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Violence, Increased Security Change Smuggling Along Border


Rising violence and increased border security have drastically changed the illegal business, and changed the role of those who look to help migrants on both sides of the border.

— Mario Lopez pulls his bright orange Jeep over on the side of a major freeway in Tijuana. He points to the double fence separating his city from San Diego, and shows a group of reporters the area that used to be a major smuggling route back in the 90s.

Lopez has been an agent with Grupo Beta since it was founded in 1991. Grupo Beta is a government agency that started out as a unit composed of 45 law enforcement officers with a unique mission: to protect northbound migrants from criminals. Much like the police, they took complaints from migrants who were abused and extorted by the smugglers.

But that was then, when smuggling was a thriving mom-and-pop business. There were dozens of local smuggling operations making as much as $250,000 a week on smuggling fees, charging up to $2,000 a head. Today, says Lopez, there is stricter border security and the illegal crossing business is in the hands of the cartels, who charge up to $10,000 and $15,000. And there’s nothing Grupo Beta can do about it.

“Smuggling has decreased through this part of the border by almost 90 percent… Now there is more surveillance, there’s a second border wall, there are guards patrolling by horse, motorcycle, cars, there are cameras, sensors…” said Lopez.

On a typical day, Lopez still patrols along the Mexico side of the border. He doesn’t take complaints because the border is too dangerous. Instead, he and his fellow agents focus on handing out food and providing first aid to migrants, if they need it. Grupo Beta is now, essentially, a force without much power and without much of a mission.

Carlos Diaz de Leon, a 35-year-old migrant from Sonora, realizes that Lopez is a Beta agent. He extends his hand towards him, showing a folded-up deportation slip.

Diaz de Leon says he’s crossed illegally, with and without the help of smugglers multiple times over the years. He wouldn’t talk about his smugglers. But Grupo Beta, he said, has always been there to help him.

“They have fed me when I was hungry…They’ve given me change when I needed to call home. I think they’re the only ones out there looking out for undocumented migrants,” said de Leon.

But twenty years ago, Beta had a very different reputation.

“It’s been many years since we don’t hear any complaints or allegations of corruption by members of Grupo Beta, like used to be the case in the 90s," said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana.

In 1994, Clark Alfaro's research led to the arrest of Grupo Beta’s director and five members of his staff who got kickbacks from smuggling groups. A series of purges have helped to clean up the agency since then, but Clark Alfaro says it’s difficult to keep track of who is profiting from the smuggling business today.

“The violence and insecurity on the border has pushed groups like ours to stop many of our investigations. It’s too risky to really research the smuggling business of today - it was hard enough in the 80s and 90s.”

The tightened U.S. border security of the last ten years has had an unintended impact: It has professionalized the smuggling business, drawing in increasingly violent gangs and drug cartels.

In the last year, more than 150 migrants’ bodies were found in the state of Tamaulipas, 80 miles south of the Texas border. It is one of the worst known mass killings in Mexico of the last decade. The killings by the Zetas cartel sparked concern about the vulnerability of poor migrants, and about the rapidly-evolving role of drug cartels.

Five hundred feet from the border fence in San Diego is a big parking lot. Three red and white pickup trucks are parked here, ready to take off later in the evening. They’re headed to the Sonora desert in Arizona to deliver medical supplies, second-hand clothes and food to migrants lost along the border.

Rafael Hernandez is the founder of the civilian, volunteer-run Desert Angels, a 14-year-old rescue group on the U.S. side.

Hernandez regularly fields calls from family members of migrants lost in the desert - from small-time smugglers and sometimes, from alleged cartel members, too. He acknowledges that migrants’ crossings may be at a 40-year low, but he says they are paying more to cross illegally these days and at a much greater risk than in the past.

“Along the way, they are mugged, kidnapped, raped," said Hernandez. "That’s the situation today. Grupo Beta cannot do anything because that’s U.S. territory; border enforcement agencies do respond when someone points it out to them. But for groups like ours, it’s very compromising to say that we know illegal activity is happening somewhere along the border.”

The consequences of speaking out about the smuggling or the violence against migrants would be terrible, said Hernandez.

Billions spent on border infrastructure and law enforcement over the last decade have had a great impact on the smuggling business. But more than anything else, it has made it a much more dangerous game for all involved.

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