Despite the dangers, others migrate to the United States by sea. A smuggler explains how.

BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — The angler knows the Pacific Ocean well, having traveled the high seas to catch snappers, sole, groupers and other fish since he was 12 years old.

But in recent years, his expeditions — and those of other veteran Mexican fishermen in Baja California — have gone far beyond fishing: recruited by criminal human trafficking networks, they use their boats to transport an increasing number of people try to migrate to the United States by water.

“Sometimes you are caught by the winds, the storms and you have to take care of the people you are transporting. They’re squatting with their life jackets on, and it’s getting tough – it’s on the high seas,” said the fisherman, whose name has not been identified; he was imprisoned for a year in the United States for illegally transporting people on his boat.

“They caught me [as easily as] take candy from a kid because my engine failed – I had 7 miles to go when it failed and had already seen drones, a frigate and the Coast Guard. I turned off the engines, pulled them up and waited for them to pick me up,” he said, describing the moment he was caught in US waters. “As I was carrying 25 people , because of the number, they could not give me six or eight months (in prison). They told me it was 13 months and a day, but they took two months off for good behavior.”

According to a Migration Policy Institute report released in May, the US Coast Guard detected migrants attempting to enter or successfully entering the United States in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans 14,500 times in fiscal year 2021 – nearly double the 7,600 in fiscal year 2020 – although he and other authorities, such as US Customs and Border Protection and foreign navies, carried out 5,000 interdictions.

In the first seven months of fiscal year 2022, the report said, the Coast Guard intercepted more Haitians at sea than in any fiscal year since 1994. Nearly 2,000 Cubans at sea were also intercepted. records intercepted during the same period, more than any other fiscal year. year since 2016, which shows the increase in migratory transit from the Caribbean.

Dangerous but lucrative: “Will never end”

Although the fishing boats normally used in the region are only designed to carry six people, the fisherman began carrying 15 to 20 migrants and carried as many as 28 or 30 passengers as he sailed the seas at night. dark.

“When you carry more weight, the motors fail, you drift, and that’s when they catch you,” he said.

“You see a (US Coast Guard or Mexican Navy) frigate, you see a light and you have to go very far,” he said, explaining how he works to evade authorities. “And then you start going in, until you hit the ground. Around midnight or 1 a.m., you have to arrive and disembark from the boat.

José María Ramos, an investigator and professor at El Colegio de la Frontera Norte, an institute in Tijuana that focuses on border issues, said that while land crossings are still the most popular way to migrate from northern Mexico to the United States, “there are also trips by sea, both by the beaches of Tijuana to go to San Diego, where people even cross with jet skis or swim, which is very dangerous because they often drown.”

It is an important corridor for organized crime networks for drug trafficking and transporting migrants, he said. “Unfortunately for traffickers, this is a big problem because according to the World Bank, the transfer of Mexican migrants by human traffickers alone amounts to $1.648 billion,” Ramos said.

Alejandro Rentería, customs and border protection supervisor in San Diego, California.Juan Cooper / Noticias Telemundo

The fisherman agrees with the figures of various international organizations which estimate that the transfer of migrants by sea is one of the most expensive means of crossing in the United States because, on average, the person must pay $ 15,000 at $17,000 or more than going overland. . Garcia earns $1,000 per passenger for himself.

“You can make about $12,000 or $13,000 per trip, in two rounds it’s $26,000 or $27,000,” he said. “But it’s not much either, because of the risk. You can lose everything, go to jail.”

Still, the risks are worth it – by comparison, fishermen in the region earn an average of $685 a month, which is why many persist in smuggling people from Mexico to the United States.

“This case will never end,” the fisherman said bluntly.

He says he has never met his “bosses”; they generally warn him a few hours before departure and he is not present during the preparations with the migrants.

“You get to the shore and people are already there because they’re taking them to other cars. They have a full tank of gas and you get there, get in and go. Before leaving, you have to check the weather, the wind, the waves and their size, calculate what time you will arrive, because you have to get back before dawn,” he explained.

Despite the dangers, “uniting families”

Although various U.S. organizations, such as the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, have announced that they have expanded patrol operations along the 114 miles of coastline the two countries share, news of shipwrecks and accidents are increasingly recurrent.

“The sea is one of the most dangerous ways to enter the United States,” said Alejandro Rentería, San Diego Customs and Border Protection supervisor. “The fishing boats are made for five people and fish, and now they get about 15 to 20 people, and it’s very easy for them to overturn.”

Rentería said there had been an increase in apprehensions of boats carrying migrants. According to official numbers, as of June 1, the total number in the San Diego area was about 370, an increase of about 109% from fiscal year 2021.

“In almost every boat we find, people are wet from the elements, they have no food, they haven’t had a drink of water for hours, sometimes for days,” Rentería said.

In a report last December, the UN’s International Organization for Migration warned that it is very likely that many people who undertake the journey to the United States “without migration plans or previous migration experience” believe that crossing the sea is the easiest route. But the researchers warned that “documented experiences show us that these migration strategies can be very deadly”.

Meanwhile, the Mexican fisherman said he considers it his job to transport people trying to migrate, adding that he takes great risks to help them. In fact, he said, it “brings families together.”

“We always take care of people because they are human beings like us, they all feel,” he said. “They thank us for the good treatment we give them. Without hitting them, without saying bad words. Everything is fine, they are happy.”

Different routes, one destination

Last year’s International Organization for Migration report, “The Sea Inside: Migrants and Shipwrecks at Sea,” examined the smuggling of migrants through various maritime areas of Mexico.

Despite the lack of official information, the UN team detected four major areas with roads in the south, southeast, Gulf and northern Mexico which are entry points for foreigners.

In the south, it all starts in Puerto Ocós, Guatemala, where migrants pay between 400 and 800 dollars to reach the Mexican cities of Puerto Chiapas, Mázatán and Paredón. From there they usually head to Oaxaca, Salina Cruz or other routes such as Huatulco and Michoacán, the latter being very dangerous due to intense fighting between rival drug cartel factions.

Then there is the activity in the Yucatán Peninsula, where the entry of people from India, China and Africa, in addition to Cuba and Central American countries, has been detected. In this region, the routes used are Cuba to Isla Mujeres; Cuba to Cancun, Mexico; and Belize to Chetumal, usually using fishing boats carrying people from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia.

The third transit zone is Tijuana. Confirmed itineraries range from Rosarito and the beaches of Tijuana to San Diego; there are others like Puerto Nuevo-Chula Vista and Ensenada-Popotla.

In the Gulf of Mexico, considered the pre-transit stop through Tamaulipas and South Texas, the report’s researchers warned that migrants from this region are at risk of being recruited by drug traffickers to transport drugs or commit other illegal activities.

The survey also detected shipping routes across the Pacific, which include landing points in the Sea of ​​Cortez at a site known as “El chinaro”. The Mexican cities of Ensenada, Popotla, Maneadero and Salinas are departure points for transporting migrants to the United States

“You leave Ensenada and go 100 miles out to sea. From there you go north about 50-60 miles and then you take your inland route to San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente or La Jolla (California). There is a part where a train passes by the edge of the beach, and that helps a lot because we arrive by boat, the locomotives drown out the noise,” says the fisherman.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on Noticias Telemundo.

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