Migrant families, mostly from Central American countries, wade through shallow waters after being delivered by smugglers on small inflatable rafts on U.S. soil in Roma, Texas, March 24, 2021.
FILE - Migrant families, mostly from Central American countries, wade through shallow waters after being delivered by smugglers on small inflatable rafts on U.S. soil in Roma, Texas, March 24, 2021.

Ronald Garcia, a Guatemalan migrant, did not trust the smugglers he paid to take him across the U.S.-Mexico border. The 39-year-old recounted his story  while staying at Casa Alitas, a migrant shelter in Tucson, Arizona.

"To come here, I had to pawn my property. They were charging me $20,000," Garcia said.

Crossing into the United States illegally is big business in Central and South America. For many people fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, getting across the U.S. border requires them to pay huge sums and risk their lives.

"They put me in a trunk where you couldn't breathe,  and well, thank God (I survived), because they say that all those who are put there, they die," Garcia said.

The U.S. Border Patrol  (USBP) says such operations are part of a multibillion-dollar human smuggling business.

"There are many dangers associated with illegal crossing. Obviously, over the years, what we have seen is that they either take advantage of people, leave them abandoned, steal from them," said USBP spokesperson Mario Escalante. "Unfortunately, they rape young girls, and there are times that even more horrible things happen."

A RAND Corporation analysis estimated smugglers took in between $200 million and $2.3 billion in 2017 transporting primarily Central American migrants. 

'They'll kill you'

"They ask for a quantity of money, and if they don't get it by the time and date they say, they'll kill you. And they kill you slowly; they will cut your hand, they cut the tongue, they'll take off an ear. That's their law," Garcia said.

The district of U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, stretches from San Antonio to the border town of McAllen in southern Texas.

Cuellar told VOA that smugglers traffic more than human beings.

"We know that these criminal groups, quite frankly, make money by passing drugs, they make money by passing people. … And they're going to keep on bringing people," he said.

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But it is not just criminal organizations making money from migrants.

A study by Dynamic Securities Analytics, a U.S.-based firm that tracks money laundering, showed that American financial institutions are also profiting from the illegal business as a result of fees collected for electronic transfers and other forms of payment made by migrants. 

While advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, President Joe Biden has also warned migrants against making illegal border crossings.

Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that, since October 2020, U.S. agents have arrested more than 5,000 people trying to cross the border who either have prior criminal records in the United States or are wanted by law enforcement.

U.S. officials say they are focusing on those who profit from illegally transporting migrants.

"(We're) working with intelligence authorities and information from other countries and ensuring that we really focus on criminals who are exploiting migrants for criminal and economic reasons," Roberta Jacobson, Biden's coordinator on the southern border who is leaving the position at the end of April, told VOA.