513 Migrants in Two Tractor Trailers: Why Mexico's Drug Cartels Are Moving into Human Smuggling

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Government of Chiapas / EPA

A photograph provided by the government of Chiapas shows an X-ray view of one two tractor-trailers in which 513 illegal immigrants were found in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico, on May 17, 2011

From the road, the two tractor trailers looked like thousands of others that drive daily through southern Mexico lugging cement, bananas and other Central American goods. But when Mexican police officers shined an X-ray on the trucks, they saw an alarming cargo. Hundreds of men and women were crammed like sardines in a tin, squatting on the floor or grasping ropes to avoid getting crushed. There were seven people for every square yard (0.83 sq m), a stunning 513 migrants in total in the two trucks, traveling in near suffocating temperatures of over 105°F (40°C). It was the biggest human-smuggling bust in Mexico's recent history. The passengers had each paid $7,000 to try and sneak through Mexico into the U.S. The people in the trailers will now be sent, penniless, back to their homelands, mostly Guatemala or El Salvador but some as far afield as India and Nepal.

The megabust once again focuses attention on the perilous conditions of migrants in Mexico and the government's efforts to police them. Every year an estimated 300,000 undocumented travelers pour through Mexico and over the Rio Grande in search of the American Dream. Under pressure from Washington, Mexican security forces have been rounding them up in ever greater numbers. But amid the drug war, Mexico's southern border has become increasingly lawless, with cartel paramilitaries carrying out brutal massacres to control smuggling routes. The same cartels also prey on the migrants, carrying out mass kidnappings in exchange for ransom. In the face of such terror, migrants have resorted to more desperate ways to go north, as shown by the tractor-trailers.

The issue has divided Mexico and its traditional Central American friends. The governments of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have all condemned criminal violence against their citizens in Mexico, especially the massacre of 72 migrants by cartel gunmen in August. Meanwhile, some activists in Mexico ask why their government should play the migrant cop of the U.S. when hundreds of thousands of its own citizens also sneak over the Rio Grande looking for jobs. One of the most vocal activists, Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde, has proposed that Mexico give the migrants passes to travel legally, free of the harassment of police officers or gangsters. "If they don't change this law soon, then more people are going to suffer and more are going to die," Solalinde said as he joined a protest against drug violence in Mexico City earlier this month.

In a recent visit by TIME to a shelter run by Solalinde in the southern Mexican town of Ixtepec, migrants told of a terrifying journey north. A Honduran named Edwin described running into 15 gunmen from the dreaded Zetas criminal army when he was jumping freight trains. The gangsters held Edwin half starved for four months until his family wired a ransom of $1,400 for his release. "The only thing that goes through your head is that you are going to die. You think they are going take to you someplace and it is all going to end," said Edwin, who asked that his full name not be used, for fear of repercussion. The abductions have helped gangsters earn tens of millions of dollars. Mexico's National Human Rights Commissions documented 20,000 such migrant kidnappings in 2010.

The cartels have a more direct way of making money off migrants: by taxing the human smugglers. The gang that operated the two busted tractor-trailers would have made some $3.5 million in total from the trip — and would have typically paid 20% of that to a cartel for protection. A Salvadoran migrant in the shelter said that some smugglers boast that they are working with the Zetas — because paying the gangsters ahead of time is the only way to avoid getting their passengers kidnapped by the fearsome thugs. Migrants said the gangsters now tax anyone making the final crossing over the Rio Grande into the U.S. — with the travelers either paying as individuals or through migrant smugglers. Human smuggling has thus become entwined with the drug cartels in a number of ways.

Even as Mexican security tackles the issue by sending back migrants and going after gangsters, there are charges that government officials are in cahoots with human-smuggling rackets. Mexico's National Immigration Institute announced this week that it plans to clean house and fire some 350 officials following accusations of corruption, including moonlighting with drug gangs. On May 17, police arrested two immigration officials in the southern state of Chiapas for pimping out Central American women as prostitutes. Solalinde says these charges are only the tip of the iceberg and Mexican police and officials have been profiting from the abuse of migrants on an enormous scale.

However, President Felipe Calderón's government argues that busts similar to the Chiapas one show how it clearly is dealing with the abuse of migrants. In recent weeks, soldiers have also rescued hundreds of migrants who were kidnapped and held in various Zeta safe houses. Interior Secretary Francisco Blake Mora flew over the southern Mexican border in a helicopter on May 18 and promised that the government will fortify the area against organized crime. "Calderón has instructed us to give priority attention to this region," Mora said. He also offered solidarity with the Guatemalan government over a massacre of 29 people there by alleged Zetas on May 15. "This shameful action shows the savageness and the barbarism of these criminals," he said.

Despite the double risk of police and gangsters, there is no sign of the migrant tide through Mexico abating. Most Central American nations suffer poor economic growth, high unemployment and rock-bottom wages — and the U.S. is still an attractive destination, with Mexico as the transit zone. The Honduran migrant Edwin says he would love to stay in his homeland but sees no future there. "In my country, things are very difficult, and I have no option but to risk a journey through here," he said in Mexico before boarding a freight train that was headed north. "I hope to God it will be all right."