The Peralta smuggling clan assembled the 68 illegal immigrants from Central America and Egypt at a ranch in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato that houses hundreds of non-Mexican clients--the Peraltas’ lucrative specialty, authorities say.
The smugglers then allegedly bused the immigrants to Tijuana, crammed the valuable human cargo into three vans and set off on their best clandestine route across the border: a lane at the San Ysidro port of entry manned by U.S. Customs Inspector Guy Henry Kmett.
But the odyssey ended just short of Kmett’s inspection booth when fellow inspectors roving through the steel river of cars glanced into one of the vans. Authorities arrested the eight-year Customs veteran after learning that Border Patrol agents working on a separate investigation had seen the vans at his house days earlier.
The unfolding case offers rare insight into the booming, sophisticated industry that smuggles immigrants into the United States. Smugglers are gaining new clients and experimenting with new tactics and routes as strengthened U.S. border defenses make it harder for illegal immigrants to cross on their own. And the arrest of Kmett late last year demonstrates that smugglers are enlisting U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials as brazen partners in crime, officials said.
“The more difficult the crossing, the better the business for the smugglers,” said Miguel Vallina, assistant chief of the Border Patrol in San Diego.
Compared to Mexico’s swaggering drug barons, the smuggling bosses keep a low profile. Veteran investigators struggle to understand the dimensions and inner workings of the shadowy enterprises that traffic in immigrants.
“The hardest thing is to know how many smuggling rings there are,” said Louie Cross, a Border Patrol investigator. “The long-term groups stay constant, but the people change.”
Tijuana kingpins such as the three Peralta brothers and Manuel Garcia Ramirez, alias “the Prophet,” have accumulated wealth and influence. Their operations extend into California, Central America and overseas. In one month the Peraltas earn a million dollars and move a thousand immigrants, authorities say.
For years, though, law enforcement’s interest in the smuggling underworld has been tepid. Judicial indifference usually ensures sentences of two years or less. Unlike drug cases, prosecutors cannot use racketeering statutes to go after assets. Despite the hype about new resources accompanying the Border Patrol’s Operation Gatekeeper crackdown, anti-smuggling units remain half their authorized size, according to Vallina.
U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin is leading an effort to prosecute immigrant smuggling more aggressively. In an unprecedented step, the FBI will target selected cases. The agency is investigating the corruption aspect of the Kmett case, described as a textbook example of smuggling as organized crime.
“We are trying to take a new approach,” said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael G. Wheat. “Basically, alien smuggling is modern-day slavery. The whole idea behind slavery was moving humans to perform labor. The way the aliens are moved, the way they are treated, this is just a sophisticated form of slavery.”
Not all smugglers belong to ruthless organized gangs. Numerous free-lancers and “weekend guides” take pride in their services and assist friends and relatives for nominal fees.
Smuggling illegal immigrants in and out of Mexico is against the law in that nation. But Mexican law enforcement officers, particularly from the federal judicial police and immigration service, are part of the far-flung network moving immigrants north, according to officials in both nations.
At the Tijuana bus station, a hub of the Mexican diaspora, raucous recruiters troll for clients among crowds of wary migrants. The recruiters work for kingpins, who pay authorities for rights to the turf, according to law enforcement sources and the recruiters.
Mexican police also take bribes--as much as $40,000 a month--to permit operation of Tijuana safehouses where migrants are staged before making the journey north, sources said. Police have helped transport groups of Chinese, Central Americans and others using Mexico as a corridor to California, sources added.
“They drive transport, guarantee safety and get people out of jail sometimes,” said a U.S. agent, who asked not to be named. “There is active corruption. . . . The smugglers who get arrested are the ones who don’t have protection from the police.”
A veteran Mexican immigration official echoed that assertion, although he said authorities have gotten tougher on corruption since the change in Mexican presidential administrations in December.
The Mexican official said smugglers routinely alert Tijuana-based immigration officers via cellular telephone to the arrival of groups of Central and South Americans at the Tijuana airport. The Mexican officers meet the illegal immigrants at the gate, escort them past immigration checkpoints and turn them over to waiting “guides” for a fee, according to the official.
And on several occasions during the past two years, top administrators of the Mexican immigration service ordered their officers not to apprehend groups of Cubans, Iraquis and Iranians preparing to cross into California, the official said. “These orders would come over the radio. It was hard to believe they could be so open. Obviously, everything was arranged between the smugglers and the chiefs in advance.”
Smugglers make the most money off immigrants known by the Border Patrol as “OTMs” (Other Than Mexicans): Chinese pay $30,000 each. Europeans, such as three families of Romanians apprehended in the hills east of San Diego recently, pay as much as $10,000. Central Americans pay as much as $5,000.
Meanwhile, the standard Tijuana-Los Angeles fee for Mexicans hovers between $350 and $550. But Border Patrol Agent Cross said: “Don’t underestimate the amount of money that these groups make on Mexicans. It adds up.”
The profits enable kingpins to field small armies. A notorious woman smuggler known as “Dona Maria” directs 200 employees out of a mansion in Colonia Libertad, a Tijuana border neighborhood and smuggling hotbed, an official said.
The typical hierarchy encompasses the bus station recruiters called talones (the word means both tickets and claws ); acrobatic fence-jumping guides who know the gaps in border defenses; scouts, or checadores , to run interference with the Border Patrol; daredevil drivers to circumvent freeway checkpoints, and enforcers at San Diego and Los Angeles safehouses who collect the cash.
Because the smugglers make a regular practice of jacking up the quoted fee upon arrival, sometimes holding clients for ransom, prosecutors included an unusual charge of conspiracy to take hostages in the indictment of Kmett. He has pleaded not guilty to that charge and others including immigrant smuggling.
For the Peralta clan, the 36-year-old Kmett became what one Customs chief called “the keys to the kingdom.” The alleged renegade inspector had been arrested and fired in 1989 for sneaking an illegal immigrant across the border, but he won reinstatement on appeal, Wheat said.
Kmett spent about $100,000 in cash during the past year on a swimming pool, computers, televisions and other items, authorities said. He is also charged with stealing confiscated steroids in order to sell them. Investigators said they are still trying to determine how long ago the smugglers recruited Kmett and whether other inspectors were involved.
The relentless, assembly line pace at California inspection stations makes it easy for an inspector to succumb to temptation and wave across loads, Wheat said. “It only takes 30 or 40 seconds to do. The potential is infinite.”
The three vans that were busted in Kmett’s lane carried El Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Dominicans and an Egyptian, all recruited in Guatemala at fees of between $2,000 and $5,000 per person. Their destinations included Virginia, Massachusetts and New York. Although such non-Mexicans account for less than 1% of the almost half-million yearly arrests in San Diego, their success rate is better because they use the most effective professional guides.
The Border Patrol strategy of saturating developed areas and pushing the flow east into barren mountains and deserts has pushed more crossers, Mexican and non-Mexican, into the hands of smugglers. Since the launch of Operation Gatekeeper in October, some frustrated migrants in Tijuana talk of as many as eight unsuccessful attempts. Mexico’s economic crisis has made getting across to jobs, families and better prospects more urgent.
It is one thing to make the short urban dash from Tijuana to the San Diego barrio of San Ysidro, with its convenient freeways and rail lines; it is quite another to trek through the mountains unassisted. Specialized smugglers who have moved non-Mexicans across that wooded turf for years are leading more groups of Mexican clients through la Ruta Verde (the Green Route), causing a tenfold jump in arrests at the patrol’s remote Campo station.
Migrants also hire smugglers for increasingly complex, risky and frequent tactics such as using fake documents or rushing in groups through the legal border crossings onto roadways.
It is a familiar story: law enforcement gets tougher, the smugglers get richer and the migrants face more hardship and peril.