WASHINGTON — Mexican drug cartels and their vast network of associates have branched out from their traditional business of narcotics trafficking and are now playing a central role in the multibillion-dollar-a-year business of illegal immigrant smuggling, U.S. law enforcement officials and other experts say.
The business of smuggling humans across the Mexican border has always been brisk, with many thousands coming across every year.
But smugglers affiliated with the drug cartels have taken the enterprise to a new level -- and made it more violent -- by commandeering much of the operation from independent coyotes, according to these officials and recent congressional testimonies.
U.S. efforts to stop the cartels have been stymied by a shortage of funds and the failure of federal law enforcement agencies to collaborate effectively with one another, their local and state counterparts and the Mexican government, officials say.
U.S. authorities have long focused their efforts on the cartels' trafficking of cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamines, which has left a trail of violence and corruption.
Many of those officials now say that the toll from smuggling illegal immigrants is often far worse.
The cartels often further exploit the illegal immigrants by forcing them into economic bondage or prostitution, U.S. officials say. In recent years, illegal immigrants have been forced to pay even more exorbitant fees for being smuggled into the U.S. by the cartel's well-coordinated networks of transportation, communications, logistics and financial operatives, according to officials.
Many more illegal immigrants are raped, killed or physically and emotionally scarred along the way, authorities say. Organized smuggling groups are stealing entire safe houses from rivals and trucks full of "chickens" -- their term for their human cargo -- to resell them or exploit them further, according to these officials and documents.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) said greed and opportunity had prompted the cartels to move into illegal immigrant smuggling.
"Drugs are only sold once," Sanchez, the chairwoman of the House Homeland Security border subcommittee, said in an interview. "But people can be sold over and over. And they use these people over and over until they are too broken to be used anymore."
The cartels began moving into human smuggling in the late 1990s, initially by taxing the coyotes as they led bands of a few dozen people across cartel-controlled turf near the border.
After U.S. officials stepped up border enforcement after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the price of passage increased and the cartels got more directly involved, using the routes they have long used for smuggling drugs north and cash and weapons south, authorities said.
Sometimes they loaded up their human cargo with backpacks full of marijuana. In many cases, they smuggled illegal immigrants between the two marijuana-growing seasons, authorities said.
Kumar Kibble, deputy director of the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement's office of operations, said the cartels made money by taxing coyotes and engaging in the business themselves.
"Diversification has served them well," Kibble said.
Unlike the drug-trafficking problem, the cartels' involvement in human smuggling has received scant attention in Washington.
That is the case even as the Obama administration and Congress increasingly focus their attention on Mexico, fearing that its government is losing ground in a battle against the cartels that has resulted in the deaths of more than 7,000 people since the beginning of 2008.
At one of many congressional hearings on the subject last week, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) unveiled a chart that he said described the cartels' profit centers: drugs, weapons and money laundering.
"I would add one thing, senator," said Arizona Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard, who then described to Durbin his concerns about the cartels' movement into illegal immigrant smuggling. "It is really a four-part trade, and it has caused crime throughout the United States."
Arizona has become the gateway not only for drugs, but also illegal immigrants. Fights over the valuable commodity have triggered a spate of shootings, kidnappings and killings, Goddard and one of his chief deputies said in interviews.
In Arizona, the cartels grossed an estimated $2 billion last year on smuggling humans, Goddard said.
Senior officials from various federal law enforcement agencies confirmed that they were extremely concerned about the cartels' human smuggling network.
In recent years, the U.S. government has taken significant steps to go after illegal immigrant smugglers on a global scale, setting up task forces, launching public awareness campaigns and creating a Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center to fuse intelligence from various agencies.