Illegal Immigration Linked With Organized Crime, Border Expert Says

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A direct link exists between criminal organizations and illegal immigration, former federal prosecutor Josh Jones says. 

Jones, now senior fellow in border security at Texas Public Policy Foundation, joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss his recent report, “Joined at the Hip: Organized Crime and Illegal Immigration.” Jones explains how gangs and other criminal groups in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala lead illegal immigrants to the border and often exploit the migrants for their own profit. 

Also on today’s show, we read your letters to the editor and share a “good news story” about a foster child who was adopted by his teacher. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript.

Virginia Allen: I am joined by Josh Jones, a senior fellow in border security at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a former prosecutor with the US Department of Justice. Mr. Jones, thank you so much for being here.

Josh Jones: Thank you for having me, Virginia.

Allen: Today, we are talking about a subject that is on the minds of many, many Americans, and that is immigration, illegal immigration. And you have just recently authored a study called “Joined at the Hip: Organized Crime and Illegal Immigration.” So let’s begin by talking about what role criminal organizations and gangs do play in illegal immigration.

Jones: Sure. So there’s a distinction between transnational gangs and transnational criminal organizations. The transnational gangs, or what we refer to as transnational gangs, are gains that come out primarily of El Salvador, and MS-13 and 18th Street are the two primary gangs.

Those gangs control territory in what we call the Northern Triangle countries, which are Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. And oftentimes the reason that migrants join these caravans or move up toward the United States using a smuggler is because of the violence caused by the transnational gangs in their home countries.

Then, as you move into Mexico, obviously there are cartels, or what we call transnational criminal organizations. And these are much larger, much more complex criminal organizations that function more like businesses or corporations. They too control territory throughout Mexico.

As migrant caravans come north, they tax the traffickers to move the caravans through their territory. And oftentimes there’s some interplay, too, at the U.S. border, where the transnational criminal organizations will use the migrant caravans to further their drug trafficking operations getting into the United States.

So, basically, every step of the way from the southwest border down to the Northern Triangle, you’re pretty much on territory either controlled by gangs or by cartels.

Allen: So, these individuals in countries that you mentioned—El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—they’re wanting to leave their country because of the violence. But then in turn, the same individuals who are responsible for furthering that violence are also the ones that are really, deeply entrenched in a part of this process of individuals migrating and getting across the border illegally, correct?

Jones: That is correct. And it’s not just violence, it’s economic opportunity. They see economic opportunity in the United States that they don’t have down there, but those two things are intertwined in Central America—the economic opportunity, or the lack thereof, and the violence or the lack of security in those countries.

Allen: How do local law enforcement and government officials interact with these criminal groups, with these gangs? I mean, do they have any power to stop the violence? Do they try to engage to stop the violence?

Jones: In Latin America, the criminal justice systems are not very well-developed. They’re far behind what we have here in the United States.

And oftentimes corruption is a huge, huge problem down there, particularly when we’re talking about those countries, particularly in Honduras and Mexico, and to a lesser extent, also in Guatemala and El Salvador.

So the criminal justice systems really are not capable of controlling the violent crime that the gangs perpetrate down there. And in El Salvador, for example, instead of trying to take enforcement action against MS-13, the government actually negotiates with the gangs in order to reduce violence. It’s not a great scenario. It’s not a great long-term solution to a crime problem.

Allen: Wow. … You mentioned that economic impact, but talk a little bit more about how that organized crime does directly impact the economic opportunity of a single mom or a family that’s just trying to make ends meet.

Jones: Sure. So, as I said, these gangs control territory in the Northern Triangle countries, and what they’ll do in their territory is actually tax the people who are trying to live there.

So in addition to being taxed by their federal governments down there, they’re also taxed by the gangs that control their territories. And the economic development is way behind what we have here in the United States, so the job market’s really not there to support the populations down there.

So they’re kind of in a situation where it’s really hard to find jobs, and for those who can find jobs, they are taxed by the local street gangs. So oftentimes the reason to come to the United States is just, A, to avoid gangs, and B, to come to a place where they can actually find a job.

Allen: Wow. What happens if those individuals can’t pay the taxes that are demanded of them, of these gangs?

Jones: It’s oftentimes that the gangs resort to violence. They resort to extortion, kidnapping. They do wherever they can to squeeze money out of the people in their territory.

And another thing, too, that I think in El Salvador, and I think also in Honduras, the biggest part of their gross domestic product is actually remittances coming from the United States.

So they’ll have family members in the United States that have migrated either legally or illegally, and the migrants will send money down to their family members in El Salvador, and oftentimes that’s money used to pay the local gangs so that the gangs will leave them alone.

Allen: Yeah, yeah. So I want to understand a little bit more about kind of the journey that these individuals take as they’re seeking to get to the U.S. You mentioned this in your piece, but could you explain a bit about the difference between smuggling and trafficking? And do we know percentage wise how many illegal immigrants are being smuggled over the border versus trafficked over?

Jones: So when I use those words, in this case, the immigrants that move by smuggling or by hiring smugglers are those who will pay, they’re typically a very small organization, trafficking organization, that they’ll pay anywhere from $2,000 to $10,000, usually to be moved from Central America up into the United States.

And the people that are paying the smugglers have connections throughout that route, so they can make it possible. And these days, they can almost guarantee entry, … especially if it’s an undocumented child coming across, because the Biden administration is letting all the undocumented children aliens come into the U.S.

A trafficker, on the other hand, typically is moving people involuntarily. And so they would be your sex traffickers, the people who are in the business of forced labor. And so they are oftentimes more intertwined with the criminal organizations along that route, particularly in Mexico.

Allen: OK. And for those arriving at the border right now, we’re seeing that thousands of migrants are arriving at our southern border daily right now, how many of those people used a criminal organization to get them to the border, worked with a criminal organization?

Jones: Well, in a way, they’re all criminal organizations. The smugglers are moving people into the country illegally and they’re profiting from it. So in a sense, they are criminal organizations as well. And most of them are being smuggled across.

Most of them are hiring trafficking organizations to use their connections to smuggle them up to the border, and then to instruct them on how to best get across the border, which sometimes involves just coming in and crossing the bridge and claiming asylum, and sometimes it means trying to go across the Rio Grande River, or sometimes it means just going through open desert.

Allen: And how much are these individuals paying the smuggling groups to get them across? Is there some exchange of goods, services?

Jones: Usually if we’re talking about a smuggling group, it’s a flat fee, and we’ve heard that that fee can run anywhere between $2,000 or $3,000, up to $10,000, and that normally the price fluctuates by where the migrant is originating.

So if a migrant comes from outside Central America, oftentimes migrants from Asia trying to get to the United States will first come to Central America or South America, and then be moved up, move themselves up in a caravan or by using a smuggler.

If you’re Asian, you’re paying over $10,000. You’re paying upwards of $20,000 or $30,000. If you’re Central American, where, obviously, they probably can’t afford that, they’re paying much less.

And kind of the dark side of it too is that when migrants can’t pay, that’s when the smugglers or the traffickers find other ways of making money off of them, which is where sex trafficking comes in or forced labor comes out.

Allen: OK. … I know in your study you also talk a little bit about how these individuals are often used for drug trafficking. Could you explain that?

Jones: Sure. There are some scenarios that we’ve heard kind of anecdotally from drug traffickers themselves or from people who have seen this or have experienced this, the Border Patrol guys.

At times when there’s a very large migrant caravan moving up through a cartel’s territory, they’ll instruct the caravan to go in one direction, and the [Customs and Border Protection] in that area is going to be directed toward the caravan coming up in one area, and then they’ll move drug shipments in an opposite area, in a different area where they know that the Border Patrol officers are not going to be there.

In other cases, we’ve heard of the drug trafficking organizations on the border working with the migrants, coming up with the smugglers, where they will allow them to go through, but they’ll instruct them to carry backpacks, or mochila is the Spanish word for it.

And the backpacks will be full of methamphetamine, or cocaine, or heroin, and then they’ll tell them once they get to the United States, to go to a certain point at a certain time and hand the drugs or the backpacks over to one of the people in the United States.

Allen: Let’s talk a little bit about solutions. Right now, we are looking at a crisis at our border. So what actions should the Biden administration take today to keep migrants from entering the country illegally?

Jones: I think the short term, most important thing that the Biden administration can begin to do better is just messaging.

Through the Biden campaign, when he was running for president, he was using words like amnesty, and he was essentially using a vernacular that’s going to signal to Central America that if he’s elected president, this is going to be time to come up because the gates are going to be open. The border’s going to be open.

So that actually started before he became president. Once he becomes president, one of the first things he does is undo a lot of President [Donald] Trump’s immigration policy, which in a lot of ways was pretty sensible. And so that furthers that message, echoes that message that the border’s open, the gates are open, come on up.

And then [Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro] Mayorkas here, this past Sunday, began to change the messaging a bit by saying, “The border is closed. It’s not time yet.” And they still used the word “yet,” which would indicate there will be a time in the future when it would be OK for them to come up.

Again, the messaging is just not strong enough, that the border is not in fact open, and that in fact, the border never will be truly open, but in the sense that people will be able to come into the United States unaccounted for. I think that messaging has to become stronger and more consistent from the Biden administration.

And looking kind of forward, one thing that they could do, [President Joe] Biden could do, that they have talked about is create a process for handling asylum claims in Central America so that the migrants don’t have to make that very dangerous journey up to the United States to file. They can file asylum from where they are.

Very few asylum claims from Central America get granted, but if they’re in the 5% or 10% that do get granted, then that can be handled where they are. And if they are granted asylum, then they can make that journey up to the United States, knowing that when they get to the border, they’ll be allowed to cross.

I think long term, the solution is to work with the Central American countries—and Biden has talked about doing this—to improve security down there, to reform the criminal justice systems, to make it safer to live in those countries, so that fewer people will be wanting to leave to come to the United States.

One thing that I disagree with is kind of the direct payments to the countries. He’s proposed, essentially, a $4 billion point check that he’s trying to send to Central American countries, and the problem is that these are very corrupt governments down there.

Allen: Yeah.

Jones: I think a better approach would be to incentivize investment by U.S. corporations down there so that we can try to get kind of capital down into Central America, so that our corporations can create jobs down there and start to build their economy that way.

Allen: Yeah. I was going to ask you about that because, ultimately, it seems like that would be the solution, is to strengthen these nations so that individuals don’t want to leave, so that they can support their family, so that they can feel safe, so that they can really provide, have jobs, and the best way to do that, we so often see, is through industry, through creating those economic opportunities.

Jones: I think that’s absolutely the long-term solution, is to build up Central America. And again, the Biden administration is talking in the right way in that regard, but I don’t think direct payments to corrupt governments is going to get it done.

I think we have to find creative ways of getting U.S. companies to go down there and invest, and to build their resort industry. Tourism is going down in those countries. Those types of things are what will bridge the gap between where we are and where they are in a way that should reduce the problem of illegal immigration from Central America in the future.

Allen: Yeah. So if America continues right now on the trajectory that it’s on, and thousands of illegal immigrants continue to arrive at our southern border and be released into the country, who, ultimately, are the winners and losers of that scenario?

Jones: Well, the winners are the criminal organizations that either forced them up and/or profit from them along the way.

So the cartels in Mexico that are taxing the caravans as they come north are profiting. The smugglers themselves, obviously, or the traffickers themselves are profiting. The sex trafficking industry is going to profit from it.

It’s essentially kind of the worst parts of our society are doing well when we have immigration crises like we have right now.

Allen: Wow. Mr. Jones, I so appreciate the work that you are doing on this issue. You’re really on the forefront of it. Tell us how our listeners can follow your work and keep up with what you all are doing down there in Texas.

Jones: Sure. So, I’m a senior fellow at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which is the largest state-oriented policy foundation office. Obviously, we do a lot of work that covers the entire country and we do work in Washington, D.C., as well. But the website’s www.texaspolicy.com.

There are several fellows in addition to me that are doing work in this area. We have livestreams twice a week, and we’re publishing and getting the word out as much as we can. This is a crisis, and there are reasonable solutions to the crisis.

Allen: We’ll be sure to link your report, “Joined at the Hip: Organized Crime and Illegal Immigration,” in today’s show notes. But we so, so appreciate your time and all the work that you’re doing on this issue.

Jones: Thank you.

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