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Monday, June 5, 2023

PERSPECTIVE: The Booming Business of the Human Smuggling Networks

BOOK EXCERPT: A good place to sample and document this traffic was Costa Rica, where all must eventually pick up smugglers again at the Nicaragua border.

One of the most unique first-time characteristics of the greatest mass migration crisis in American history — now in its third year with more than 5 million foreign nationals inside — is that more than 40 percent of all immigrants reaching the southern border are from 150 counties other than Mexico and Central America. This one is global to an extent never before seen beyond just national diversity but in distances covered.

Hundreds of thousands per year — the most ever recorded — crossed through the infamous Darien Gap jungle route between Colombia and Panama. In past years, fewer than 10,000 might cross the gap; in 2022 alone 250,000 did, and far more are expected in 2023. A good place to sample and document this traffic was Costa Rica, where all must eventually pick up smugglers again at the Nicaragua border. In June 2021, I traveled there to record what this looked like. This excerpt from my new book Overrun reflects some of what I experienced:

A Smuggling Pirate Town off Every Grid

For nearly a week before Federico and I finally had to flee for our lives, we’d been hanging around two of the town’s open-air bus stops among drivers-for-hire like Felix who connected the disembarking immigrants to Nicaragua’s smuggling networks. Untouched by either journalism or Costa Rican law enforcement, the smuggling trade here happened in the wide open. Cruising through town at night, we could see groups of Haitians, Brazilians, and Cubans on sidewalks and streets, still hauling backpacks they’d used in the Darien Gap, negotiating with drivers on sidewalks and streets. Negotiators huddled in restaurants and scrummed in hotel lobbies around town.

Business was booming.

I almost stumbled across the main reason why when I approached a local driver negotiating with five Senegalese immigrants late one night on a berm along the main Los Chiles drag. This driver was in his forties, well-groomed and -coifed, wearing slacks, a collared button-down, and loafers. After he closed the deal to drive the Senegalese men the next morning to La Trocha, a town of some sort on the Nicaragua border, he agreed to talk on condition I not identify him by name.

He’d gotten into the business because so many immigrants were coming through Los Chiles that year, he said. “At least 10,000 have come through here. You get people every day traveling through to the States. This has been very commercially profitable for us and our families at this time.”

I asked how long he had been doing this.

“Since Trump left,” was his reply.

“Really?” I asked. “Tell me more.”

The American border, he explained, “was too tight with Trump. Now, everybody knows the Americans are handing out papers to everyone. That’s why they come. That’s why everybody is going to the States.”

One Haitian spending the night in Los Chiles explained that he and his group of families decided to make their move from Brazil, where they’d been comfortably living for four years, to the U.S. border mainly because “Biden is very nice for people. The conditions changed with Biden. When you are with your daughter or son, you can come” to the United States.

The way smuggling generally worked here is that the drivers would congregate at the bus stop. As each bus emptied, they’d hit the immigrants like hungry fish on bait.

One day, a bus pulled in at the main stop in Los Chiles. Five African extra-continentals leapt down the short stairwell and into the parking lot. “Where are you from?” I asked.

“Mauritania,” one of them answered. My first Mauritanians. These extra-continentals seemed so exotic to me that I got them to pose for a picture with me. But they only spoke French, so dearly desired interviews were not possible. In any case, I overheard them strike a deal for transport to that same place again, “La Trocha.”

There were the usual Haitians and Cubans, of course going to the mysterious La Trocha. I met countless Senegalese for the first time too. I met my first Angolan. I met Nigerians.

For two hundred dollars or less per immigrant, the drivers would take them forty or so miles east—to La Trocha. I finally got some of the smugglers to tell me about the place. It was an illegal smuggler’s settlement controlled by two criminal gangs. The town was pure outlaw, its one road actually the border splitting the settlement evenly in half between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. La Trocha showed up on no map or GPS.

Neither country claimed nor recognized it. The smuggling organizations that ran La Trocha would guide the immigrants a few miles in to Nicaragua to the San Juan River and put them in boats toward Honduras, several of the drivers told me. I asked if they’d let me follow a load to La Trocha. But even though the drivers didn’t mind talking business at bus stops, accompanying them to their criminal groups seemed to cross a line.

Finally, a young woman who made her living driving immigrants to it—the only female I saw doing business—agreed to let me follow. “Let’s go. Follow me,” the young woman said after I’d seen her load several Haitians into her small, white four-door car near the bus stop.

That short-lived experience should have served as a warning as to what would happen a few days later when I went in with Felix to his corrupt transaction with Nicaraguan soldiers.

We drove about forty miles on rock-riddled dirt roads, through pineapple plantations, stretches of lush vine-draped jungle, and some small, simple villages. At the crest of a final hill, we began the descent into the pirate settlement. At the bottom, we turned onto the main drag. Jagged rocks sticking up slowed travel to a half mile an hour. This “road” was actually the international border. All along it for several hundred yards, wood-planked structures with tin roofs lined either side. One trash-strewn side was Costa Rica. The other side, twenty feet away, was Nicaragua. I followed her car until she stopped at a wooden house on the Costa Rica side. We got out and stood with the three Haitians.

“You’re safe as long as you stay on this side of the street,” the woman told me. “And as long as it’s daytime.”

She led us inside the open-air courtyard of the structure with the Haitians, said she’d be back soon, and disappeared on the Nicaraguan side. Its floor was hardpack mud and rock, but at least it was shaded and faced the rocky road we’d just come up so I could study the activity out there. Our three Haitians sat on plastic chairs, clutching their backpacks, stress plain on their faces. Behind them, a desultory young woman ironed clothing while several elderly women cooked and did chores amid pecking chickens. The place doubled as a motorcycle repair shop, a few of the machines in various states of disassembly. I stepped out onto the road to survey La Trocha. Men on irritatingly loud motorbikes gunned their engines as they zipped past on the rocky border road. Across the street, I spied some makeshift restaurants and housing. The downtown, I thought to myself. It looked almost like a normal incorporated village. I saw no immigrants other than the ones we followed in and our three nervous Haitians.

Any hope that I might be able to explore this smuggler’s roost proved short-lived. Our smuggling hostess returned alone with a stressed look on her ashen face. She explained that thirty other Haitians were in a house up the road on the Nicaraguan side. A guide would lead them that night to a handoff to guides a few miles inside Nicaragua who will take them to Honduras.

She explained that the powers that be—meaning the local gangs that ran the town—were unhappy with her for bringing us to La Trocha. Terrible scenarios flashed through my mind, like one where she would pay with her life for granting a favor to me.

“I’m so sorry. I would never want to cause you trouble,” I said, sincerely. I asked what she thought they would do to her now.

Oh, she would be okay, she replied. She was far more worried about us. At this very moment, she explained, pointing to a tin roof of a building on the Nicaragua side, leaders of the two gangs that run the settlement were in an emergency committee meeting about us.

“Oh, really?” I asked, somewhat alarmed. “What’s that meeting about?”

“About what to do with you,” she responded. “If I were you, I’d leave before they decide.”

Within a minute or two, I was trundling back over the rocky track the way I’d driven in, checking my six all forty miles back to Los Chiles for any indication that anyone was following with a meeting decision. Worse was yet to come for me as I’ll explain shortly.

But for anyone in the world who wanted to reach the American border through the Darien Gap, the Biden administration did all in its power—unthinkingly—to enrich the facilitating gangs of La Trocha.


The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor @ hstoday.us.

Todd Bensman
Todd Bensman is the Center for Immigration Studies' Texas-based Senior National Security Fellow. He is the author of the forthcoming book "America’s Covert Border War: The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration," due in February 2021 from Bombardier Books. Prior to joining CIS in August 2018, Bensman led homeland security intelligence efforts for nine years in the public sector. Bensman’s body of work with policy and intelligence operations is founded on more than 20 years of experience as an award-winning journalist covering national security topics, with particular focus on the Texas border. In 2009, Bensman transitioned from journalism to join the Texas Department of Public Safety's Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, where he managed teams of intelligence analysts that worked in concert with federal homeland security and U.S. Intelligence Community agencies to identify and mitigate terrorism threats. From the State of Texas fusion center for nine years, he designed and directed collection operations that fed into the Intelligence Community and prompted or advanced federal counterterrorism investigations. Among his original programs was a specialized effort to help federal partners disrupt human smuggling networks transporting migrants to the U.S. land border from countries where Islamist terrorist organizations are active. Prior to his government experience, Bensman worked on staff for The Dallas Morning News, CBS, and Hearst Newspapers, covering the FBI, federal law enforcement and serving on investigative teams.

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