EL PASO — Cartels have shifted smuggling operations to make millions of dollars off the mass migration of Central Americans, and some now see higher profits from human smuggling than from drugs.
"Of course they adapted; they said, 'That's a money-maker. That's what we want to do,'" explained Oscar Hagelsieb, Assistant Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in El Paso.
This summer, the agency's Operation Coyote targeted those profits and the human smuggling networks moving people across the border.
"The commodity is humans. And the humans come with that money," Hagelsieb said.
So far, Operation Coyote has seized $800,000 from "illicit bank accounts" and arrested 363 "smugglers and their associates" in South Texas, according to a statement issued by the Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on August 20.
The enforcement effort came after the influx of thousands of Central American families and unaccompanied children overwhelmed the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley.
In May and June, Border Patrol agents took 10,000 Central American children into custody. The number fell by roughly half in July. The reason for the sharp decline is not clear.
Mexico has stepped up enforcement operations along smuggling routes, and is deporting more Central Americans before they reach the U.S. border.
And U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched a campaign in Central America to warn migrants not to put their lives in the hands of ruthless criminals who control lucrative smuggling corridors.
One public service announcement shows two shadows — one is a young migrant in a baseball cap, the other a man whose silhouette transforms into a coyote after he takes the young man's money.
"We must also continue to interdict the payments to coyotes to discourage migrants and their families from making these payments," Johnson said in a statement about Operation Coyote.
Profits are so high, the Zetas and Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas, across the border from the Rio Grande Valley, have now shifted more of their focus from drug trafficking to human smuggling.
"Key operatives of the Gulf Cartel — who before we had only intelligence of them running narcotics — are now actively involved n human smuggling and human trafficking to the point where they've all but abandoned their drug-smuggling activities," Hagelsieb said.
In some ways, human smuggling is more profitable. When a cartel loses a load of drugs because it's seized on the border, it's a total loss. But migrants caught at the border are usually deported and likely often try to cross again.
"It's almost 100 percent profit for them, and there's very little overhead, "Hagelsieb said.