Ruthless human smuggling business exploits safety for the 'sake of profits'
Smuggler revenues ranged from about $200M to $2.3B in 2017
The ruthless human smuggling business seems to be just that – ruthless – that's all about putting lives at risk to bring in a massive flow of cash.
"The smugglers, they don’t care about the people they’re exploiting. All they care about is profit. To them, these people are just commodities," Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Jeff Stephenson said in just the latest tragedy to rock the border crisis.
Smuggler revenues for migrants traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras ranged from about $200 million to $2.3 billion, according to a report.
Three people killed and 27 others were hospitalized with a "wide variety of injuries" after a boat off the coast of San Diego overturned on Sunday.
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Authorities said the group was overcrowded on a 40-foot (12-meter) cabin cruiser that is larger than the typical open-top wooden panga-style boats often used by smugglers to bring people illegally into the U.S. from Mexico.
"Every indication from our perspective was this was a smuggling vessel," said Jeff Stephenson, a supervising agent with U.S. Border Patrol. "We haven’t confirmed their nationality."
Agents were at hospitals preparing to interview survivors, including the boat’s captain who Stephenson described as a "suspected smuggler." Smugglers typically face federal charges and those being smuggled are usually deported.
Officials said smugglers sometimes use larger more conventional boats to try and blend in with regular maritime traffic.
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According to Department of Homeland Security contractor RAND Corporation's 2019 report titled Human Smuggling and Associated Revenues, the amount of money smugglers can make off of transporting migrants varies significantly.
"At one end of the range, the migrants can opt for "all-inclusive" or "end-to-end" arrangements, in which migrants pay a large fee to a network that arranges all their travel—and may even send a representative to travel with them—that can amount to upward of $10,000," the report states. "At the other end, migrants can ‘pay as they go’ and travel on their own for portions of the route and then connect with local smugglers to pay for transportation and logistical support for other portions of the route, which can cost much less. There is no consensus in the literature or among SMEs concerning what percentage of migrants uses ‘all-inclusive’ arrangements and what percentage chooses to 'pay as they go.'"
RAND Corporation's review of available information related to the topic finds that smugglers charge anywhere between $6,000 and $10,000 for "all-inclusive packages," though the number can vary depending on whether unlawful migrants are attempting to evade detection at the border or if they are turning themselves in to border officials at and between port of entries and entering the asylum process. Smugglers can also provide specialized services for clients such as children, pregnant women, and the elderly that reduce exposure to risks and do not require extensive physical activity, such as scaling walls or extended hikes through remote terrain.
Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the New York Times found that one family of migrants paid $12,500 to enter the United States illegally, with one individual from that family's journey paying about $6,500.
On the lower end of the spectrum, smugglers offer "pay as you go" arrangements. One researcher spent time living in a shelter known as "La 72," which supported migrants crossing Mexico’s border with Guatemala. The researcher found that costs were about $15 per night for a bed in a shared hotel room, $1–$4 to cross the river in a boat, and $1,000 for a guaranteed crossing of the Mexico-Guatemala border past immigration, and checkpoints on the Mexican side.
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In addition, RAND Corporation's report notes that some migrants who travel between the U.S.-Mexico border pay a tax, known as a piso, to drug-trafficking organizations for the right to pass through their territories, which typically range from $300 to $700.
‘…smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits.’
"The evidence, albeit sparse, suggests that the actors that coordinate the overall travel of unlawful migrants may be netting up to $2,000 per journey, while the actors that coordinate illegal entries between POEs may be netting up to $2,500 per crossing," researchers concluded. "Others along the line, including the stash house operators who charge a few dollars a day to accommodate migrants, the lookouts who help coyotes avoid law enforcement, and those who transport migrants at various points in the journey, might see substantially less. However, because of the extremely limited data on potential profits that we were able to identify, we did not believe it was possible to generate a credible estimate for profits."
Overall, the report estimates that the combined smuggler revenues for migrants traveling from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras could have ranged from a total of about $200 million to about $2.3 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, researchers' preliminary estimates of the piso tax collections range from about $30 million to $180 million.
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U.S. Customs and Border Protection said on Friday that law enforcement officials would be ramping up operations to disrupt maritime smuggling off the coast of San Diego. As warmer weather comes to San Diego, there is a misperception that it will make illegal crossings safer or easier, the agency said in a statement.
"We’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of maritime smuggling attempts recently," Chief Patrol Agent Aaron Heitke, said in a statement. "All of these illegal crossings at sea are inherently dangerous, and we have seen too many turn from risky to tragic as smugglers sacrifice the safety of those on board for the sake of profits."
Sunday's incident comes amid a surge in illegal immigration -- particularly unaccompanied minors -- at the border. Critics have hammered President Biden for his handling of immigration in the early days of his administration, pointing to moves that narrowed interior enforcement and slashed his predecessor's border policies, which they say increased the pull factors that drew migrants north.
Fox News' Bradford Betz and The Associated Press contributed to this report