‘Coyote Busters’ Push Stronger U.S. Effort to Control Smuggling

Times Staff Writer

The sweeping arrests this week of suspected illegal immigrants in Atlanta and Los Angeles represent a stepped-up government effort to stem the growing incidence of alien-smuggling, federal officials said Tuesday.

Faced with countless smugglers, called coyotes, whose sophisticated operations charge thousands of dollars to transport people from Latin America to this country, the Immigration and Naturalization Service is fighting back with a crack unit of 300 special agents called, “Coyote Busters.”

The effort, which often includes agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and other federal agencies, is producing an unusual amount of agreement between the INS and its usually harsh critics among immigrant rights groups.

Mario Moreno, associate counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said, “We welcome any sort of effort to break up any smuggling ring. They gouge the people they bring over.”


Cecilia Munoz, of the National Council of La Raza, observed: “Any effort to control the border should include the attempt to control individuals who exploit potential border-crossers.”

Officially members of the anti-smuggling unit of INS, many of the agents work undercover in jobs such as drivers and guides. They often risk their lives--at times even operating “drop houses” or getting themselves sold to unscrupulous labor contractors, INS officials said.

“Some of the stuff these agents do is hair-raising,” said Bob O’Leary, senior special agent of the INS unit, which was formed in 1978.

It found its mission increasingly difficult as waves of Central Americans began pouring into this country in the 1980s. And with passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, illegal immigrants find it more and more difficult to live and work underground without smugglers and their cohorts to provide them with fake documents.


“We’re coming into a whole new generation” of smugglers and immigrants, said O’Leary. “We have to send a message that smuggling will not be tolerated. One of our goals is to protect those who get ripped off, murdered and raped by unscrupulous smugglers near our borders.”

A Growing Problem

Demonstrating the magnitude of the problem, agents in 1988 apprehended 13,200 smugglers and 28,108 smuggled immigrants, seizing 9,677 vehicles worth $27.7 million. In 1988, 1,121 smugglers were convicted of felonies; 4,868 were convicted of misdemeanors.

In two operations this week, the INS arrested 148 suspected illegal immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. One suspected smuggler also was arrested. Some of the immigrants said they paid as much as $4,000 to smugglers.

While many immigrants pay high prices to enter the United States, the costs to others are even more dear. Some die in locked boxcars or on desert marches, while others are held hostage because relatives do not pay up, INS officials say.

“I personally have been involved in cases where aliens were robbed at gunpoint in a garage,” said Ron Smith, an INS official at the Western Region headquarters in Laguna Niguel.

The two cities where arrests were made this week--Atlanta and Los Angeles--graphically show the nationwide range of smuggling rings. Their tactics vary, too.

“There is no limitation to the methods smugglers use,” Smith said. “They use Amtrak, trucks, gas tanks in cars. We’ve even had reports that they (have) used small submarines.”


Officials said smugglers increasingly include drugs and semiautomatic weapons in their activities. “They are diversifying,” one official noted.

Federal officials said they face an increasing number of high-speed chases, which often endanger innocent bystanders. INS officials said it is partly out of this concern that they are planning to build a controversial 14-foot, $2-million ditch along the border near San Diego.

The smugglers are not all from Latin America. In fact, said one Justice Department official, “The most difficult and sophisticated group” is based in China, using Hong Kong as a staging area. “Their network extends worldwide.”

At the same time, the smugglers are specializing more than before, said INS officials. In the past, one network would recruit immigrants, select a staging area, guide and deliver the immigrants across the U.S. border. “As of late,” said one official, “many smugglers have become so specialized that they perform only one of these functions.”

Training Coyote Busters is specialized as well. Agents compete to be accepted in the unit, and then are sent to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga., for three weeks of intensive training. They learn how to identify smugglers, penetrate organizations and recruit informants.

The 300 agents are based around the nation, with heavy concentrations in California, Texas, New York and Chicago, favorite destinations for illegal immigrants.

The unit boasts that while it represents only 4% of the total INS force, it accounts for 36% of the felony convictions and 37% of the agency’s conspiracy convictions.

Among its recent successes, the unit cites Operation Boxcar, a four-month effort that netted 3,200 Latin American immigrants and 87 suspected smugglers in locked railroad cars.


Operation Shorty involved an international organization smuggling Guatemalan Indians to farm labor contractors throughout the United States, where they lived in “utterly squalid conditions,” INS documents report. After a yearlong investigation using undercover drivers, labor contractors and agents posing as immigrants, a federal task force arrested 110 suspected smugglers and 5,000 immigrants, who were returned to Guatemala.

Despite these victories, federal officials acknowledge that the war against smuggling is far from over. Many federal officials liken their struggle to the drug war, with more and more people getting into the mix.

Is the federal government winning or losing? One Justice Department official said that, like those waging the war on illegal drugs, “Even if you don’t feel like you’re winning, you have to keep fighting.”