Editor’s Note: This is the last of a three-part series examining drug smuggling, human smuggling and human trafficking in the San Diego and Orange County area, and how federal and local law enforcement agencies are grappling with the problems. Part 1: Part 2:
Starting as early as 2006, Mario “Don Tony” Antunez-Sotelo, a handyman by trade, made a habit of befriending poor families in rural Mexico, authorities say.
He then offered the campesinos' sons and daughters a complete emigration package, including transportation into the U.S., a job in construction or housekeeping and a place to stay--all for several thousand dollars, payable in installments.
But that's not quite how things played out. Authorities allege Antunez-Sotelo packed those sons and daughters into squalid quarters in San Diego, then coerced them to hand over their wages by threatening to slit their throats, send hitmen to murder their families in Mexico or drag them into the desert at gunpoint and abandon them, according to America’s Most Wanted.
Antunez-Sotelo is still on the run--last seen in 2007 in San Diego, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement's most-wanted list--but others like him still operate in Southern California, abducting men and women for forced labor, sex or ransom.
Human trafficking in Southern California is less prevalent than simple smuggling -- a flat fee for an illegal ride into the U.S.-- but it’s a huge problem because the victims are so vulnerable. They tend to disappear without a trace because of their undocumented status, unfamiliarity with U.S. laws or the seizure of their legal immigration documents by captors.
In recent years, criminal organizations involved in simple smuggling have moved into the more lucrative field of human trafficking and kidnapping. The practice of human slavery for sex and labor is the second-fastest growing crime in the U.S., behind drug trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security investigates such cases. ICE San Diego’s Deputy Special Agent in Charge, Michael Carney, likened the relationship between ICE and the Border Patrol to a local police department: ICE agents are the detectives while Border Patrol agents are the uniform cops.
Carney said ICE in Southern California has investigated cases in which immigrants were imprisoned in makeshift dugout cellars and forced into domestic servitude, a case where women were trafficked from Mexico and forced to prostitute themselves to agricultural workers, and a case in Oceanside where young women were transported across state lines and forced into a prostitution ring operated out of a hotel.
One key to combating the problem is educating citizens who are likely to encounter slavery situations, said
For instance, a truck driver who hauls and services portable toilets in remote areas should be told to call authorities if he’s servicing multiple units with no one ever in sight, or if he notices sheds and outbuildings consistently locked from the outside.
Criminal street gangs in the Inland Empire and elsewhere in California are the chief instigators behind human trafficking, Stumpf said, noting that they imprison immigrants to demand ransom from family members in Latin America.
“Gangs have now become probably the biggest trafficking organizations in California,” Stumpf said. “Some 400,000 agricultural workers come through Riverside every year—migrant workers who have the proper documentation most of the time. Gangs will take their papers, separate them from their families, chain them to beds, torture them and call Guatemala to extort money.”
According to the FBI's 2011 gang threat assessment, the Southern California Sureños gang is among those that have moved into trafficking, forcing women and children in prostitution and labor. About 20,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. every year, according to the FBI.
“Technically, trafficking had to do with making money selling people, but now, smuggling is closer to being included in trafficking,” she said. “Coyotes [smuggler gang members] would say ‘We’ll get you in, and I have a cousin you can work for.’ We know that never works out. Generally, the smuggling is for malevolent reasons.”
Human Smuggling Drops
Although human trafficking is a growing problem, the numbers of immigrants caught trying to enter the country illegally through the Border Patrol’s San Diego Sector has dropped drastically over the past few years.
That’s partly because the still-struggling U.S. economy doesn’t have as much space for immigrant labor, and because aggressive laws in Arizona have targeted undocumented immigrants. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more Mexicans left the U.S. in 2011 than entered, the first time that’s happened since the Depression.
Border Patrol officials also attribute the drop to aggressive, highly orchestrated enforcement that has deterred many human smugglers from operating in Southern California.
According to San Diego Sector Border Patrol statistics, 162,390 people were apprehended in fiscal year 2008, 118,721 in 2009 and 68,565 in 2010 and 42,447 in 2012. For this fiscal year to April 30, which began Oct. 1, there have been only 17,330.
Border Patrol Agent Jerry Conlin said more than 1,200 new agents since 2005, stiff penalties for smugglers and increased technology have curtailed illegal immigration.
Conlin cited a new 18-foot fence in the Otay Mountains. The area is equipped with sensors that signal when people attempt to climb over. And the sturdy barrier presents more of an obstacle than older fences, which could stop only the very elderly or disabled, Conlin said.
Still, shortly before this article published, a Border Patrol search-and-rescue team saved two Mexican men who nearly died of thirst after they got lost in the Otay Mountains trying to cross the border. They were airlifted in a helicopter to a hospital after having no food or water for three days.
During the years leading up to 2011, the enforcement crackdown apparently pushed smuggling operations out to sea. In 2008, 230 people were caught at sea, a figure that climbed to 400 in 2009, 867 in 2010, 631 in 2011 and 359 so far in fiscal year 2012.
Week after week last year, the Coast Guard reportedly plucked dozens of people out of stalled panga fishing boats off the coast of San Clemente, or investigated abandoned ones on beaches in Dana Point or .
Lt. Sean Groark, a pilot and spokesman for the U.S. Coast Guard in San Diego, said maritime smugglers in recent months seem to have stopped trying to land on San Diego and Orange County shores.
“As we’ve gotten more efficient, we’ve kept pushing them farther north, to places like Malibu and Oxnard,” he said. “It’s driving up the cost of doing business for them.”
The Dangers of Maritime Smuggling
Pangas are about 25 feet long with outboard motors--dangerous in heavy seas, Conlin said. Counting only the marine smuggling deaths known to the feds in San Diego and Orange counties, two people have drowned trying to enter the country since the beginning of fiscal year 2012. One person drowned in 2011 and three in 2010.
"You're in an open boat with 15 to 25 people," Conlin said. "You're 40 to 50 miles out to sea and no one knows you're there."
Groark agreed the practice is perilous.
“It’s real easy to turn a law enforcement case into a search-and-rescue case,” he said.
Local and federal agencies, along with the Coast Guard, have procedures to coordinate their efforts. Representatives of each local and federal agency with boats that patrol the ocean work in the offices of the Maritime Unified Command in San Diego. They make sure agencies aren’t double-patrolling areas and don’t interfere with one another’s operations.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the command last year and has made it the model for other Homeland Security sectors in the country.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, some of the apprehension statistics were matched with the incorrect years in an earlier version of this article. Patch regrets the error.