When a Border Patrol agent nabbed Sebastian Gamino-Solis with five illegal immigrants in his BMW earlier this month, he said he’d been trolling through Facebook and responded to an ad seeking drivers.
He’d needed to find some work, and he exchanged information. Then the call came in — he was to go to Wueste Park in Chula Vista, California, and collect the people. He’d get $2,300 per person.
He was stopped before he could complete the delivery.
Social media is playing an increasing role in the chaos at the border, with smuggling cartels using the platforms not only to urge would-be migrants to make the trip, but also to line up the guides and drivers who shepherd the people across the boundary, keep them in stash houses and drive them deeper into the U.S.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has called on major social media platforms to shut it down, saying the government is doing what it can, “but we need your help.”
“Kids are being lured with the promise of quick cash to aid the cartels in their smuggling operations, break traffic laws to evade police, endanger themselves, passengers and innocent occupants of other cars and ultimately jeopardize their future all because they have responded to an ad on social media,” he wrote in a letter to the chiefs of Twitter, Tik Tok, Snap and Meta, which runs Facebook.
The Republican governor acknowledged the companies have ways for users to flag illegal posts, but said “we need stronger action to prevent this activity that is drawing our young people into a life of crime.”
The Times reached out to all four companies Mr. Ducey contacted.
Only Meta responded, saying Facebook tries to stop the messages when it can.
“We prohibit content that offers or assists with human smuggling, invest in technology and people to proactively identify it, and remove it from our platform whenever we find it,” the company said in a statement.
Border law enforcement officials say smuggling cartels are particularly interested in recruiting juveniles to drive, figuring — usually with good reason — that federal authorities won’t go as hard on kids caught smuggling.
Border Patrol agents say kids as young as 13 are being recruited to drive.
Mr. Ducey said those sorts of stories make it imperative that the social media companies do more to proactively screen for smuggling ads.
“Just as your companies work to protect youth from obscenity and violence on your social media platforms, it’s time to protect them from criminal solicitation as well,” he wrote.
Taking down the ads will also dent the cartels themselves, he said.
The rate for drivers to carry illegal immigrants from the Arizona border to Phoenix can vary widely, from a couple hundred dollars per trip to $2,000 per person. In Texas, truck drivers can make tens of thousands of dollars for a single load.
Terrence Xavier Jones, arrested last week while carrying 110 illegal immigrants through a Border Patrol checkpoint near Laredo, Texas, told agents he was getting $60,000 for the trip to San Antonio, according to court documents.
Facebook, Snapchat and WhatsApp are the most common social media apps used, according to The Washington Times’ database of smuggling prosecutions. But TikTok, Telegram and Craigslist have also gotten some use.
The Times analyzed federal smuggling prosecutions out of Arizona last year where migrants were being held as witnesses and found that smartphones and social media apps were used to facilitate the smuggling act in nearly 70% of them.
Many of those cases involved using apps to guide migrants across the border and to a pickup location. There they’d meet up with a driver, often recruited over social media and being directed to the rendezvous spot by smuggling coordinators over apps.
Cartels, and those working for them, are raking in cash amid the current border surge.
To cross into Arizona, migrants pay the cartel a “mafia fee” of anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500 for the crossing alone, according to The Times’ database.
Migrants will then pay more to cover all the people who shepherd them along the way, including drivers who get them from the border deeper into the U.S. Payments of $8,000 to $10,000 are typical for Mexicans, while those from Central America can shell out $16,000 for the trip.
As easy as social media makes it for the cartels to smuggle, it also can help the feds make cases against some of their employees.
In Arizona, Isaiah Lorenzo Brinkley was slapped with a 75-month sentence last week for coordinating smuggling runs including one that ended with a driver evading Border Patrol agents, smashing the vehicle, killing one Colombian adult migrant and severely injuring their child.
Homeland Security Investigations agents pored through the dead driver’s Snapchat account and found he’d been recruited over Snapchat by Brinkley.
Brinkley told investigators he made up to $12,000 for each load of migrants he coordinated.
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