Federal and local authorities in Arizona are sounding the alarm about a rise in the use of outsiders as drivers for human smuggling operations, a practice they say has led to some spectacular and tragic consequences for its participants, migrants, and bystanders.
Members of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative division of the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona told InSight Crime that smuggling groups are recruiting people, many of them teenagers, via social media platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram to drive to border areas and pick up undocumented migrants.
From there, the drivers get instructions on where to take the migrants, which is usually a safehouse or another pick up point. Payment to drivers varies. HSI investigators said it hovers around $500 per person. But the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office put it at closer to $2,500 per person, which coincides with a recent human smuggling operation dismantled in southern Texas, where federal prosecutors said drivers were paid as much as $2,500. The money is paid in cash on delivery, via Bitcoin ATMs, or money-transfer applications, authorities said.
However, the results of some of these pickups have been tragic. In July, local media in Arizona reported that a passenger in a Ford Explorer died in Benson, a city in Cochise County, after the driver of the car, attempting to escape police, crashed into another car at an intersection after running over spikes the Sheriff’s Office had placed on the road. Two migrants and the driver survived the crash.
In October 2021, local Arizona media reported a teenager traveling at nearly 100 mph with migrants in his vehicle slammed into a Ford Focus. The 65-year-old woman driving the Ford died at the scene. The driver was charged with manslaughter; the two migrant women traveling with the teen were injured but survived.
In all, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office says that six people have died because of these high-speed chases in the last year, many of which occurred in residential areas after authorities stopped chasing the suspected “load-car,” the moniker used to describe these vehicles.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” said Robert Watkins, the operations commander for the Sheriff’s Office. “People don’t feel safe.”
This includes the migrants, some of whom have been severely injured in numerous crashes, Watkins said. Since his office began tracking the modus operandi, they’ve chronicled close to 600 “smuggling events” in a six-month period with 107 arrests after high-speed pursuits, he added.
InSight Crime Analysis
There are two big takeaways from this trend along the US-Mexico border.
First, this is another clear illustration of the power of social media and how criminal groups are taking advantage of what it offers.
“Social media is our enemy,” Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels told InSight Crime.
He may be right. US citizens have long assisted criminal operations along the border, but what authorities are describing is the type of criminal outsourcing that allows human smugglers to greatly expand their potential labor pool. Watkins said suspects have come from as far away as California and New Jersey.
What’s more, the ability to recruit from afar, often with complete anonymity, means criminal groups have limited their exposure to near zero. The virtual interaction also makes the drivers feel less exposed, HSI investigators said.
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“They probably know they're picking up people,” Leo Lamas, HSI’s Deputy Special Agent in Charge in Tucson, said of the drivers. “They're like, ‘What's wrong with that? I'm just picking up people. These [are] poor people. Right?’ You know, they don't realize the severity of what they're doing. And then, when they go on a high-speed chase, they just maximize how wrong what they just got involved in becomes.”
Second, the new modus operandi shows how quickly the value of a migrant plunges as soon as they cross the border. The decision to put these migrants in the hands of inexperienced, non-members of the smuggling group means the network no longer cares what happens to their “merchandise,” authorities said.
“Migrants front all the money and take all the risks,” Watkins explained. “The [smuggling group] never gets touched.”
In recent months, Watkins said his team got desperate and began exploring extreme solutions, including the use of a sniper with a .300 blackout suppressed assault weapon who could shoot out the engine block from a speeding helicopter.
That idea, he made clear, was discarded in favor of employing spikes on the road and perhaps, in the near future, trucks with virtual battering rams fastened to the bumpers.
*Additional reporting by Parker Asmann.