Pedro Sanchez-Garay worked as an Uber driver in Southern California, but he got evicted from his apartment and the money wasn’t rolling in fast enough. So he figured he would broaden his pool of riders.
He answered a request on social media for some off-the-books driving — of illegal immigrants.
Instructions for each pickup were provided over WhatsApp, an encrypted messaging service run by Facebook. He was promised $1,000 a pop to pick them up just after they crossed the border and drive them north deeper into the interior.
It’s the gig economy of the border, or as one observer termed it, iCoyote.
Now anyone can become a border smuggler simply by responding to an online ad. The who, what, when and where can be exchanged over cellphones with WhatsApp or Snapchat, and sending a GPS “pin” location can connect the driver to migrants, even in the remote southwestern desert.
The cartels that control the border post scouts, who call drivers with real-time updates on where the Border Patrol is and, more important, where agents are not. Knowing whether a highway checkpoint is closed can make the difference between a successful smuggling run or a trip to jail.
Even the foot guides, dubbed “coyotes,” who traditionally lead migrants through the Arizona and California deserts or around Border Patrol checkpoints deeper into the interior, are being replaced. Now migrants leaving Mexico are handed phones and told to follow a GPS map or to dial a scout for instructions to their pickup location on the U.S. side.
“The internet itself is being used for human smuggling, and I don’t think the criminal element has really touched the surface,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., former chief agent of the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector and now associate director at the University of Texas at El Paso’s Center for Law and Human Behavior.
Tens of millions of dollars can be made driving migrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, and a seemingly limitless supply of people are willing to take the money — and brave the risk of getting caught.
The challenge for the smuggling organizations is finding those willing drivers. In some cases, they manage to rope in people who are in debt to the cartels. Other times, they hear of someone struggling for cash.
But increasingly, they are going online.
Malik Kenneth Judave Jackson, arrested in California in July on alien smuggling charges, told Border Patrol agents that he saw a video a friend posted to Snapchat offering $300 a person to drive Mexicans and $600 per person for Chinese migrants.
Mr. Jackson reached out to the friend through Snapchat and was given another contact to arrange things. He was sent a WhatsApp message with a pickup location in a remote part of the border region that agents call the “50s Cuts,” and he was also sent to a location in Los Angeles where he was to drop off the two illegal immigrants.
His contact told him to delete the messages.
Mr. Jackson said he was supposed to receive $2,000 for his trip.
Rosalba Martinez, arrested in May at a Border Patrol highway checkpoint in Texas, said she was recruited to drive through the WhatsApp chat group “Sexy Time.”
She recruited her mother and husband to help her make the four-hour drive from San Benito to San Antonio with one illegal immigrant. Mrs. Martinez said she was getting paid $1,250. Her husband told agents he thought they were being paid $1,700.
Some drivers report being in constant contact with their smuggling organization employers as they make the trip. Sometimes that is through apps or text messages, but more often they are talking by phone, getting real-time updates.
Smugglers are using the same tactic worldwide, according to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, which detailed the problem in a 2018 report, saying social media was used to expand the smugglers’ customer base as well as to recruit operators.
Europol’s Migrant Smuggling Centre found social media accounts suspected to be connected to smuggling operations surged from 148 in 2015 to 1,150 a year later.
“Smugglers are significantly ahead of state vigilance when it comes to social media, which currently allow them almost risk-free access to vast pools of would-be-migrants,” the Global Initiative concluded.
Europol didn’t respond to a request for more recent information.
Call an Uber
Jose Vigil was just 17, but authorities said it was his second time smuggling illegal immigrants.
Only this time he figured he would get someone else to do it.
Police in Sullivan City, Texas, say Mr. Vigil, who turned 18 in July, used his mother’s credit card and his sister’s Lyft account to call a ride-hailing pickup for him and two illegal immigrants from Guatemala. He was getting paid $500 to smuggle them from the border to another pickup location, KGBT-TV reported.
His plan went south when local police stopped the Lyft driver for a missing license plate. When officers looked at the three passengers in the back seat, they saw some of them caked in mud and wet up to their waists, Chief Richard Ozuna told KGBT. It was a giveaway that they had just swum across the Rio Grande.
Mr. Vigil was charged as an adult in state court in Texas with human smuggling. His attorney didn’t respond to an email, but in court filings this week he demanded that Mr. Vigil’s confession, caught on police bodycam footage, be suppressed, arguing that the teen wasn’t properly read his rights.
Police cleared the Lyft driver, saying he didn’t know he was being used for smuggling.
Border Patrol agents said they nabbed another driver, who said he worked for both Uber and Lyft, during a smuggling run in Arizona in July. Agents said Luis Santana’s Nissan appeared to be weighed down, and they thought they spotted a blanket covering something in his back seat.
It turned out he was carrying four illegal immigrants — three adults and one unaccompanied juvenile — for a $1,000 payment. Agents said he admitted he figured they were illegal immigrants, given the proximity to the border, but he didn’t kick them out because he wanted his payout.
Other times, the drivers were more culpable.
The Washington Times has identified nearly a dozen cases in the past year when Border Patrol agents arrested someone for smuggling and he claimed to have been a Lyft or Uber driver.
That was the case for Magen Brooke Mulkey and Ramon Sauceda, arrested in June on smuggling charges after agents spotted a car cruising in Southern California in an area where illegal immigrants were believed to have crossed.
The car had an Uber sticker in its window and a light-up Lyft sign on its dashboard, but its suspicious behavior — agents saw one person crouched down in the rear, trying to hide, and saw the car was riding low in the rear, as if it had a heavy load — led to a traffic stop.
Ms. Mulkey, who was in the passenger seat, said she was driving for Lyft and picked up four people at a nearby casino. She told agents the trip was booked privately by a frequent customer. She later recanted and admitted her friend roped her into smuggling, according to court documents.
Prosecutors last month dropped the case against Ms. Mulkey. Sauceda pleaded guilty and was sentenced on Sept. 20 to 10 months in jail.
The Washington Times provided Lyft with the names of several drivers gleaned from court documents who said they worked for the company. Lyft said none of them is registered to drive for the company.
The Times provided a similar list to Uber. The company didn’t provide a response.
Snapchat didn’t respond to a request for comment about smugglers and illegal immigrants using its app.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, did respond to an inquiry but didn’t address specific questions. Instead the company gave a broad response saying it is aware its app “can occasionally be misused for criminal or nefarious purposes.”
The company started a grant program last year to fund research into trying to spot “problematic behavior” even within encrypted messages.
Adam Landres-Schnur, a spokesman, told The Times that awards have been doled out and studies are underway.
“The goal of these research awards is to facilitate high-quality, external research on these topics by academics and experts who are in the countries where WhatsApp is frequently used and where there is relatively limited research on the topic,” he said.
Todd Bensman, a senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, said smuggling networks began shifting to social media and encrypted platforms a few years ago, particularly for those organizations that are moving people lengthy distances across the globe.
“It’s all done by cellphone on the apps. The phones have been useful in countersmuggling investigations because they tell the whole story,” he said.
The Washington Times has reviewed dozens of instances in which agents built their smuggling cases based partly on messages or call records they found on drivers’ devices.
That was the case last week when the Border Patrol arrested Jikai Babcock-Hannah at a highway checkpoint in Texas after finding 53 illegal immigrants in the tractor-trailer he was driving. He said he had no clue they were there, but his cellphone and iPad had text messages showing he was an active smuggler, agents said in court documents.
Last month agents nabbed Mark Anthony Bazan, another truck driver who was found at a highway checkpoint with six illegal immigrants in his refrigerated trailer, kept at 54 degrees.
Mr. Bazan said he had loaded up on vegetables and knew nothing about the migrants or how they got into the truck. Agents confronted him with data from his own phone, which showed a 10-minute stop in Donna, Texas. Bazan couldn’t come up with an explanation.
Mr. Manjarrez said smuggling organizations are innovative, and he wondered what the next tactic will be.
He recounted a study students at UTEP’s Center for Law and Human Behavior did several years back looking at recruitment of drug traffickers on Facebook. One student kept seeing references to “Grand Theft Auto,” a popular video game.
They looked into the matter and figured out drug smugglers were using graffiti messages spray-painted on locations inside the game as a way to communicate beyond the purview of authorities.
“They were spray painting directions and phone numbers on the walls,” he told The Times.
“We live in a keyboard warrior generation. It’s very impersonal now. You can send things out with less fear or risk,” he said.
- This article has been updated to reflect that the charges against Ms. Mulkey were dropped in August, while Sauceda has pleaded guilty.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at email@example.com.
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