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Crackdown on 'Coyotes' Gets Results

Some alleged human smugglers caught in the U.S. are prosecuted in Mexico. The pilot program's success spurs calls for its expansion.

June 13, 2004|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Suspected human smugglers caught in California's Imperial Valley are being handed over to Mexican authorities for prosecution as part of a pilot program that has been so successful in disrupting some illegal immigration that authorities want to expand the effort across the Southwest.

Nearly 40 suspected smugglers, called coyotes, have been arrested and prosecuted since the program was initiated in 2002 to reduce fatalities of immigrants crossing the deserts and swift-moving irrigation canals from the Jacumba Mountains east of San Diego to the Arizona border.

In the past, coyotes in the region often escaped prosecution because scarce resources prevented U.S. authorities from pursuing cases involving fewer than 12 immigrants.

Now, Border Patrol agents hand over some suspects to Mexican authorities, who are devoting more resources to handling the cases under their own laws.

The Guide Identification and Prosecution Program reflects the heightened focus on combating migrant smuggling rings that have grown bigger and more powerful on the increasingly fortified border.

"It is a mechanism to remove some of the most dangerous and callous smugglers from the border," said Assistant U.S. Border Patrol Chief Roy Villareal. "If we can't do it on the U.S. side, at least we now know there's an avenue on the Mexican side."

The difficulty of enforcing anti-smuggling laws in the U.S. was highlighted in April with the discovery of 110 illegal immigrants in a safe house in Watts. The alleged smugglers escaped prosecution because the immigrants were unable, or unwilling, to cooperate with authorities or were hard to track down.

Under Mexico's laws, those who have crossed illegally into the United States typically do not have to testify in person against smugglers. Prosecutors often gain convictions after submitting the immigrants' written declarations.

The information from immigrants and coyotes has led to the arrests of network kingpins who have smuggled thousands of immigrants over the border in recent years.

Authorities say the program, with such other safety measures as rescue beacons, helped reduce immigrant deaths in the region from 95 in 2001 to 68 in 2003.

Expansion of the program is important, said Villareal, because the smuggling rings have relocated to other border areas. Though it is unclear whether Mexican authorities have the resources, Villareal said, they supported the concept.

"It's just a matter of working it through the chain of command and getting the resources," he said.

The crackdown has snared the kingpins of two of the biggest migrant smuggling networks based in Mexicali, Mexico. Jose Alfredo Dorador Arangure, nicknamed "El Rey" -- the King -- sent thousands of immigrants over the Jacumba Mountains, where agents often find the bones of people who were overcome by the harsh weather, authorities said.

A smuggling network headed by Agustin Chan Montoya, a former Mexicali policeman, loaded immigrants onto rafts to cross the All-American Canal. To distract border patrol agents, Montoya's men would throw rocks at federal agents, they said.

U.S. authorities express concern over how some of the cases have been handled by the Mexican courts. Arangure and Montoya were released, prompting rumors that they had bribed judges. Arangure has since been rearrested.

Some experts on Mexico-U.S. relations think prosecuting coyotes is a misguided and futile effort, given the underlying economic realities that pull immigrants north. Coyotes, they say, are indispensable to immigrants desperate to cross the border. Smugglers now charge immigrants $1,000 to $2,000 to take them across the deserts or mountains.

"The financial incentives are now so strong ... that even if dozens of coyotes are taken out of action, others will quickly take their places," said Wayne Cornelius, director for the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

The Guide Identification and Prosecution Program was introduced in a notoriously dangerous region for immigrants to cross into the U.S. -- the 100-mile stretch of deserts and canyons from the Jacumba Mountains to the Arizona border.

Since 2000, 320 immigrants have died on the region's trails or by drowning in the irrigation canals that form the border in some areas.

Smuggling rings based in Mexicali show little regard for safety, often providing immigrants little food or water for hikes that take days, say authorities. They have also led their clients to mountain bandits who steal their meager belongings.

Immigrants are eventually transported to drop houses in Los Angeles and other large cities but are not released until family members pay the required fee.

One arrested ringleader had an immigrant beaten and returned to Mexico after relatives in Los Angeles refused to pay his price, authorities said.

Supervisory Border Patrol Agents Samuel McClaren and Mario Alvarez, who head the program in the U.S., build cases by questioning groups of immigrants who have been captured along with their coyotes. The immigrants' statements implicating the suspects are then given to Mexican authorities to get arrest warrants from judges.

When U.S. authorities deport the alleged smugglers, Mexican police are waiting at the border to take them into custody. Mexican prosecutors then re-interview the immigrants and submit the statements to the judge.

The statements from immigrants are often sufficient to gain convictions in Mexico, said Enrique Sanchez, the Mexican federal prosecutor who heads the program.

Sanchez said about 20 smugglers have been sentenced to terms ranging from one to five years. Though others have taken their place, the program is sending a message.

"If you don't start somewhere, and inject some kind of fear into [smugglers], we cannot make progress," he said.

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