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By Marc Robertson
Law enforcement agencies across South Texas are battling a continuing threat to public safety in a renewed wave of illegal immigration into the United States, with thousands of undocumented people being transported north from the border.
Human smuggling, which is classified as a felony offense, differs from human trafficking in that it involves the illegal transport of persons for profit. Trafficking is also a felony offense and involves the marketing of or control over persons, such as in forced labor or the sex trade.
The transport of undocumented immigrants through South Texas is often conducted by drivers known as coyotes, either in their own or in stolen vehicles, picking up groups of immigrants at or near the US-Mexico border and driving them to delivery points in San Antonio, Houston and other major metropolitan areas.
When law enforcement officers attempt to effect routine traffic stops of vehicles whose drivers have committed violations or when vehicles are identified as stolen, ‘coyote’ drivers are known to attempt fleeing, either by abandoning their vehicles or leading officers in pursuits.
In one day alone last week, La Salle County sheriff’s deputies were engaged in five such pursuits during daylight hours, with more taking place at night. On several of those occasions, according to Chief Deputy Armando Romo, drivers picked up dangerously high speed before leaving their vehicles and passengers, and then fleeing on foot into the brush.
Passengers have been found stacked inside vehicles, on car floorboards, and in trucks. While some attempt fleeing on foot, others are taken into US Border Patrol custody without further incident.
“The effort by law enforcement to intervene has become increasingly dangerous as the drivers in these smuggling attempts have no regard for the safety of their victims, the motoring public or the law
enforcement official attempting to stop them,” the chief deputy said. “High-speed pursuits often ensue and reach dangerous speeds before the evading driver either stops or bails out through roadside property where these victims are then susceptible to the environmental elements if they aren’t successfully saved.
“The heat, cold, and landscape can become dangerous very quickly to someone who isn’t equipped to deal with it, further
placing these victims in danger,” Romo said. “Human smuggling is dangerous and leaves a trail of victims of all backgrounds and ages in its wake.”
While the majority of undocumented immigrants being transported by coyotes have been adult men, officers successfully intercepting smuggling attempts have also found women and children amid the human cargo.
Chief Deputy Romo believes several of the smuggling attempts are connected directly to human trafficking, with organizers planning to use their victims for the sex trade.
men, women and children being preyed upon by criminal elements for monetary gain,” the chief deputy said. “Criminal elements use these victims for financial gain to stimulate their organizations’ money-making abilities within the sex trade as well as the narcotics trade.”
Romo said he believes the potential value of a human cargo makes smugglers’ activities more hazardous, since large profits await those who are successful.
“The use of stolen vehicles to transport these victims has become rampant and dangerous,” he said. “Stolen vehicles are used to transport these human smuggling victims from a pick-up area near the US border to a destination across the United States.”
The wave of immigrants to the US Border is not limited to persons from Mexico, according to authorities. Refugees from Central American and other countries are among those seeking entry, some legally as asylum seekers and others illegally. In once recent incident, officers pursuing a sport utility vehicle between Dimmit and La Salle counties discovered that the driver and all his passengers were Iraqi nationals. The driver and his front-seat passenger, who was armed, were transporting three immigrants, of which one was concealed in the vehicle’s trunk.
“The La Salle County Sheriff’s Office has become even more proactive and has committed itself to fight hand in hand with US Border Patrol and the Texas Department of Public Safety in attempting to slow down and end these attempts to harm their victims even more,” Romo said last week. “Everyone is affected by this heinous crime and those that are arrested for their involvement in it should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
La Salle County Sheriff Antony Zertuche said he continues partnering with other agencies across the region to combat the crime wave, to arrest those responsible and to work towards saving the lives of the innocent whose safety and wellbeing are put in serious danger by the actions of those who strive to profit from the criminal venture of transporting them or using them for personal gain.