X-ray machines at checkpoints in southern Mexico are capturing the ghostly outlines of a clandestine business worth billions a year, people packed tighter than cattle and transported like consumer goods in tractor-trailers to the United States.
The machines in place for less than two years at two state police checkpoints have led to the two largest hauls of migrants, who pay anywhere from $7,000 to $30,000 for passage, depending where they start.
The United Nations estimates that smuggling migrants across Mexico's border with the U.S. alone is a $6.6 billion business annually, compared to an estimated the $10 billion to $29 billion in illegal drug running. The migrant smuggling estimate doesn't include another $1 billion paid by thousands of non-Mexicans to cross from Guatemala and travel north, according to a 2010 U.N. report on transnational crime.
The 513 people apprehended Tuesday in two trailers in the state of Chiapas, bordering Guatemala, represented at least $3.5 million in cargo. Another trailer filled with 219 people was discovered in January.
Some suffered from dehydration after traveling for hours clinging to cargo ropes strung inside the containers to keep them upright, allowing more migrants to be crammed in.
Air holes had been punched in the tops of the containers, but migrants interviewed at the state prosecutor's office said they lacked air and water. The trucks were bound for the central city of Puebla, where the migrants said they had been told they would be loaded aboard a second set of vehicles for the trip to the U.S. border.
Smuggling in decades past was the business of small independent operators who helped migrants cross once they reached the U.S. border. But evading U.S. authorities has become much more difficult with increased border enforcement in recent years. At the same time, Mexico's migrant routes have become much more dangerous, controlled by drug gangs that see new moneymaking opportunities in kidnapping and extorting those who cross their territory.
In the case of Mexico's southern border, no one can say exactly who the organized smuggling groups are. Some say that large transport rings operate separately from Mexico's brutal drug gangs, such as the Zetas or the Gulf Cartel, who stick to kidnapping and extortion.
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