Smartphone smugglers: How social media is reshaping border crime

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Mark Delgado told Border Patrol agents he was scrolling through TikTok one day when he came across a video asking for drivers and offering $4,000 a trip.

He needed the money, so he reached out to the guy on WhatsApp, a messaging service owned by Facebook. They made arrangements to meet this month in the Rio Grande Valley, where the TikTok recruiter put a man in the trunk of Mr. Delgado’s Nissan Altima and piled clothes on top to try to conceal the migrant, according to court documents.

Mr. Delgado was sent on his way with a warning — stay relaxed while going through the Border Patrol checkpoint — and a promise of $5,200 when the migrant was dropped off outside Houston.

A canine at the checkpoint alerted on Mr. Delgado’s car, and agents found the migrant. Agents said Mr. Delgado begged them to cut him a break: “Can’t you let me go since this is my first time?”

A day later, at the same checkpoint, agents nabbed another man, Alvaro-Vazquez-Ruiz, who said he was recruited over Telegram, another social media app. He was promised $1,500 for every person he was able to get through the checkpoint.

He turned the fuel tank of his Ford F-350 truck into a compartment to hide a migrant, but the smugglers told him he had to transport two people, so he tried to stash the second person underneath the back seat. Agents manning the checkpoint spotted that person and swooped in to make the arrest, according to court files.

Social media apps such as TikTok, Snapchat, Telegram, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp have upended the smuggling world.

Connecting a driver to a group of migrants is as easy as messaging a GPS “pin” location. Scouts can alert smugglers to Border Patrol agents so they can avoid them or, in some cases, to make sure the migrants are spotted, distracting agents while a more valuable load is sneaked through.

FBI agents in California revealed that smugglers holding illegal immigrants for ransom also use WhatsApp to arrange meetups with relatives to transfer the cash.

Recent news reports show smugglers advertise their services on social media like regular businesses. The difference is that the “customers” are desperately poor migrants willing to go $10,000 into debt for an attempt to cross illegally into the U.S.

The value and dangers of a smartphone

There seem to be few areas where social media has not touched the smuggling world and few cases where it is not a factor.

The Washington Times reviewed 25 criminal smuggling cases filed in Arizona over the past two months in which migrants were held as witnesses — court documents usually provide the information — and found 17 had indications that smartphones were involved. That’s a rate of 68%.

The actual figure could be higher because Border Patrol agents filing other cases might not report smartphone use in court documents.

In about half of the Arizona cases, migrants were guided across the border and to rendezvous locations by smartphone.

Smugglers in several cases received real-time instructions or scouting reports. One smuggler said a text message gave a pin-drop location for his pickup. Another said he was communicating via WhatsApp with the smuggling coordinator throughout his trip. When agents got on his tail, he said, he was ordered not to pull over and to try to escape.

Smuggling organizations know the value — and the dangers — of the smartphone. Criminal case files are full of reports about foot guides, drivers and boat captains who tossed, smashed or wiped data from their phones once they saw Border Patrol agents closing in.

When agents do get access to texts or apps, they can build better cases and often puncture smugglers’ stories and excuses.

Smartphones also are valuable to migrants.

“I’ve never met an immigrant who didn’t have a modern cellphone, a smartphone, that was fully plugged into the social media world and that gave them live-time intelligence information about where to go, when to go and how people upstream were doing,” said Todd Bensman, a national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies.

He said the most powerful lure is the collection of selfies their relatives, neighbors and friends text back home, advertising the ease of gaining a foothold in the U.S.

Smugglers have been using Facebook and Snapchat for years, but TikTok is relatively new, according to The Times’ database. Most major social media platforms have been used to recruit drivers or connect them with migrants.

Malik Jackson was nabbed in 2019 for smuggling after a citizen tipped off authorities. He said he responded to a Snapchat ad seeking drivers, according to court documents. He told agents the ad offered $300 per person to smuggle Mexicans and $600 per Chinese migrant.

Gequon Willis, nabbed at a highway checkpoint in California in 2019, said he saw a Snapchat video titled “Want to make some money.” He had been fired from his job and needed work, so he clicked through and someone contacted him and gave him instructions.

He picked up two illegal immigrants and was to be paid $1,000 per person.

WhatsApp is the most popular platform for smugglers, according to The Times’ database, followed by Facebook and Snapchat. WhatsApp is particularly useful once drivers are recruited. Smuggling organizers use the app to relay instructions, help connect drivers and migrants and make sure they get through checkpoints.

Connecting migrants with drivers, which used to be tricky in remote areas, is now as easy as messaging a GPS pin to the driver over one of the apps. Smuggling scouts can give step-by-step directions to help migrants on foot avoid checkpoints.

Drivers about to be caught are ordered to trash phones or erase data. Smuggling networks have been derailed by undeleted texts with stash house locations or names that can be used to build cases.

Trying to crack down

Customs and Border Protection said it is “aware of the use of social media” to connect with migrants and recruit operators.

The agency’s answer: public relations.

“CBP works in close coordination with its federal, local and international partner agencies, including local community leaders to message the inherent dangers to all would-be migrants thinking of crossing the border illegally, especially those using the services of smuggling organizations,” the agency told The Times.

Neither Telegram nor TikTok responded to questions about the platforms’ use in smuggling.

Snap, the company that runs Snapchat, also didn’t answer questions.

Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp along with its own platform, said it tries to ban illegal activity such as advertising for smuggling. The company pointed to an exchange between CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Rep. Buddy Carter, Georgia Republican, at a hearing this spring.

“That’s against our policies, and we’re taking a lot of steps to stop it,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.

Mr. Carter told The Times this month that whatever Facebook is doing, it’s “clearly not enough.”

“We are facing a crisis at the border, and Facebook’s products are contributing to it. More needs to be done by them faster,” he said. “Congress has a responsibility to provide oversight over these companies, and I will continue to press them until their products are no longer used for human smuggling at the border.”

Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee have begun to probe TikTok’s use as a recruiting tool, particularly for the teenage audience that the app attracts.

Rep. John Katko of New York, the top Republican on the panel, said TikTok does have the power to flag and remove messages and can control which videos “go viral” and which clips are aimed at certain users.

“With such control, TikTok should be able to eradicate the cartel activities outlined above from the platform,” the Republicans wrote.

Illegal activity is sometimes in plain sight for those who know where to look.

Rolando Lucio, nabbed at the Falfurrias, Texas, checkpoint in December, told agents he used a YouTube video to coach the three migrants he was carrying on how to act and what to say to agents. He got tripped up when he told the agent the two migrants were family members but couldn’t remember their names.

An agent dryly wondered whether a relative wouldn’t know his family’s names. Lucio then came clean, according to court documents.

He pleaded guilty and was sentenced this spring to 15 months in prison.

At times, social media accounts come back to bite the smugglers.

Edward Olivas, arrested at a Laredo, Texas, checkpoint in March, said he was a Lyft driver on a run from Laredo to San Antonio, albeit one booked outside of the app. He said he charged about $100.

When agents looked through his phone — after getting his legal consent — they found messages confirming that he knew he was smuggling and expected to be paid $2,000 to transport a Mexican woman through the checkpoint. He even checked to see whether her English was “decent.”

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