Laredo Sector Border Patrol agents in Texas assist the Laredo Police Department with a distress call from a stash house Feb. 20. The event unfolded after police received a call from a woman stating that she was being held against her will alongside a large group people. A total of 37 individuals were discovered inside the house. CBP photo
Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Kenneth Kroupa could not believe his eyes.
“Just imagine 60 people in an enclosed space with no electricity, running water, or food,” he said, describing the conditions in a “stash house,” a place where human smugglers cram illegal aliens until they can “distribute” them around the country. To add insult to injury, Kroupa said, “many times the smugglers extort additional money just to keep their human cargo in putrid unsanitary conditions. “They can’t escape because often they are locked in.”
The scene Kroupa described is all too common for the veteran agent working in Laredo, Texas. The border town had 103 of all the 397 stash houses Border Patrol uncovered from October 2019 to October 2020 from Texas to California; neighboring Rio Grande Valley Sector headquartered in Edinburg, Texas, discovered 141 stash houses during the same time period. Part of the reason Laredo is such a hot spot for these human warehouses is that the border wall in place there is described as more ornamental than a true barrier, according to Chief Patrol Agent Matthew Hudak. He’s in charge of the sprawling sector that includes 171 border miles between Mexico and the United States and an area of responsibility that stretches from that border in Texas to the Oklahoma and Arkansas state lines.
CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall along with senior Border Patrol officials during a visit to El Paso, Texas, Aug. 26. CBP Photo by Jerry Glaser
“The Rio Grande is the only impediment to freely crossing the border there,” Hudak explained.
Another reason is the huge amount of transportation infrastructure in Laredo.
“The Port of Laredo is the No. 1 port in the country for commercial cargo, because there are interstate-type highways in Mexico leading to Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican side of the border, and we have Interstate 35 leading up to San Antonio, with even more major highways there connecting to points all across the country,” Hudak said. A well-entrenched international criminal organization operating just across the border also contributes to Laredo’s popularity with the human smugglers. “They’ve traditionally had control over that area, and alien smuggling is an extremely profitable endeavor for them.”
And profitability is what drives smugglers to stuff as many illegal aliens as they can in houses where running water and decent food is seen as a luxury, and air conditioning is unheard of, despite the high temperatures all along the Southwest border.
“They don’t care about the people,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Oscar Joanicot, who works intelligence for the Yuma Sector in Arizona and has been on numerous stash house raids. Those who run the houses only see the dollar signs they could earn. “When you talk to some of these illegal aliens, they say, ‘Well, they might have brought us a pizza once a day or something,’ giving those in the stash houses the bare minimum, because [the smugglers] don’t want to take [it] out of their profit.”
Eight stash houses were discovered in Yuma this past year, which is not many compared to Laredo or the Rio Grande Valley. Yet the number of stash houses in the Arizona community has doubled since October 2019. Further to the west in San Diego, only a handful of stash houses are discovered each year, in large part, because it’s more expensive to be smuggled across the border there.
“They used to pay about $200 a head to get across, so they would pack as many as they could into a car,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Mark Hansen from San Diego. “Now, they’re paying upwards of $8,000 or more [per person], so it’s worth it to send the guy from LA to pick up one or two people. So there’s no need to go to a stash house.”
Hansen said they’re using advanced technology to better identify the cars that are carrying the one or two illegal aliens since they might not stand out as much as cars, pickups and vans stuffed with dozens of illegal aliens. Smugglers are also using “cloned” vehicles – carriers made to look like genuine delivery trucks, such as UPS, to try to sneak across the border. He also credited more border wall infrastructure in the San Diego area for helping reduce the number of stash houses. “The secondary fencing and the wall going up along with the cameras going up are making it more difficult to get huge numbers across at the same time,” he said.
Hansen added “there still are groups that are trying to do things the old way: cut the fences and drive trucks through packed full of bodies. Installing steel bollards on the new border wall pretty much shut down those tactics, and where there’s just fencing, and they can try to cut through, Border Patrol is pretty good at interdicting those,” he said.
Acting together on a report from a concerned citizen, Border Patrol agents from Laredo and Webb County Sheriff’s Office deputies closed down a stash house in Rio Bravo, Texas. The incident occurred Sept. 30, when agents along with deputies acted on the information of a possible stash house. Agents and deputies apprehended 39 individuals who were determined to be in the United States illegally from the countries of Mexico and Guatemala. CBP photo
A big concern for agents walking into these stash houses is disease. Tuberculosis and flu were some of the health concerns agents have historically had to guard against. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic, the stash houses have become incubators for disease.
“That’s always been a concern when you’ve got large groups of people in small areas,” Joanicot said. He added that most people in stash houses have also traveled through areas rife with COVID-19. “A lot of them travel from southern Mexico, as well as Central American countries or even the Middle East. So they’re traveling through a whole country or multiple ones. And they cross the border, and obviously are not getting any kind of medical treatment or tests or anything, and then [the smugglers] pile them all together, staying in places that are very, very dirty and congested before they even get here. It’s always been an issue, and now with COVID-19, it’s even bigger.”
“Imagine your 1,500-square-foot house with 40-50 people in there for several days at a time,” Hudak said, adding that “while stash houses used to be in remote areas away from the city, now they’re in the middle of neighborhoods. You have them in areas where families are out walking and kids are in the neighborhood and a criminal organization is running a stash house in the middle of it. That’s dangerous. Now adding COVID to the mix is like [lighting] a match.”
Loaded Up Like Cargo
Another concern is the way the illegal aliens after being stored in the houses are crowded into even more dangerous situations, such as tractor-trailers and train grain cars, for dangerous journeys across the country for “distribution.”
“They’ll stockpile them for a couple of days in one of these stash houses until they have enough people to put in a tractor-trailer, then lock it with no way for them to escape the brutal South Texas heat,” Hudak said. “When we open up these containers, and it’s well over 105 degrees with no ventilation, no personal protective equipment, such as masks, no water. It’s tragic.”
Border Patrol agents apprehended a large number of individuals inside a tractor-trailer during a failed human smuggling attempt in north Laredo, Texas, July 13. Upon opening the trailer, agents found 35 individuals who were illegally in the United States from the countries of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. The inside trailer temperature was recorded at 126.1 degrees Fahrenheit at the time the individuals were discovered. CBP photo
Some of the containers have seen more than 100 people at a time. The large amount of stash houses in Laredo has translated into a 40% increase in the use of dangerous trailer conditions in the last year, as the smugglers try to move their human cargo out.
Agents from the Nogales Border Patrol Station in Arizona working at an interstate checkpoint thwarted two smuggling attempts 45 minutes apart, which led to the arrest of seven illegal aliens hidden in car trunks. Three of those in the hot car trunks were children. CBP photo
In places such as Yuma and San Diego, many times the tactics have changed into smugglers using lower profile – but not less dangerous – pickup trucks and car trunks, where the aliens are crammed into conditions exposing them to baking heat and vehicle accidents. Joanicot recalls an incident where he uncovered three small children hidden under the back seat floor carpet of an SUV.
“The children were probably anywhere from 3 to 6 years old hidden under this carpet,” he said. “I saw these little kids looking up at me, all dirty and sweaty, because it was a hot day and I thought, ‘What are these smugglers thinking?’”
Changing Tactics to Counter the Threat
Border Patrol officials cite the use of air assets, such as Air and Marine Operations helicopters, small unmanned aircraft systems – or “drones” – and better intelligence with local and other federal law enforcement agencies as helping break up these stash houses.
“It’s not exclusively Border Patrol agents breaking up the stash houses,” Hudak said. “We have a task force team of Border Patrol agents, Homeland Security Investigations, sheriff’s department, constables, and the city’s police department, as well, all working together. They are taking away the criminal organizations’ ability to blend into the woodwork. We’ve gotten a healthy number of tips on stash houses from citizens within the community. It’s a team approach.”
“We focus everything we do based on intelligence,” Kroupa said. “That plays a major role in allowing us to be effective.”
CBP officials also point out how the stash houses are part of the larger issue of the futility of making the journey like this. At the end of 2018 and into 2019, migrant caravans originating in Central America put nearly a million illegal aliens on a perilous journey through Mexico that ran for more than 1,500 miles in some cases and took months to complete. Once they arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, they faced enhanced measures, such as concertino wire and more Border Patrol agents, and crowded into detention centers once caught and returned home or back into Mexico. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Border Patrol agents were able to use legal authority – known as Title 42 protocols – granted because of the infectious disease that allowed the agents to return illegal aliens to their originating country within a couple of hours of being caught. In fact, the officials point out that even if migrants claim asylum, they will wait in Mexico while a U.S. judge hears the case, and less than 1% of Central America migrants waiting in Mexico are granted asylum.
To inform migrants of the futility and dangers, such as a stash house, CBP has a campaign dubbed “No Arriesgue Su Vida – Don’t Risk Your Life” that airs on social media. Those who would consider crossing the border illegally are told the truth about how things will really go, countering messages from transnational criminal organizations. In one video, an anonymous young Central American mother described her frightening experience. “You suffer a lot, and you encounter people that try to sexually abuse you. Sometimes you travel in tractor-trailer boxes unable to breathe. At the end of it all, nothing was like they said it would be.”
Compassion for Those Treated Like Cargo
While agents realize those in the stash houses have broken the law by crossing into the country illegally, they have a tremendous amount of compassion for the conditions the illegal aliens find themselves in. That’s especially true for children who had no choice in the matter.
“Some say when you do it for a long time, you get numb to it. I don’t believe that at all,” Joanicot, a parent himself, said. “I don’t care who you are, when you walk in and see something like [a stash house], especially when there’s children involved, your heart goes out to them.”
And Joanicot said the more agents see stuff like this, the more they want to shut down the people who only see dollars signs instead of human faces in those they stash away. “We want to get the smuggler who did this to them. Their commodity is people. They don’t care if someone dies. They just go and find another person waiting to come across.”
Hudak agreed that greed drives the smugglers, and his heart does go out to those being crammed into the squalid conditions. “It gets you viscerally, because we all have homes and kids, and you want to provide a clean and safe environment, and one of these stash houses is completely counter to anything that is your sense of right,” he said.
Kroupa knows there are criminals at the border willing to take advantage of people and that a united front is what it will take to shut down these human warehouses and stop more criminal elements and carriers of disease from entering the U.S.
It's very important to know what the threat is," Kroupa said. "Criminals and gang members are often hidden within these stash houses and they are the things we want to remove from our community."