Feel the Rush of a Smuggler

Times Staff Writer

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.

The bosses, like Felix, are typically Mexican and charge migrants as much as $2,500. They prefer teaming up with Americans to get their clients across the border.

Migrants are hidden in hollowed-out dashboards, radiators, and “coffin compartments” welded to the undercarriages of vehicles. Inspectors have found migrants in pinatas, rolled-up carpets and gasoline tanks. Some don’t even hide, hoping to slip by as passengers.

Federal authorities focus on prosecuting cases in which drivers endanger the migrants’ lives. According to court records, for example, Norma Martinez-Warnett was convicted in 2004 after trying to smuggle three children in a Honda Acura in 120-degree heat. A boy was hidden inside a special compartment in the back seat and agents discovered the boy after hearing his screams.


On the day of my visit to Felix’s hillside home, Trent arrives grizzled and sleepy-eyed after a late night in the red light district. Felix works the phones while watching a Mexican soccer match on TV.


Hovering around the grounds are Felix’s underlings: three heavily tattooed convicted felons. The men were deported from the U.S. and now work for Felix recruiting and shuttling drivers.

During a lunch of carnitas cooked by Felix’s mother, Trent and Felix discuss the tricks of the trade, the morality of human smuggling and their partnership.

Felix and Trent say they met a few years ago, shortly after Trent showed up in Tijuana with 12 cents in his pocket. Trent says he lived in a nice home in a Southern California suburb when his marriage hit the rocks. His wife divorced him, took his four children and Trent said he was financially ruined.

In Tijuana’s red light district, one of Felix’s recruiters made an irresistible offer: $500 per migrant.

Trent quickly proved to be a reliable driver, Felix says, unlike many of the hundreds he has employed over the years. Would-be drivers are often drug addicts who must be “cured,” Felix says, before being given jobs.

Felix’s remedy? He gives them a present of one last fix before putting them through terapia intensiva -- “intensive therapy”: A cold-turkey detoxification regimen consisting of a shave, haircut and lots of cold showers, Felix said.


Trent, Felix says, is not a drug addict and thanks to his dignified bearing and gutsy attitude has become one of his best drivers.

Trent, who speaks little Spanish, considers migrant smuggling “illegal, but not immoral.” He says he doesn’t smuggle drugs, and called the migrants he brings into the country hard-working people who contribute to American society and support families back home in Mexico.

Trent says the smuggling work provides ample support for himself too, thanks to Felix, who Trent said is more generous than other human smugglers he’s worked for.

“What impressed me about him is, when you do get done with a piece of work, he asks you, ‘Do you need anything ... food, drugs, girls? He’ll take care of you,” says Trent.

Trent says he makes a good living, despite all his spending on women. “Unfortunately they consume a significant portion of my income,” he says. “I’ve been robbed, cheated, drugged and fallen for a few.”


One reason for Felix’s largesse with drivers: The long wait between runs as the smugglers organize loads. Trent goes days between jobs, he says. When he is finally summoned, the wait to launch the run can take hours, just like this day.


After the meal, Felix waters his plants, plays with his young daughters and confers with his cronies.

They watch a low-budget Mexican movie about warring drug cartels. Felix partly financed the film and played a bit part as a gunman. When Felix’s character is peppered with bullets, he staggers to his death with a dramatic flourish, cracking up everyone in the room, including Felix.

“You should have been an actor,” Felix’s sister tells him.

The film and human smuggling worlds share some similarities, Felix says. He plans to “recast” one newly arrived American, who looked like a tough guy in baggy jeans, into a mellow surfer dude with knee-length shorts and colored T-shirt. A beach vibe is better than an urban thug look for driving migrants across the border. “It’s just like the movies,” Felix said. “You have to cast them properly.”


A short while later, Felix gets another phone call, hangs up and tells Trent: “Hey, do me a favor. Go shower and shave. Dress perfectly. We’re working in one hour.”

The mens’ relaxed demeanors turn serious. Trent hurries upstairs, and Felix tries to keep up with the constant phone calls.

Trent emerges wearing slacks and a beige, pullover shirt, his chin bloodied from shaving. They get into a car, and Felix begins driving us on the half-hour trip across the traffic-choked city to the town house where the migrants are waiting. Blue rosary beads dangle from the rear-view mirror. No one speaks.


When they stop and Trent runs into a mini-mart for cigarettes, Felix says Trent is unusually nervous. A jumpy driver facing off with U.S. inspectors -- What were you doing in Tijuana? What did you buy? -- is definitely not a good thing, he says.

A sweaty brow, darting eyes, fidgety shoulders can give away a smuggler.

Earlier, Trent had boasted about being able to fool any inspector. “It’s all about presentability,” he said. “I’m a professional.”

But just before getting into the car Trent had confessed fear. Trent has been caught before -- he won’t say how many times -- and if authorities pursue charges, he could face three years in prison.

“The stress is killing me. You can mask it, hide it, appear to be relaxed. But the reality is, there’s always that little nagging sensation that grows louder the closer you get to the gate,” he said.

When they arrive at the town house, the mood is tense. The gang works quickly knowing that if police arrive, it would be easy to prove smuggling charges. In Mexico, that would mean a possible six-year prison term or, according to Felix, a $15,000 bribe to get the case dismissed.

Trent gets his instructions: After clearing customs, he is to drive to a parking lot in a San Diego suburb where the migrants will be turned over to another driver.

After the migrants squeeze into the trunk, the gang members peer beneath the car to make sure the modified suspension has kept the rear end from dipping low enough to catch inspectors’ attention.


Behind the wheel, Trent studies the dashboard and turns on the defroster so the migrants’ breaths won’t fog the rear window.

He is angry at Felix because he has offered less money than the usual, $500 per migrant. “I’m not a happy camper,” he says, “but we’ll deal with that later.”

As Trent pulls out, Felix leans into the window. “Everything is going to be OK.... Don’t forget your seat belt.” Trent buckles up.

The drive to the border takes a few minutes.

Felix, taking me in his vehicle, follows to make sure police are not tailing Trent. When Trent drives into the lanes leading to the border checkpoint, Felix pulls over in front of a small house and honks the horn.

It’s a waiting game now. Felix gets calls every few minutes from a lookout near the border. The line of cars is longer than expected, at least a 40-minute wait. Felix knows that some migrants, overwhelmed by the darkness and heat in the trunk, start crying. The operation could be foiled if a roving U.S. inspector walks by with a dog trained to sniff out drugs and humans.

As Felix told me in an earlier meeting, “Those dogs smell fear.”

A middle-aged woman emerges from the house and gets in Felix’s car. She houses migrants for him and Felix owes her money. They chat about some of Felix’s successful drivers. One father-son team from Texas, they say, used smuggling profits to pay for the boy’s cancer treatments.


Then the lookout calls Felix with news: Trent got busted.

Felix hangs up the phone. “Somehow he got tripped up answering the questions,” he says.

The authorities will free him shortly, Felix predicts. “They don’t do anything to drivers.”

As federal arrest records later show, Trent will indeed be released -- along with 36 other American drivers caught trying to smuggle 61 migrants during a four-day stretch.

“Tomorrow, he’ll come back,” Felix says, “and we’ll try again.”