How Joe Biden’s migrant surge is making the cartels rich

Migrants cross the border between Guatemala and Mexico
Migrants cross the border between Guatemala and Mexico - James Breeden/Breeden Media LLC

“Minneapolis, no problem,” says “Diego”, as he downs pre-lunch beers a short drive from Mexico’s lawless border with Guatemala. “I’ll take you to wherever in the United States you pay for.”

A coyote, or smuggler of illegal migrants, for the best part of a decade, Diego – not his real name – has a menu of different pricing options to offer his clients, mainly Central Americans, Ecuadorians and Colombians, although he has smuggled numerous nationalities from Chinese citizens to Haitians.

The biggest variable is whether they go for the entrega or handover, or the brinco or jump. The latter means dumping them at the US border for them to make their own way across; the former involves getting them into the United States, either by tunnel or over a border wall, with clients then transported to their final destination, by road, rail or air.

“I don’t work with people in the street. It’s all by word of mouth and I take care of my clients,” says Diego as he explains his criminal business.

“Yes, it’s illegal but I’m a facilitator of opportunities. I don’t need to know about my clients. It’s nothing personal and I don’t discriminate. I just need them to pay on time.”

In recent months, the country’s two most powerful crime groups have brought the extreme violence that has long plagued northern Mexico here to Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest and southernmost state, as they vie to add extorting illegal migrants to their portfolio of revenue streams.

Long a sleepy backwater, it is now the scene of a blood-spattered turf war between the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels. In just one typical incident three weeks ago, 11 people were gunned down in the township of Chicomuselo.

Diego coordinates with partners in Guatemala to help migrants cross the river that divides the two countries. His gang then transports them from safehouse to safehouse across Mexico, either by car or commercial flights.

Typically, the cost of Diego’s services is upwards of $10,000. That sounds a lot but his clients have often sold everything they own, including homes and businesses, before making what they hope will be the one-way trip to the US.

The price also includes a “tax” that Diego has to pay the Jalisco New Generation.

In his late 40s, Diego describes himself as a “retailer,” smuggling half-a-dozen people a month, with a profit margin of around $600 per client. There are also “wholesalers”, larger outfits who can handle hundreds of migrants per month.

He runs the stretch from Guatemala to Tapachula, the nearest city, which has an airport with direct flights to border cities Tijuana and Mexicali, where his clients are then received by his “business partners”.

Diego makes this criminal enterprise sound mundane, but his job places him in close proximity to ruthless gangsters who routinely perpetrate acts of heinous violence. At a barbecue at the ranch of a local cartel leader earlier this year, he says, the host suddenly turned on one of his own men, accusing him of stealing from him.

In front of shocked guests, including Diego, the man had his employee held down while he hacked off his hand with a machete. The traumatised man was then bundled away – not, apparently, to the hospital.

Diego also admits to his own mistreatment of his clients. On one occasion, he sexually abused three Cuban women, he says, after they had been drinking while holed up in Tapachula awaiting their transport north.

On another occasion, he adds, he slapped an Ecuadorian woman, who attempted – despite his warnings – to leave the safehouse. That sparked a confrontation with the woman’s husband that ended with one of Diego’s gang shooting the man in the shoulder.

“I’ve felt miserable. But the truth is that other coyotes would’ve done worse,” he says. “I don’t put people in trailers. I’m not a bad person.”

Migrants from Guatemala cross the river into Mexico
Migrants from Guatemala cross the river into Mexico, where smugglers charge more than $10,000 to transport some of them to the US - James Breeden/Breeden Media LLC

Diego’s ability to operate in Mexico with apparent impunity highlights the challenges faced by the Biden administration – and potentially a second Trump administration – in stemming the flow of illegal migrants into the United States, possibly the hottest current flashpoint in US politics.

It also speaks to the rampant corruption in Mexico and lack of political will from Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the outgoing president, to tackle the migrant crisis.

President Joe Biden has pressed his Mexican counterpart on the issue. Concessions from Mr López Obrador this year include limiting the number of migrants to legally cross into the United States to 4,000 per day and the introduction of visa requirements for Brazilians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians and Venezuelans.

In the United States, there is currently a backlog of 3.5 million asylum cases waiting to be heard as courts have become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of claims.

The Biden administration has even amnestied 350,000 asylum seekers since 2022 to ease the workload. Those claimants are now free to stay in the US but not work or claim benefits.

On Tuesday, the White House announced a new executive order cracking down on the problem ahead of November’s US election. Under that order, the administration will return to Mexico any migrants it detains if the number of illegal crossings rises above 2,500 per day.

That means automatically denying them asylum, a controversial move expected to anger Leftwing Democrats and attract legal challenges from human rights campaigners.

The executive order echoes a bipartisan bill, negotiated by Democratic and Republican senators, that would have provided billions of dollars in funding and introduced some of the toughest border restrictions in decades.

The deal was torpedoed in February after Mr Trump warned that helping US president Biden solve the emotive issue before the election represented a Republican “death wish”.

Yet Mexico’s reluctance to collaborate is glaring, both when it comes to controlling its own borders and protecting vulnerable migrants traversing its national territory from serious human rights abuses.

That official disinterest is unavoidable in the small town of Suchiate, separated from Guatemala by a narrow, slow-flowing muddy river.

The only real obstacle for migrants navigating the waterway on planks strapped atop inner tubes comes on the Guatemalan side, from police charging bribes of around 10 Quetazls (£1) to let through each of the hundreds of migrants who arrive every day.

On the Mexican side, there are no border controls, police or any other sign of officialdom, just a grotty tent city on the rubbish-strewn banks, where the migrants, mostly destitute Venezuelans for whom Diego’s services are utterly out of financial reach, wait to venture north.

With mixed emotions, one tall, chubby migrant jumps off a raft to join them. He raises his fist in triumph at having entered Mexico. Yet he also talks of the traumatic moment just minutes earlier when, he says, a Guatemalan officer held a knife to his stomach as they haggled over the bribe to let him across.

The sense of lawlessness is everywhere in Chiapas. In January, a candidate for mayor of Suchiate was gunned down. In The Telegraph’s time in Tapachula, one man died in a burst of machine gun fire in the town centre and the following day two cars engaged in a ferocious shootout just a few blocks away.

Groups of migrants on foot dot the road from Suchiate to Tapachula. At one point, two local men eyeball passersby. A local contact says they are cartel lookouts outside a ranch where vulnerable foreigners are held hostage.

In an overflowing migrant refuge in Tapachula, one of them, “Teresa”, not her real name, reveals how her young family had been in Mexico just three hours when they were taken hostage by armed cartel thugs.

As Teresa, her husband and four children trudged in late May along the 35-mile highway to Tapachula, her two youngest, girls aged five and seven, wilted in the crushing heat.

It was then that the family of undocumented Honduran migrants heading for the United States accepted a ride from an elderly man in a minivan.

After a few minutes, the driver suddenly turned onto a dirt path. They swiftly arrived at a ranch, where the family was ordered by men holding semi-automatics into a squalid cage, apparently inside a barn, already holding dozens of other migrants.

“He seemed nice but what he did, he has no soul,” says Teresa, 35, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, of the driver.

“It felt like we’d fallen off the map. You can’t describe the sinking feeling when you realize you’ve been kidnapped.”

US president Joe Biden
US president Joe Biden, pictured in the White House on Tuesday, announces the executive order on enforcement at the border - Leah Mills/Reuters

For the next 30 hours, as fighting cocks strutted around the barn and armed men watched over them, the family waited for relatives to deposit $600 – $100 for each parent and child – in a Mexican bank account.

At one point, Teresa’s youngest daughter, who had a gash on her knee, began to cry, prompting one of the brooding guards to bark an expletive-laden order to shut the terrified girl up.

“I knew this could happen but I wasn’t expecting it as soon as we arrived in Mexico,” says Teresa, who decided with her husband to leave behind their life in San Pedro Sula, statistically one of the world’s most homicidal cities, after the local mara gangs tried to forcibly recruit her 15-year-old son.

Tracking down the gang that extorted the family could hardly be easier. Teresa showed The Telegraph a screenshot of the transfer to pay off her family’s ransom. Not just does it reveal the bank account number, it also gives the account holder’s name.

With Mexican authorities apparently disinterested, and rampant violent crime and endemic poverty in many countries of origin, addressing illegal migration may require solutions that go far beyond border security.

Diego, for his part, says he is unconcerned by the possibility that Trump returns to the Oval Office and implements draconian measures to stop undocumented migration.

“You adapt. If it gets harder to cross the border, you just put your prices up,” says Diego. “What worries me much more is the local authorities. But they’re all so corrupt. It’s not a problem.”