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Dark side of social media lures teens to smuggling, investigators say
Although he was already 19 and legally regarded as an adult when he died, popular social media videographer Gabriel Salazar may have been representative of a generation of youths enticed into criminal activity by promises of fast money.
The September 26 crash of a Chevrolet Camaro in Zavala County during a high-speed pursuit by law enforcement officers intercepting the transport of undocumented immigrants claimed not only the teen TikTok media star’s life but also three passengers who were all Mexican nationals.
Salazar had been at the wheel of the sports car when it veered off the road between Crystal City and La Pryor, struck some trees, flipped a number of times and caught fire.
Reports from the case indicate the driver accelerated away from officers and avoided losing tire pressure when spikes were deployed on Hwy 83 to stop his car.
The Crystal City Police Department had originally attempted initiating a traffic stop, according to one report, but Salazar may have behaved in a manner consistent with many of the young drivers who transport immigrants in exchange for hefty sums of money: He attempted to evade capture by speeding.
In La Salle County, Sheriff’s Captain Juan Mirelez said this week that the incident in the neighboring county should be regarded as a lesson to all those who are enticed by offers of cash for smuggling immigrants.
“It is heartbreaking to everyone that this happened, or that it happens to anyone’s child or loved one,” the captain said. “The young man in question had a huge following on social media for his work, and a funding account was set up immediately after he died, and it received a great number of donations.”
Posting his homemade video clips online, San Antonio native Salazar had earned a following of 2.2 million on TikTok and more than 947,000 on Instagram.
“What is missing in that story is the background reason for the tragedy,” the captain said. “Salazar was one of many, many young people, male and female, some just teens in high school, who are tempted by offers of quick cash if they will drive their cars up from the border to a city… could be San Antonio, could be Austin or Houston… but they’re doing it, they’re being paid, and they are putting their lives and their passengers’ lives in grave danger.”
Mirelez points to a GoFundMe page for Salazar’s family that includes a tribute written by a loved one at a time when family and friends were still reeling from the shock of his death.
“I don’t know what’s real and not real any more,” the tribute reads. “We couldn’t believe it the moment we found out.
“He was so funny with a quiet sense of humor and sarcasm,” the tribute continues. “I cannot believe I am sitting here writing this. How is this real life?”
“That’s the way the shock of this tragedy hits a community,” the La Salle captain said of the tribute. Mirelez is a Uvalde native himself and says he is familiar with all of the roads that smugglers have been using to transport their human cargo away from the border region. “We have seen reports from other counties of the numbers of arrests, the ways that smugglers are trying to avoid capture, and the accidents that can happen. But it isn’t until someone as widely known as Salazar dies in such a terrible incident that people sit up and take notice of what’s happening to our young people.
“They’re recruiting juveniles, in many cases,” Mirelez said of the anonymous handlers and criminal organizations offering money to drivers. “They use juveniles or young adults to avoid prosecution. It’s just a slap on the wrist, in their opinion, if a juvenile gets caught transporting illegals.
“These young drivers are being lured online, over social media,” the captain said. “They are being targeted via TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, you name it… if there’s a means to reach them exclusively and to tempt them to sign up as drivers, it’s through social media that’s popular with their age group, and it’s with offers of very real money.”
La Salle County Undersheriff Rene Sobrevilla echoed the captain’s statements this week, adding that he believes the criminal trend attracting young drivers may extend further, with youths in cities being paid as little as $50 to steal a car or truck and deliver it to a place from which it will later be used in a smuggling enterprise.
Most of those youths, Sobrevilla says, have no idea who organizes the auto thefts or what the vehicles will be used for.
Arrests of young drivers transporting undocumented immigrants in La Salle County over just a three-week period, include two Houston men, both age 20, Jerrigo Curtis Wayne Rasmus and Michael Corey Edwards Jr., who were taken into custody Monday, October 11, at the end of a pursuit through two counties after they had pushed two Mexican nationals out of their car and continued driving with two remaining passengers.
The list also includes Arturo Vazquez, just 17 years old, a native of Laredo who was taken into custody Oct. 12 by the Encinal Police Department on a pair of felony charges, including smuggling of persons and evading arrest with a vehicle.
On Oct. 15, the Texas DPS captured a teen driver from Carrollton near Dallas, traveling through La Salle County with undocumented immigrants in his vehicle. Ruani Peralta, 19, likewise faces two third-degree felony counts for smuggling of persons and evading arrest with a vehicle.
Reports indicate that the drivers in each case attempted to avoid being caught by speeding from officers attempting to effect a traffic stop.
Rasmus and Edwards were armed and in possession of narcotics when they were finally captured in Frio County.
Undersheriff Sobrevilla points to an event earlier this year in which a 16-year-old was caught twice in the same day at the wheel of a vehicle transporting undocumented immigrants.
“The boy was spotted in Encinal at four or five o’clock in the morning, and he was detained,” the undersheriff said. “After he was released, he went right back to what he had been doing. He was persistent, maybe because he really wanted to get paid to finish the job.”
The teen was spotted a second time that day, and officers gave pursuit through several counties along IH-35. When the 16-year-old was finally captured near a highway overpass at Devine around 10 p.m., he was at the wheel of a Ford F-250 pickup truck that wasn’t his, Sobrevilla said.
“That boy was probably recruited the same way as all the others,” the undersheriff said. “He wasn’t from here. He was from up north somewhere. They’re being recruited all kinds of ways, but it’s via social media. A lot of these young drivers have never been down to this neck of the woods before in their lives.
“He turned 17 while he was in custody,” Sobrevilla added.
Capt. Mirelez says he believes the majority of the young drivers are being recruited in urban areas because cities such as San Antonio and Houston have a large population of teens and young adults looking to earn money and likely unaware of what they will encounter on the job.
Some of the drivers, Mirelez says, have never traveled through South Texas before and do not expect to encounter the heavy law enforcement presence currently patrolling the border regions.
“Yes, there is a greater pool of potential drivers in urban areas, and so I think we have been fortunate that not very many locals have been lured into the business,” the captain said. “The dangers of doing this are all too familiar to us, because we live and work here and we see it every day, but to these young people it’s money that’s the lure.
“We are talking hundreds of dollars per person that you can transport,” Mirelez added. “The money involved in this is much more than some people have ever earned. We have seen cases where some people are paying up to five thousand dollars each to be transported. The driver could get a good-size portion of that.”
Pick-up points for the undocumented immigrants will vary from day to day, according to the sheriff’s office, and no law enforcement agency has identified a pattern other than random. In some cases, passengers have been spotted climbing into vehicles in Catarina or Encinal, at truck stops, outside small highwayside businesses, or along remote stretches of rural two-lane highway.
“If we knew where they are making the pick-ups, you know we would be there,” the captain said. “I think they are changing spots all the time.”
Investigators are also hard-pressed to make the financial connection between the smuggling organization and the driver or the driver’s handler, a chain of illegal activity that constitutes organized crime, according to District Attorney Audrey Louis.
Modern high-speed communications and banking, however, have stymied investigators’ efforts to link criminal organizations with drivers.
“There are so many organizations doing this, and the money transactions are all electronic,” the captain said. “The recruitment was on social media, and the communication is all done over the net. I guess you could call that the dark side of the net.”
While the 19-year-old TikTok celebrity is laid to rest, social media remains abuzz with sorrowful messages from fans – many of them mere children – on the very sites and pages through which he may have been lured to his death.