous job that has led to a handful of deadly crashes this year.

View the extended interview with Anna Trillo with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center below: