Smugglers in sunglasses and muscle shirts reclined on withering patches of grass in a tree-covered plaza, blending into clusters of migrants and offering them “safe” trips into the United States.
But on this sweltering day, there were no takers. None of the Mexicans hoping to reach the United States could pay the $3,000 the smugglers demanded to hide them in a car and drive them across the border, a trip that just weeks ago cost $2,000.
The sharp increase in smugglers’ fees is due to the arrival of National Guard troops at the border and plans by Washington for even greater border security, all of which will make the sometimes deadly trip into the United States even more difficult and dangerous. The higher fees have convinced some to cancel plans to sneak into the United States, while others have decided to go it alone.
Mexican and U.S. authorities are already seeing a drop in illegal migration, although it isn’t clear if that will last.
Border experts argue the downturn may be temporary while smugglers search for new routes through deadlier terrain and migrants come up with the money to pay the higher fees.
“With all this new security, it is obvious the migrant flow will have to move to more dangerous routes, and smugglers are using this argument to increase their prices,” said Francisco Garcia, a volunteer at a migrant shelter in Altar, a farming town of 7,000 that has become a major gathering point for those heading to Arizona.
Smugglers’ fees jumped in 1994 after the U.S. sent more agents to what were then the busiest illegal crossing points along the Texas and California borders. The measures funneled migrants into the hostile Arizona desert, making smugglers even more valuable and transforming them from an underground network to a booming illegal industry.
Sixfold increase since 1994
In the past 12 years, the average price for helping migrants move north through the Arizona desert increased sixfold, from $300 in 1994 to $1,800.
Suddenly, smugglers are charging as much as $4,000, migrant rights activists say.
Deaths also have skyrocketed. More than 1,900 people have died crossing the border since October 1998, when the U.S. Border Patrol started keeping count. Some believe the death rate will increase as migrants become desperate, trying to cross through unknown terrain alone or paying smugglers to take them on even more dangerous routes.
Security is only going to get tougher. The U.S. is deploying 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in the coming weeks, and it plans to expand the Border Patrol from just over 11,000 agents to about 18,000 by 2008. There are also proposals to build 700 miles of additional border fence.
Planning to return, regardless
Despite all the risks, Andres Flores, a 29-year-old construction worker who was deported to Tijuana from Los Angeles a week ago, planned to cross by himself through the desert near San Luis, Ariz.
Sitting in the central plaza in San Luis Rio Colorado, Flores said smugglers offered to guide him through the hills near San Diego for $2,000, a trek that previously cost about $1,200.
Flores traveled to San Luis Rio Colorado because he believed it would be cheaper. “Here, they want $3,000 but I don’t have to walk,” Flores said. “If I had the money, I would pay it because I want to get back to my job.”
Those identified by several migrants as smugglers refused to talk to The Associated Press.
Francisco Loureiro, who runs a migrant shelter in Nogales, across the border from Arizona, said the increased security and rising smuggling fees are discouraging many from attempting the crossing.
Loureiro said some smugglers have also began asking for half of the money up front. Before, migrants often didn’t have to pay until they reached their destination.
“They tell me that if they had $4,000, they wouldn’t be trying to sneak into the United States, because with that money they could open a small business,” Loureiro said.