Four men are in jail charged in connection to the failed human smuggling attempt that left 53 people dead in San Antonio in June, but experts and advocates who have studied migrant death tolls say that won’t stop similar tragedies from happening again. According to them, the United States’ rigid border policy against Mexico contributed to San Antonio’s deadly human smuggling trafficking.
As the U.S. utilizes strict border policies that restrict legal pathways to the U.S.—such as preventing asylum-seeking through the COVID-19 health measure known as Title 42, and limiting pathways to temporary work visas—the demand and cost for human smugglers increases, researchers say.
Experts describe sophisticated human smuggling operations, which increasingly include organized crime organizations, as a result of the combination of U.S.-Mexico’s hardline border policy and dangerous geography. While individual perpetrators like those in San Antonio may be held to account, the underlying factors driving migrants to smugglers haven’t been addressed. “Simply doing border enforcement, particularly under Title 42,” without increasing access to legal pathways to the U.S., “is just increasing the incentives for things like this kind of smuggling to take place,” says Doris Meissner, senior fellow and director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), a nonpartisan research organization.
Despite the danger, some people in desperate situations still opt for a smuggler’s services rather than wait in limbo in Mexico for a legal pathway into the U.S., says Jason De León, executive director of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights and the Undocumented Migration Project, two Arizona organizations that work together to identify the bodies of migrants found dead in the Arizona desert. “Most people are not forced into getting into the back of those [semi-]trucks,” says De León, who is also a professor of anthropology at UCLA and who is working on a book about human smuggling from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border. “They know it’s a risky thing to do, but they’re hoping that it will be successful…I can promise you that there are semi-trucks in South Texas right now that have migrants in the back of them that are crossing through checkpoints because people are so desperate, and the smugglers are just trying to find ways to provide these clients with services.”
Since the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) began collecting data in 2014, it has documented nearly 3,000 migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border—but many experts believe the real number is significantly higher. The IOM reports that 728 migrants died or disappeared at the U.S. border in 2021. That’s 53% more than the 2020 figure.
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After tragedies like San Antonio, researchers say U.S. officials must take into account how American border policy influences migrants’ willingness to turn to smugglers—particularly under Title 42. In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, border officials used the March 2020 health measure the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to instantly expel all people crossing the U.S. Mexico border. U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported that border officials have carried out more than 2 million Title 42 expulsions at Mexico’s border since this measure was implemented.
Many of these people, Meissner states, are encouraged to become smugglers after being expelled. What happened in San Antonio is an “extreme example of what really needs to be more fully understood about the border,” she says. “We can’t enforce our way out of this issue of migration pressures and migration flows.”
The site of 53 deaths by migrants in San Antonio on June 30, 2022 is where people gather to erect a temporary memorial.
Jordan Vonderhaar—Getty Images
64 People are being smuggled through Texas
Homero Zamorano Jr. (45 years) was captured after fleeing the crime scene in San Antonio’s Quintana Road. When San Antonio law enforcement and immigration officials arrived at the scene, 48 migrants were already dead, some of their bodies “stacked” inside the back of the semi-truck, hot to the touch, according to San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood, who spoke to reporters on June 27. Although five survivors survived, they were later killed in the hospital.
Zamorano allegedly transported a total of 64 migrants—mostly from Mexico, some from Guatemala and Honduras—in the back of the semi-truck without a working air conditioning unit. His charges include transporting undocumented immigrants that resulted in the death of a person and he faces life imprisonment. Christian Martinez, 28 year old, was also arrested.
They operate in all regions of Central America, Mexico and beyond the U.S. border. Smugglers use dangerous routes to avoid U.S. border officials and checkpoints. Other operations, including what took place in Texas on June 27, can include hiding migrants in vehicles, according to a 2020 study by the University of Texas at Austin’s Strauss Center for International Security and Law. The Strauss Center study found that migrants can drown, get dehydrated, or be exposed to the elements when crossing into Texas.
In the week prior to the June 27 tragedy, Border Patrol’s Laredo Sector apprehended over 400 undocumented immigrants who were being smuggled in commercial vehicles in six separate smuggling operations, the agency said on its Facebook page—an observation first publicized by Gabriella Sanchez, a socio-cultural anthropologist and director of field research at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “As long as people are not given equal access to visas and passports,” she says, “it doesn’t matter how many billions governments spend. Fueling that demand is that very lack of the ability to move safely, legally.”
Smuggling is a rapidly evolving industry. There is still much to learn about operations in Central America, Mexico and the United States. Sanchez claims that smugglers often come from migrant communities. “When you actually go and spend time in these communities… you’re going to see that this is a crime of the poor for the poor,” she says. De León, on the other hand, argues smuggling is increasingly controlled and operated by organized crime—a position also held by the U.S. federal government and other migration scholars. The investigators do not know if Zamorano and Martinez or any of the men taken into custody after the June 27th terror have been linked to organized crime.
Paying a smuggler or the organized crime groups that control Mexican territory can cost anywhere from $2,000 to $7,000, according to De León. Additional $3,000-5,000 will be required to cross the U.S.–Mexico border. “Organized crime is trying to put its hand into every aspect of the process,” De León says. “It doesn’t matter if you are moving sort of piecemeal or with different smugglers, or without a smuggler, across the length of Mexico. No matter what, you’re still having to interact with organized crime in terms of paying head taxes to get through different regions.”
‘They’re still coming’
After the tragedy in San Antonio, the White House stressed the need to bring down the “criminal smuggling industry.”
“Exploiting vulnerable individuals for profit is shameful, as is political grandstanding around tragedy, and my Administration will continue to do everything possible to stop human smugglers and traffickers from taking advantage of people who are seeking to enter the United States between ports of entry,” President Joe Biden said in a public statement on June 28.
According to the White House, an “anti-smuggling campaign” in partnership with other nations, led to more than 2,400 arrests in the first three months since its launch. The White House did not immediately return TIME’s request for further details about who has been arrested and what charges they face.
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Texas Governor Greg Abbott is a Republican and blames Biden for San Antonio’s deaths. “These deaths are on Biden,” Abbott said on TwitterJuly 27, 2007. “They are a result of his deadly open border policies. They show the deadly consequences of his refusal to enforce the law.”
Yet many experts argue that deterrence measures are what contributed to the San Antonio tragedy— policies that have hardened the border rather than relaxed it. The United States has been relying on strict border enforcement policies since the 1990s to discourage illegal crossings. Some policies increase the danger of migrating. Immigration officials made it a point to focus resources on urban areas near the border and points of entry. Therefore, anyone who wanted to bypass the legal process would need to traverse into potentially dangerous territory. Recent policies like Title 42, Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which requires asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico while their asylum case is adjudicated, and some of the Trump-era “zero tolerance” policies that included family separation, are considered such deterrence measures by experts. Title 42 and MPP have continued to be enforced by the Biden administration. (A Federal court ruled that the Biden Administration could not end Title 42. The government appealed this decision. However, the Supreme Court has recently affirmed its ability to unwind MPP.
“[The U.S.] is hoping that if enough of those folks die, that they will be dutiful, will be deterred from coming,” De León says. “But clearly that has not been the case. Many people died. Migrants know full well about the dangers, and yet they’re still coming, still willing to go into the desert, they’re still willing to get in the back of a semi-truck, which just means that the things that they are running from are so much worse.”
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