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Pastor battles human smugglers on Facebook

“You have people who are in very desperate, vulnerable situations commingling with people that are parts of organized criminal networks, including cartels and gangs,” one expert said.
Image: Migrants
A group of Mexican migrants being transported by coyotes to a dropoff point in the desert near the town of Sasabe.Christopher Morris / Corbis via Getty Images file

Gustavo Banda spends one to three hours every day on Facebook trying to warn migrants desperate to enter the United States not to waste their money on human smugglers advertising their services on the social media platform.

Banda is a pastor who runs a shelter in a church in Tijuana, Mexico, where migrants end up after being deported from the U.S. Many of them gave their life savings to human smugglers, known as coyotes, whom they met on Facebook and its encrypted messaging app WhatsApp, and who promised them safe passage to America. When people arrive at his shelter, they’ve often spent all the money they have, and many have experienced rape, violence and further extortion along the way.

“I’m telling everyone that this is a complete lie,” he said, gesturing at a Facebook group in which migrants and coyotes appear to be interacting with one another on the laptop in front of him. “If they need help trying to cross, they should get a lawyer and do it the legal way and that I can help them.”

Banda’s alarm about human smugglers promoting their services on social media is echoed by the Tech Transparency Project, a research group within the nonprofit watchdog Campaign for Accountability. The watchdog regularly publishes research highlighting technology companies’ apparent failure to effectively police their platforms, including a report highlighting how the Capitol assault was planned on Facebook, and an earlier one focused on the social media presence of far-right extremist "boogaloo" groups calling for civil war. This week, the group published a report, previewed exclusively by NBC News, highlighting the extent to which Facebook and WhatsApp are used to organize human smuggling across the southern border.

The nonprofit group reported finding dozens of groups, some with tens of thousands of members, in which human smugglers promoted their services, including posting prices, phone numbers to call and video of previous successful crossings. The research, which builds on a report the nonprofit published in April, also indicates that some of the smugglers have links to Mexican drug cartels.

“The biggest concern with these Facebook groups is that you have people who are in very desperate, vulnerable situations commingling with people that are parts of organized criminal networks, including cartels and gangs,” Katie Paul, director of the Tech Transparency Project, said. “It’s a problem Facebook has known about for many years.”

Image: Facebook coyotes
WhatsApp numbers are posted to Facebook in both public and private groups, often as screenshots, and then circulate among people trying to find their way to the United States, according to migrants at the shelter. This exchange describes the price for crossing into McAllen, Texas, and on to Houston, with lower prices if crossing by foot, and higher prices by vehicle.NBC News

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said that the company prohibits "content that offers to provide or facilitate human smuggling. We rely on people and technology to remove this content, and work with NGOs and other stakeholders to combat ways our platform may be used by those who want to harm people. We are constantly evaluating ways to improve our enforcement so we can most effectively find and remove content that breaks our rules."

He added that Facebook permits content related to seeking asylum and that it had consulted with the United Nations on its content policies around human smuggling. The policies draw on the U.N. definition of human smuggling as “the procurement or facilitation of illegal entry into a state across international borders” that doesn’t necessarily involve coercion or force. This contrasts with human trafficking, which is the business of depriving someone of their liberty for profit.

Since 2015, researchers and journalists have regularly identified pages dedicated to human smuggling on Facebook. The company has removed groups that violate its policies when it becomes aware of them.

Getting across

Researchers found that many of the Facebook pages identified in the report were operating in plain sight. One page, titled “El Coyote Lopez” and created in December 2020, advertises passage from Nicaragua to the U.S. for $8,000. The page, which NBC News has reviewed, features a WhatsApp button allowing users to instantly start a conversation with the self-described human smuggler. Some of the comments on his posts are from people who purport to be happy customers thanking the coyote for his “100% safe” service.

The report also highlights a 44,000-member Facebook group called “Quiero cruzar la frontera” (“I want to cross the border”), in which human smugglers post advertisements and in some cases videos documenting their journeys with migrants to the U.S. One group member, who is holding a gun in his profile picture, posted footage of people walking and sleeping in the desert and scaling what appears to be a border wall.

Nilda Garcia, a researcher who specializes in Mexican cartel activity on social media, whom the researchers consulted for their report, said that this group member was likely to be a lower-ranking cartel member based on clues in his Facebook profile, including the weapon that was shown and the language he used.

The group member’s stated location was Agua Prieta in the Mexican state of Sonora, which Garcia said indicates a connection to the Sinaloa cartel, which dominates the border between Sonora and Arizona.

Another person advertising coyote services in the same group and posting videos and photos of people on a journey through the desert has photos on his profile page showing gang logos and hand signs associated with “Vatos Locos,” a criminal gang that operates in Mexico and other Latin American countries with ties to Mexican drug cartels, and is recognized by the FBI’s National Gang Intelligence Center.

The researchers also identified many other posts promoting crossings to the U.S. that charge a fee of roughly $700 per person that is paid to cartels when a coyote takes a migrant across their territory, according to the posts. Groups who fail to pay this fee, known as “cobro de piso,” run the risk of extortion, kidnapping or death, Garcia said.

“Mexican cartels are diversifying their criminal activities and taking migrants across the border is very lucrative,” Garcia said, noting that they are taking advantage of the rising demand from migrants.

Garcia’s research, described in a 2020 book titled "Mexico's Drug War and Criminal Networks," has shown that cartels use social media to promote their activities to recruit new members, gain respect and incite fear. She has also shown, through analyzing connections on social media, that the social networks of apparent cartel members on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube closely reflect the physical structure of the cartels. By looking at their online connections, she was able to identify hierarchical structures within large cartels, as well as emerging criminal cells that would subsequently splinter into rival groups.

Garcia notes that while Facebook remains a key platform for the cartels, many now have a greater presence on Instagram — also owned by Facebook — and TikTok. She said that TikTok is the only social media company to have contacted her to ask for her advice on how to take down cartel-related content.

She added that she is surprised that Facebook hasn’t made more of an effort to crack down on content related to the cartels, similar to its crackdown on terrorist groups like the Islamic State militant movement.

Terrorism researchers have published many studies looking at how ISIS used social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to spread propaganda, particularly in the mid-2010s. From 2016, the companies formed a collaboration to target terrorist content, which made it more difficult for ISIS to spread its message on mainstream platforms.

“I don’t see a lot of difference between the behaviors of cartels and ISIS,” she said. “They both use social media for legitimacy and recruitment.”

Image: Facebook coyotes
This exchange, which the phone's owner says began on Facebook, describes arrangements for reaching Los Angeles. These communications are so standardized, people at the shelter say, that prices are more or less stable: $9000 for adults, $7000 for children.NBC News

“But you have to know about the organizations, know the Spanish language very well for you to track the cartels. You need to know which accounts are more central or important.”

Facebook’s Stone said cartels are prohibited from using Facebook and that the company has experts within its “dangerous organizations” team looking into potential connections between cartels and human smuggling on the platform.

Gabriella Sanchez, an independent expert who researches border enforcement, smuggling and trafficking and who is also a consultant to Facebook, acknowledged that some drug trafficking organizations were involved in human smuggling. However, she said that her research suggests that most of the scamming and victimization of migrants was done by individuals who have no ties to organized crime.

Misinformation’s power

Many posts by human smugglers identified by the Tech Transparency Project spread the misinformation that the Biden administration has opened the southern border to migrants and that people are getting asylum more easily. But the Biden administration has been trying to dispel this type of misinformation in an effort to mitigate the current border surge.

“As one of our priorities, we will discourage illegal migration,” Vice President Kamala Harris said at a news conference in Guatemala earlier this week. “And I believe if you come to our border, you will be turned back."

"Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border," she added.

The Department of State has been delivering this message to would-be migrants via an international radio advertising campaign across El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Brazil since late January, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in March. The department also worked with Facebook and Instagram on a social media campaign targeting millions of people from the same region with messages discouraging them from traveling to the border.

Paul acknowledged that Facebook can also be used to dissuade people from crossing the border, but said she remains frustrated by the company’s failure to crack down on human smuggling.

“When Facebook is failing to remove misinformation, smuggling activity and cartels, it’s undermining the ad dollars being put into these campaigns to stop that activity on the platform and inform people appropriately,” she said.

After the Tech Transparency Project published its previous report on the issue in April, Facebook requested the list of 50 pages and private Facebook groups to review. The company removed more than half of them, but 19 remain on the site, Paul said.

“They are quite literally being handed the content that is violating and not removing it, so how is anyone to believe the company is willing to regulate itself even on issues that cause serious harm to some of the most vulnerable populations in the world?”

Facebook’s Stone said the company reviewed all the pages the Tech Transparency Project submitted and removed all that clearly violated its policies. One of the signals the company looks for is explicit references to the dollar amount for a crossing.

Other experts said that the focus on Facebook was misplaced.

“We need to stop thinking that social media in general is the guilty party,” Sanchez said.

She said that the main driver of demand for human smuggling services was U.S. immigration policy, particularly Title 42, the Trump-era policy that effectively closed the border to asylum-seekers, which she said is pushing desperate migrants to seek illegal routes into the country.

“We need legal, dignified and accessible paths of migration for people along the U.S.-Mexico border,” she said.

Deported and penniless

At his computer, Banda pointed to another Facebook group in which migrants appear to be negotiating with coyotes.

“Yes, I get angry,” he said. “The coyotes paint this perfect picture of the journey, but I see people when they arrive and I see the children that are sometimes sick or dying.”

Most of the people in the shelter are migrants from Central America, the shelter organizers said: families from Honduras, Salvador, Guatemala, escaping instability, poverty, the threat of gang recruitment and violence. And most have made at least one attempt to cross into the U.S., usually through Texas, where the border is less strictly patrolled. After paying thousands of dollars to a coyote to smuggle them across — often all the money they have — they’ve been caught and deported to Mexico.

The shelter has health care professionals to treat migrants’ trauma, disease and injuries, as well as lawyers to take statements to begin asylum applications.

While no one at the shelter wanted to give their names, everyone interviewed reported having started their communication with a coyote on Facebook. At least five men showed NBC News screenshots from Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp in which they negotiated prices, terms, routes and timing with their coyotes. One migrant showed a plan to walk across the southern border into McAllen, Texas, for $6,000, plus an additional $4,000 to travel to Houston. Another said it cost $9,000 for an adult to get to Los Angeles, $7,000 for children. “No damos visa,” the message states. (We don’t provide a visa.)

A Honduran man described escaping gang violence to Belize, where he was awarded a refugee visa. The visa made it illegal for him to work. But he scraped together $9,000 after working four years of odd jobs. He eventually made it to Texas, but was caught and deported. Now, with no money, he doesn’t know what to do next. He’s been at Banda’s shelter for 10 days.

When migrants arrive at the shelter, Banda is often the first person to break the news to them that they are no longer in the U.S.

He says that Customs and Border Protection agents often tell families caught across the border that they’re headed to California, and only when they arrive at this shelter in Baja California, south of the border, do they realize their situation.

“When I say ‘You are in Mexico, you are not in the U.S.A.,’” Banda said in Spanish, “they begin to cry.”

Customs and Border Protection officials did not respond to a request for comment.