Eight men have been charged in an unusual sting that investigators say highlights a new tactic in which immigrant smugglers never cross the border from Mexico — and instead use cell phones from nearby mountaintops to bark out real-time instructions to their customers as they navigate each step of the desert trek into the U.S.
The defendants were part of one of the first immigrant smuggling rings dismantled on the U.S.-Mexico border that exclusively uses cell phones, employing none of the foot guides commonly employed to lead groups across the border, said Derek Benner, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's special agent in charge of investigations in San Diego. The arrests took place Tuesday and Wednesday in the Los Angeles area.
As a general rule, smugglers still employ foot guides but cell phones are turning up more frequently in areas where Mexican mountaintops afford sweeping views into the United States. Scouts keep customers on well-traveled paths and away from Border Patrol agents.
U.S. authorities say they have spotted these new coyotes more often in the last year or so as cell-phone coverage expands to the country's most forgotten parts and handsets below $50 have become widely available.
"Technology is now the guide, as opposed to an individual that's going to have to try to make it back to Mexico when the Border Patrol stops them," Border Patrol Chief Mike Fisher said in an interview.
As U.S. authorities try to get a handle on how commonly phones are used and which smuggling rings embrace them, they face new challenges. They can no longer pump foot guides for valuable information, like where they walk, where they hide, how they spot Border Patrol agents and who they work for in Mexico.
It is also more difficult to prosecute smuggling charges because the guides are safely out of reach, south of the border.
The probe culminating in the federal complaint unsealed Wednesday began in Jacumba, a hardscrabble hamlet of about 500 people built around a three-block main street of abandoned businesses, a general store and an old motel. The town about 75 miles east of San Diego became a popular corridor for illegal crossings after a 1990s crackdown in border cities pushed migrants to remote areas.
Until the 2001 terror attacks, residents could easily walk across the border from Jacume, a poor Mexican town of around the same size. A fence of closely-spaced bollards erected a few years ago made crossing illegally more difficult, but migrants use ladders, even in daylight.
In April 2010, the Border Patrol began noticing drivers in rented cars taking migrants from Jacumba to the Los Angeles area. They concluded mountaintop scouts in Mexico were guiding customers to a white farmhouse on Jacumba's outskirts to wait for drivers, aided by binoculars and phones.
From barren mountaintops, scouts can see several miles and monitor every step. It is only about 300 yards from a border fence to the well-kept sprawl of barns and silos. Scouts utter commands on a walk that takes only minutes, compared to three or four days sometimes needed for migrants to reach Interstate 8 in parts of California.
"They say run, sit down, hide in that bush, avoid those rocks," said Daniel Page, ICE assistant special in charge of investigations in San Diego.
Drivers who were arrested and prosecuted led ICE and Border Patrol investigators to cousins in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Ana who were suspected of contracting with Mexican smugglers to pick up the migrants once they entered the United States. They identified them as longtime illegal immigrants from the Mexican state of Michoacan and targeted the extended family for immigration violations in Southern California.
Investigators say the cousins have employed legions of drivers — dozens, at least — to navigate California highways. Their recruiting grounds included nightclubs in Santa Ana and Long Beach.
Drivers were high school students, housewives and various down-on-their-luck Americans. The main job qualification was U.S. citizenship or legal residency, an effort to draw less scrutiny at Border Patrol highway checkpoints.
Cell phones spared smugglers the expense of paying a foot guide about $50 for each migrant they lead across, investigators said.
Migrants paid $5,000 to cross, on the high end of a typical fee for being led through California mountains. The costs are small — $100 to $300 for the American driver, $25 to $200 a day for the operator of a California holding house, plus rental cars and phones. Smuggling organizations — one based in Southern California and the other Mexico — split the rest.
Foot guides are also being replaced by phones in other remote border regions, including the Arizona desert and California's Imperial Valley, where Mexico's Mount Signal gives commanding views, Border Patrol officials say. Cell phone coyotes have also positioned themselves on U.S. soil.
Expanding phone coverage carries consequences not only for smugglers. Border Patrol agents can now communicate with each other more easily. Humanitarian groups hoping to lower the toll of migrants who die each year crossing the border have advocated forcefully for more coverage, saying it offers a lifeline to call 911 for help.
Investigators estimate the Jacumba smuggling ring was crossing about 10 people a week, a fairly small operation that reflects a steep drop in illegal crossings from Mexico. Border Patrol apprehensions plunged by more than half since 2005 to the lowest level in decades.
The smugglers based in Mexico remain elusive.
"We get lots of information from the drivers," Page said. "The people picking them up here have no connection to the south side."
Copyright Associated Press / NBC San Diego