EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – With 13 migrants still missing in northeast Chihuahua, Mexican police are investigating another possible violent hijacking of human cargo among rival smuggling groups.
At least three Honduran nationals were allegedly driven away after a Wednesday shootout just south of Juarez that left one person dead and another injured, local media reported.
The vehicle in which four migrants and their alleged smuggler were traveling from Chihuahua City to Juarez was cut off by two other cars. A shooting in which the driver died, and a Honduran was injured, ensued; the assailants commandeered the migrants and drove away with them, according to the reports.
In late September, assailants in the Mexican countryside south of Presidio, Texas, abducted 13 Mexican nationals on their way to the U.S. border, the Chihuahua Attorney General’s Office said. Those migrants are still missing.
Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., a former U.S. Border Patrol chief in El Paso and Tucson, Arizona, said the hijacking of cargo among organized criminal gangs isn’t uncommon. What’s new is that instead of drugs, the gangs may be ripping off each other’s migrants.
“The idea of rip-offs is most common with narcotics. We’d hear of rip-off crews across the border from South Texas, in places like Tamaulipas,” Manjarrez said. “It’s a dangerous development for law-enforcement and for the migrants because they’re essentially being treated like cargo; there’s no concern for their safety.”
The increasing fight for “human cargo” takes place as drug cartels operating on the U.S.-Mexico border are displacing traditional mom-and-pop smuggling groups and illegal immigration into the United States rises to levels not seen in 20 years.
In the El Paso Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, for instance, apprehensions are up 278% year-to-year as of the end of August.
The abundance of Central American, Ecuadorian, Brazilian and Haitian migrants represents financial opportunity for competing criminal gangs, law enforcement experts say. That’s because the other group already arranged the travel for a group of migrants, paid local smugglers, made payoffs to local crime bosses or authorities and even arranged for housing on the Mexican side of the border.
“When other crews learn of a stash house and swipe those people, they start the process again. If you already paid $5,000 or $10,000 for someone to take you to the U.S., they don’t care,” Manjarrez said. “What you’ve done as a criminal organization is reduce your overhead. What you’re getting is all the profits and none of the work. I’m afraid we’re going to see an increase of this.”
The financial exploitation can turn to violence – or a prolonged forced stay in a stash house – if the migrant can’t pay.
“Human smuggling is free will. You’re putting yourself in someone else’s hands to get here. But when someone is holding you against your will, that’s human trafficking,” Manjarrez said. “If you’re being taken from other folks – and I bet without your consent – that’s when it starts transitioning to human trafficking. So this is a very dangerous development.”
Juarez police have not identified the victims of Wednesday’s shooting.