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COLUMN ONE

Feel the Rush of a Smuggler

Trent dreams of early retirement, and he says he's already living the good life. His job? He drives illegal immigrants across the border.

January 25, 2006|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

TIJUANA — The Mexican gang of human smugglers, hiding behind the wobbly fence of a drab town house, prepare the car for the latest run across the border.

Two young men wipe down the dusty windshield and check the brake lights while three migrants wait silently inside the house.

Finally, the driver arrives, an American who puffs nervously on a cheap cigarette and calls himself Trent. Accompanying Trent is Felix, the heavyset smuggling boss.

"Venganse!" -- "Let's get going!" -- a gang member yells. One by one, the migrants get in the trunk, twisting to fit inside. The one woman hesitates. She crosses herself. She steps in.

Curled beside one another, the migrants look up at the gang member.

"It won't be long, 20 minutes," he promises. "Don't move," he adds, slamming the lid shut. Within minutes, Trent drives the car into a sea of traffic inching toward the row of U.S. inspection booths at the border.

Smuggling operations like this one -- Mexican rings teaming up with American drivers -- occur daily at the two main vehicle gateways into California, a phenomenon that frustrates U.S. authorities.

In the last fiscal year, Americans drivers were caught 4,078 times on suspicion of smuggling migrants through the San Ysidro and Otay Mesa ports of entry into San Diego. The figure has hovered around 4,000 since the number of car smuggling cases spiked about six years go. U.S. agents can only inspect a fraction of the estimated 64,000 vehicles that cross daily. Even if drivers are caught, they are usually released. Only 279 drivers in 2005 faced alien smuggling charges.

Federal authorities say they are overwhelmed.

Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, in a recent visit to San Ysidro, said he sympathized with federal prosecutors.

"There's a lot of crime out there," he said. "There just aren't enough prosecutors and judges to prosecute everything." Chertoff promised more alien-smuggling prosecutions in the future. Port authorities announced last week that drivers caught smuggling will be fined $5,000 for the first offense and $10,000 for the second.

The smugglers come from all walks of life -- homeless veterans, single mothers, senior citizens and college students. Some drivers are drug addicts or gamblers who are down on their luck.

Felix says he employs so many American drivers like Trent that he rents them to other smuggling organizations. Dispensing orders on three constantly ringing cellphones, Felix has a code word for U.S. drivers: monos -- monkeys.

"Siempre llegan los monos," -- the monkeys always come to me, Felix says with a glint in his eye.

Felix, like many smugglers, provides drivers with free stays at motels in Tijuana, meals and drugs included. A driver doing three weekly runs can earn more than $100,000 per year, Trent said.

There's nothing like the euphoric feeling that rushes over him, Trent says, when he clears customs, a sense of relief mixed with satisfaction. After he helps migrants from the car, some shake his hand and thank him.

In between runs, Trent dreams of an early retirement and spends his earnings on a "weakness for Latina babes," typically prostitutes. "What it boils down to: It's such an easy life, that it lures you in," he says.

*

I met Felix while reporting another story involving a low-budget Mexican movie producer. The producer said he knew a human smuggler -- Felix, his financier and a part-time actor -- and asked Felix to join us for dinner at a downtown Tijuana restaurant.

During the interview, Felix invited me to accompany him on a smuggling operation, but on several occasions over a five-month period he failed to show up for scheduled meetings.

One day last fall, Felix invited me to his home. A taxi driver, guided by Felix on the phone, drove me up the winding, potholed streets to his hillside house.

Felix shook my hand at the steel gate entrance to his walled property and introduced me to Trent. Both men agreed to be interviewed on the condition that their identities not be disclosed.

Felix didn't say why he agreed to bring me along. He said that he trusted me and that he didn't believe an article would harm his interests.

During the eight-hour visit, I realized that I would probably witness criminal activity and that the agreement would limit my ability to disclose details.

But the trade-off was gaining access into the world of human smuggling that remains a serious problem for the United States.

The frontier here -- a 14-mile stretch blocked by double-fencing, stadium lighting, and hundreds of Border Patrol agents -- is among the country's most heavily fortified.

With crossings between the ports of entry becoming so difficult, Tijuana has become the major staging ground for car-smuggling trips on the Southwest border.

The number of illegal migrants caught inside vehicles at the San Ysidro gateway has quadrupled since 2000, from 10,600 to 40,033 in 2005.

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