Big Rigs, a Human Smuggling Mainstay, Often Become Rolling Traps

Last Sunday, a thirsty immigrant’s request for water at a Walmart in San Antonio led to the discovery, in the parking lot, of the deadliest truck-smuggling operation in the United States in more than a decade. Ten of the 39 people found in or near the truck died, and others were hospitalized, some with brain damage.

The case has cast a harsh light on a practice known for its cruelty. But it also showed that the big rig rolls on as a highly organized, often effective and remarkably enduring transportation option for the smuggling underworld.

Hundreds of migrants every year are caught inside tractor-trailers, and hundreds more are believed to be cruising in undetected. Even though President Trump’s tough stance on illegal immigration has slowed the flow of border crossers, many are still trying to slip past the Border Patrol in the back of eighteen-wheelers. In late June, for example, a Homeland Security task force found 21 people in the back of another tractor-trailer in Laredo, leading to the prosecution of four suspected smugglers.

“It has been going on certainly throughout the entire 30 years that I’ve been doing this,” said the director of the task force, Paul A. Beeson, a veteran Border Patrol agent. “They use every method of conveyance that they can come up with.”

Court records, news reports and interviews with officials, border experts and migrants who have survived the trip illustrated both the lure of the truck and its dangers.

In South Texas, the busiest border for illegal entry and a mostly unfenced one, crossing the Rio Grande is in many ways the easy part. The hardest is getting past the 100-mile-wide zone where Border Patrol traffic checkpoints function as a last line of defense before migrants reach San Antonio, Houston and cities beyond.

Undocumented immigrants and the people who profit off smuggling them must decide whether to go around the checkpoints on foot, or go through them in a vehicle.

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