Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
From high-end operations catering to Brazilians to overcrowded stash houses in rural New Mexico, organized criminal groups are smuggling immigrants into the U.S. through New Mexico’s southern border using the crush of asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere as cover.
Homeland Security Investigations and Border Patrol agents have identified several organized criminal groups that have been smuggling immigrants across the southern border to ultimate destinations in Alabama, New Jersey, Tennessee and elsewhere.
Over the last year, federal agents have arrested human smugglers in the small towns of Hachita in New Mexico’s Bootheel and Dexter south of Roswell as well as Albuquerque and Birmingham, Ala.
On Wednesday, Maximo Gonzalez-Sebastian, one of three men arrested in connection with a stash house in Roswell, was convicted in federal court in Las Cruces on charges of hostage taking and conspiracy. Gonzalez-Sebastian, who had a Guatemalan passport on him when he was arrested, could face up to 20 years in federal prison.
Two of his associates have already pleaded guilty and also await sentencing.
“We are making a concentrated effort to investigate and prosecute organizations involved in human trafficking,” U.S. Attorney John C. Anderson said, adding that includes both smugglers and those taking advantage of asylum seekers.
“It is a more diverse immigrant population than we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “New Mexico is primarily a transit point” for people entering the country either illegally or through the asylum process.
Efforts to control the numbers of people arriving at the official ports of entry seeking asylum have led people to “self surrender” to Border Patrol agents at more remote areas of the border like the small port of entry in New Mexico’s Bootheel at Antelope Wells or the deserts outside Deming.
Under U.S. law, migrant families who have requested asylum are typically released to join relatives or sponsors recruited by charities in other parts of the country. They will be issued a Notice to Appear in immigration court for their asylum hearing.
This has led to a flood of asylum seeking immigrants – more than 76,000 in the El Paso sector, which includes all of New Mexico’s border, in February alone. Customs and Border Patrol agents say they have been so overwhelmed in processing and finding medical attention when needed that they are concerned they are missing criminal smuggling operations and drug runners.
The asylum wave is a boom for smugglers.
In a recently unsealed search warrant, agents from Homeland Security Investigations said three Guatemalan families independently gave agents at the Border Patrol headquarters in Deming the same contact information – the phone number and address for what turned out to be a billiards parlor in Nashville, Tenn.
One woman told the agents she was recruited and smuggled through Mexico by a man named “Geronimo” and contacted him at the Tennessee phone number while they traveled through Mexico.
There was no answer when the Journal called the telephone number several times this week.
Agents believe “Geronimo” is connected to the Bartolo Alien Smuggling Organization, which has operated in Mexico and Guatemala for a number of years, generating more than $5 million for the organization.
The promises Geronimo makes are similar to other smugglers’, but his have been consistent for the last several years.
One of the women who talked to agents said she made a down payment of 15,000 quetzals (approximately $1,950 U.S.) for her and her son to be smuggled into the U.S. She was promised a job in the U.S. to pay the remainder of the smuggling fee.
Asylum seekers can get a federal work permit if they win their asylum case. Or they can apply for a work permit if the case has dragged out more than 150 days.
The smugglers promise that people willing to pay the fee – 45,000 quetzals or about $5,800 U.S. – get unfettered entry into the U.S. if the adults are accompanied by a child. They will get a job in the U.S., a place to live and documents allowing them to work to pay off their smuggling fee.
Agents said in the search warrant that the organization recruits businesses in the U.S. willing to hire undocumented immigrants.
Agents have not been able to identify “Geronimo.”
In the past, U.S. and U.N. investigators have identified the Bartolo organization as smuggling people from Central America into Florida and recruiting girls from Central America with false promises of jobs at hotel resorts who were then forced to work in brothels.
While agents haven’t tracked down “Geronimo” and others in the Bartolo organization, they have been able to break up other groups or at least interfere with their operations.
Last December, the first thing ICE agents noticed after talking with Tomas Mateo outside a fifth-wheel trailer in the small town of Dexter, N.M., was clothing and hundreds of pairs of shoes scattered around. The shoes were different styles and sizes – men’s, women’s and children’s shoes.
Mateo told agents he was renting the trailer, but wouldn’t allow them to search it or the attached shed.
As agents continued to talk to Mateo, several people began exiting the trailer. Then it became a rush of people running away.
Agents eventually rounded up more than 60 people, mostly from Guatemala and Ecuador.
They were all in the country illegally and told agents they had been held in the trailer for three to five days awaiting transport – and payment to the smugglers.
They said Mateo was in charge of when they could eat, use the restroom and make telephone calls.
Some of the immigrants were crammed into an unfurnished and filthy 20-foot-by-20-foot wooden addition to a travel trailer and provided with minimal food and water. The addition didn’t have a working toilet, and a sign was placed on the bathroom door that read in Spanish, “Don’t use the bathroom.”
They said Mateo made them take off their shoes before entering the trailer so they couldn’t run away.
According to court records, Mateo, 38 and from Guatemala, told agents he, himself, was smuggled into the country in September and was put in charge of the stash house by the smuggling organization.
He wouldn’t identify the leaders, but said he followed their instructions such as collecting money from the people brought to the trailer.
Mateo is charged in a federal criminal complaint with harboring the illegal immigrants and with unlawfully re-entering the United States after having been previously deported.
Guatemalan smugglers in Roswell
The Dexter stash house was the second one raided in the Roswell area last year.
Last July, Homeland Security agents were told that illegal immigrants were being threatened if their families didn’t pay their smuggling fees.
According to court records, agents knocking on the door of a house in Roswell discovered 13 people – four from Mexico and nine from Guatemala.
They said they had been smuggled into the country near El Paso where they were picked up and brought to the stash house.
They told agents the smugglers threatened to beat them and have their associates in Mexico and Guatemala harm their families if the $5,000 smuggling fees were not paid.
The men, the immigrants said, had left the house in a gold SUV, and they later identified three men – all from Guatemala – as being involved in the operation.
One of the smugglers admitted he had just picked up a wire transfer for $767 as part of the smuggling fee for one of the immigrants found in the stash house.
Christian Garcia Gutierrez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to take a hostage and hostage taking.
Agents said Garcia had a Guatemalan passport when arrested. In his plea agreement, Garcia said they held three Mexican nationals under threat until their smuggling fees were paid.
A second defendant, Tomas Feliciano Francisco-Pedro, pleaded guilty to transporting the illegal immigrants to the house where they were found, and also transporting nine other illegal immigrants from the stash house in Roswell to New Jersey.
They pleaded guilty prior to Wednesday’s trial of Gonzalez-Sebastian.
Sentencing dates for the men have not be set.