Published: Sept. 28, 2012 Updated: Sept. 30, 2012 9:49 a.m.

It had been a month, and the daily cost of a motel and meals threatened to empty Ariel Del Valle's wallet.

He milled around Tijuana, spending most days isolated in a run-down room, watching television and waiting for the phone call that would tell him it was safe to try to cross illegally into California.

But when the phone finally rang, the man on the line told him the land route to America swarmed with law-enforcement agents. Del Valle would have to wait longer. Then the smuggler suggested something different, touting it as faster and safer than a land journey.

"You'll be going in as a tourist," the man assured him.

By sea.

Passage would cost Del Valle $8,500 – thousands more than a recent failed trek across the desert between San Diego and El Centro. On that trip, some members of Del Valle's group had grown too tired to walk any longer and stayed behind. Their faces haunted him.

Desperate to return to his family in Huntington Beach, Del Valle accepted the man's offer. That evening, he jumped into a tiny fishing boat bound for California.

The 30-year-old from Mexico's heartland became part of the growing smuggling phenomenon fueled in part by U.S. border policy. As federal officials raised fortress-like fences and deployed more border agents to the U.S.-Mexico land border, they successfully pinched off smuggling routes. At the same time, they inadvertently pushed illegal immigration to the ocean.

The losers in this game are those who dare to cross by sea, border authorities said. They pay more and take higher risks than ever before. Those who benefit are the smugglers who get the money – the new smuggling organizations and the drug cartel leaders they pay for safe passage.

Sea smuggling operations are generally a small, tight maritime community of people with seafaring skills and knowledge of the Baja waters, said an undercover local agent assigned to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement maritime task force. The agent asked not to be identified because he investigates maritime smuggling cases, often going undercover.

Most smugglers have aligned themselves with drug cartel leaders. The operations are headed by people who communicate with an entire network of carefully selected participants – including taxi drivers in Tijuana trained to spot and recruit newcomers at bus terminals, boat operators in Baja and their counterparts in Orange County who keep an eye on local beaches, and the people who host drop houses in heavily immigrant neighborhoods such as Anaheim.


Taxi drivers working around Tijuana's bus and airport terminals hunt for out-of-towners, U.S. border officials said.

"You want a ride north?" taxi drivers ask their prospects.

"Anyone looking for a ride north?"

Cab drivers are the frontline in sea smuggling. They know the ins and outs of the city and its law enforcement, and their role is essential in tipping off smugglers when an area is hot with law enforcement. They also can quickly spot those looking to cross the border illegally, recruiting them for the smugglers.

Those who oblige are taken to a holding house in Tijuana.

Some organizations are diligent about making sure they will get paid after the crossing. For instance, in 2010, the Ivan and Tony organization out of Tijuana contacted the fiancé of Marbilia Gabriel Mejia in Santa Ana to make sure he'd be able to pay them a $5,000 smuggling fee when she arrived in Orange County, according to the local agent who works with ICE and investigated her case.

"Are you going to pay for her?" a man on the phone asked Leonel Tomas Vasquez, Mejia's fiancé, before she left from Popotla beach, just south of Tijuana.

Mejia's trip north would end with the young mother dead on a Torrey Pines State Beach.

This particular organization was known for keeping human cargo hostage, the agent said. Mejia told her fiancé that the people running the house fed her well and that the accommodations were fine, but she wasn't allowed to go anywhere on her own.


Smugglers have a multitude of beaches to launch from along Baja California – about an hour's drive from Tijuana.

The 50-mile coastline stretches from Ensenada to Rosarito. Fishermen there would rather fish and entertain tourists for money than become pawns of smuggling organizations. However, the lure of making a year's worth of money in one night can be overpowering.

Two years ago, it was common to see smugglers in the small fishing town of Popotla in the Rosarito area. They found it easy to blend in with the many fishermen who operate out of the cove, fisherman Jose Martin said earlier this summer as he gutted a stingray on a makeshift stand on the beach.

The 44-year-old, who has lived in the village for about four years, said boats frequently departed with people heading to the United States.

"It was a carnival," he said.

Non-locals posing as fishermen would stay in the village for about a week, launch with a "panga" full of people and return with an empty boat, said Juan Jesus Velázquez Pérez, better known as "Capitan Juan." He insisted that it was people from the outside – not locals – who ferried drugs and people from his fishing village to the United States.

About four years ago, Velázquez Pérez made good money with his tourism business, taking out at least three boats daily for sports fishing, scuba diving or snorkeling. When the drug war exploded and the global economy took a dive, Velázquez Pérez said he was lucky to get one boat out a day. Some months, he went a whole week without work.

Tourism is on the rise again, according to Martin and Velázquez Pérez. They said Mexican military officials clamped down on the illicit activity at the beach and still patrol on a daily basis to keep criminals away.

Still, it's been difficult for the fishing village to beat its bad reputation. Tourists are trickling back, but Americans who once frequented the area were scared away, hurting the residents who rely on tourism.

Some fishermen turned to operating smuggling boats. The temptation to make a year's worth of salary – as much as $2,500 in one trip – became too great for some men struggling to feed a family, said the agent who worked Gabriel Mejia's sea smuggling case.


Typically, every smuggling boat is manned by four or five people who are part of a criminal organization.

They load the women first and then the men into a small and skeletal-looking fishing vessel usually made of fiberglass, which is designed to hold about eight people. The smugglers squeeze in as many as 20.

There's an operator and a lookout, who navigates and keeps track of progress with a GPS device that will guide them to their target. In addition, there is a person who helps with refueling out at sea and a foot guide outfitted with a cellphone and radio, immigration officials said.

Foot guides have connections on both ends of the border, and they know the exact pickup location on beaches in California.

Many of these foot guides have been in the business for some time, their jobs evolving to keep pace with new smuggling routes. They started as land foot guides, taking border crossers over mountain ranges or deserts. When the fences went up, they became fence cutters. Now, the foot guides help push boats out to sea and bring them to California waters.

The smuggling networks reach far into California, extending from its beaches to neighborhoods minutes away from Disneyland.

Before a panga is scheduled to arrive, lookouts station themselves at a targeted pickup location at a beach, usually near major highways. They watch for the incoming boat and survey the area for law-enforcement officials. If they see any, they call the foot guide on the smuggler's boat, telling them to change course.

Nearby, a driver sits in a van, waiting for the OK from the boat's foot guide before loading the van and driving to the drop house, which is usually in the same area. Other times, the lookout is also the driver.

Only the driver knows the drop house location.

At the house, border crossers are kept until a family member arrives with cash to secure their release or a prearranged dropoff location.

Usually, family members pitch in for the smuggling fee, and money is exchanged only after a successful trip across the border, immigration officials said.


As in any business, there are risks and rewards.

In the smuggling business, humans are described as "loads."

Smugglers are willing to push through even in the most treacherous of conditions and perhaps lose a few loads because they know there will always be another one coming right behind, the agent said.

For the ones that do get through, the rewards are huge. A boat carrying 20 people at a fee of $7,000 to $10,000 apiece means the smuggling network stands to make up to $200,000.

For now, Mexican drug cartels don't directly run human smuggling by sea, according to U.S. officials. Sea smugglers are required to pay a fee before moving their cargo over territory – better known as plazas – controlled by whatever cartel may be in power that day, the agent said. Smuggling organizations may have to pay $10,000 per boat.

Boat operators who are successful in smuggling people are given the opportunity to move more profitable cargo – marijuana, border officials said.

Eventually, U.S. officials and Mexican officials dismantled the Ivan and Tony organization, said the agent who helped with the investigation.

"For money, they are willing to dispose of a person's life," the agent said of the smugglers. "They are willing to push on conditions that are other than normal. ... You can see how callous they are because of that fact that there are more people waiting in line. ... If the panga doesn't make it, it's OK."

He said there are many more to take its place.


Ariel Del Valle

With the help of a smuggler, Del Valle tried one last time to make it to his family in Orange County. About a year ago, he successfully reached San Diego after walking in line with others from Tijuana, passing himself off as someone with legal status.

He moved last spring to Las Vegas, where he worked illegally, managing a chain of newly opened restaurants. Del Valle made enough money to provide for his family in Huntington Beach.

He has since returned to Orange County but wouldn't say where.

Marbilia Gabriel Mejia

Marbilia Gabriel Mejia's fiancé, Leonel Tomas Vasquez, stayed behind in Santa Ana after her death, struggling to balance fatherhood and work. In June, no longer able to juggle both, he returned with his 5-year-old daughter, Celina, to Cumil in Guatemala. Mejia's grandparents Demesia Gabriel and Lauro Mejìa Gonzalez still live in Cumil. They said their granddaughter told them not to worry. "Now, I don't want you two to cry because I'm going to send you some money," Mejia told them. The couple live in an impoverished community of descendants of Mayan Mam, where some still speak the indigenous language by the same name. They grow corn and coffee to survive. The couple visit Mejia's cement, blue-washed tomb about once a month. It looks west, toward the route to Mexico, and then California.
Read Marbilia's original story here.

Rosa Martinez Hernandez

On July 27, Rosa Martinez Hernandez arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, where she was reunited with her cousin and new guardian Maria Sanchez Hernandez of Buena Park. Sanchez Hernandez waited for Hernandez at the bottom of an escalator. She didn't recognize the teen at first glance. Hernandez had grown taller. The two embraced. "It was all worth it," Hernandez's cousin told the 16-year-old in their native Zapotec language. Federal officials are allowing Hernandez to stay with her cousin while she makes her case to stay in the United States before an immigration judge. Hernandez now attends a local school and will likely help take care of her cousin's two small children.
Read Rosa's original story here.

Lucio Hernandez

Lucio Hernandez left his fast-food job in Irvine and recently took a maintenance job nearby. It pays a bit more than the $10 an hour he made as a kitchen cook, and he gets more hours.

Still, it's barely enough for him to send money back home to his mother and three siblings after payments for rent, his car and debt that lingers from the sea-smuggling journey he took more than a year ago. He still owes his family about half of the $6,000 he originally borrowed for the illegal sea crossing.
Read Lucio's original story here.

Immigration Part 3: How sea smuggling works | valle, tijuana - News - The Orange County Register