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Blog: Cartels, Human Smuggling, and Unlawful Immigration – Featuring Chief Ramon Batista (Santa Monica, CA)

Law Enforcement Immigration Task Force   Blog

Before the 1990s, drug trafficking and human smuggling were two separate forms of transnational criminal activity. Human smuggling was a business that operated on a smaller scale, run by local families living along the border. Whereas drug trafficking has always been a large-scale business. But since then, many administrative and legislative initiatives have been implemented, which have increased restrictive border enforcement policies and made it more difficult for irregular immigrants to pass through the border. Therefore, immigrants have had to turn to alternatives, like the drug cartels. 

The higher demand among irregular immigrants and the higher risk for smugglers to pass them through the border illegally, has effectively allowed transnational criminal organizations to take control and profit off this operation. These organizations are drug cartels, transnational criminal organizations with a more highly developed infrastructure, which employ violent and dangerous strategies. Cartels represent a bigger threat to those irregular immigrants who turn to them for help. “Irregular immigrants are turning to the only path they have, paying high fees to dangerous criminal syndicates to lead them through the treacherous and deadly trek across our border. My long-time experience in Arizona was that regardless of type of method the irregular immigrants were crossed, the journey was perilous for both men and women…” says Chief Ramon Batista (Santa Monica, CA). 

The human smuggling business has developed into a highly sophisticated and profitable system for the cartels, with teams specializing in logistics, transportation, surveillance and more, and revenue reaching up to $13 billion. But as the human trafficking business has grown, so have the risks for irregular immigrants. Drug cartels operate with no remorse for the immigrants desperately trying to cross the border to start a better life for themselves and their families. A common tactic is kidnapping and holding migrants for ransom. Cartels force migrants to provide telephone numbers of their family members, and then demand a ransom from their families. Kidnapped immigrants are also sometimes forced to carry out criminal activity for the cartels. Those who are released or manage to escape do not typically contact the authorities due to their fear of deportation because of their illegal immigrant status. Chief Ramon Batista saw this treatment of migrants firsthand. While reflecting on those experiences he said, “I can’t tell you how many times I was dismayed at the way irregular immigrants were treated by their handlers. Oftentimes they were held captive, packed into places with no services, except running water and electricity. No furniture, just empty houses with guards watching over them; they would take their shoes away, feed them fast food and never allow them to leave the premises. All with the threat that if they did anything to alert neighbors or bring attention to the house, they risked everyone from reaching their destination.”  

To keep up with the growing demand for transportation across the Mexican-US border, the drug cartels have incorporated local smuggling groups into their ranks, charging these groups to operate within their territories and carry out the dangerous task of smuggling immigrants illegally across the border. The fees that these groups have to pay to operate within their territory are very high, and consequently, many have left the human smuggling business to work directly for the drug cartels instead. Numerous previous human smugglers have been recruited by the cartels because of their knowledge of border geography and security and their familiarity with the dangerous tasks taking place. They have moved on from small-scale human smuggling operations and have since been incorporated into a new, large-scale and largely violent human trafficking system, which has been far more dangerous than it ever was before. “The times they [migrants] were abused, left behind to die in the desert or killed will forever stay with me. The images from the times we responded to an “alien stash house” where we found, poor souls, afraid, hungry and shoeless, will never leave me; and the audacity of the smugglers to hide amongst the irregular immigrants in order to evade arrest was appalling…” says Chief Ramon Batista.

The evidence suggests that policies which have been implemented to increase border enforcement restrictions, and to deny immigrants more options for legal pathways into the country have only worsened problems along the border. This is because instead of feeling confident that they can legally and efficiently immigrate into the country, an increasing number of immigrants feel that they have to turn towards transnational criminal organizations, which represent a danger to state and local law enforcement and border patrol, as well as to the immigrants themselves; vulnerable to exploitation and forced criminal activity. Instead of making it more difficult for irregular immigrants to pass through, it is more important to increase pathways for immigrants to enter the country legally and safely. Therefore, law enforcement should prioritize identifying and dealing with the criminal organizations that present the real threat. 

Chief Batista believes we must find a better way. “It saddens me to see that after so many years; my time in Southern Arizona stretched over a 31-year career in local law enforcement, and still nothing has changed with the exception of an even more dangerous group of criminals taking over the reins of human smuggling. Remembering the images from that period of my career is a sobering experience.” 

LEITF would like to thank Chief Ramon Batista for his time and sharing his expertise.

In-depth analysis can be found below:

Cartels, Human Smuggling, and Unlawful Immigration

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