TIJUANA, Mexico -- A few weeks ago, Juan and 16 other illegal immigrants were crammed on top of each other in a van that had just crossed the U.S.-Mexican border and was heading toward Los Angeles.
The driver and his companion had promised the immigrants safe passage into the United States. The cost for the journey was $300 per person.
Following orders, Juan lay still in the van and tried to take his mind off the danger of the journey by thinking about his wife, who was waiting for him in Los Angeles. But those thoughts were interrupted by the faint sound of police sirens.
The driver of the van mumbled something to his companion and swerved the vehicle off the highway, Juan says.
"He kept speeding up and speeding up," says Juan, a 34-year-old man from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. "Then the two of them jumped out. I looked out the front window. All I could see was stars. Then I felt the van tumble again, again and again."
The van rushed over an embankment.
"We trusted these people," he says. "And they would have killed us just to save themselves."
Stories like these have made alien smugglers -- called "coyotes" or "polleros," roughly translated as "chicken herders" -- a chief target of U.S. immigration enforcement officials.
In the past few weeks, the experiences of aliens being smuggled into the United States have been widely publicized. They have worked as indentured servants to repay smugglers for bringing them into the United States. They have been kept by the dozens in cramped garages. Some tell of being raped or tortured by smugglers.
"Alien smugglers are absolutely the lowest form of life I have ever encountered," says Gustavo de la Vina, chief patrol agent for the San Diego sector of the U.S. Border Patrol. "They are the worst violators of human rights. They treat people like cargo that can be discarded or destroyed."
But some officials in Mexico see the smugglers as doing more good than harm. Javier Valenzuela, chief of a team of plainclothes officers who patrol the Tijuana side of the border, says that except for occasional rogues, most smugglers have relatively noble ambitions: to protect aliens from assaults by petty thieves and police officials; to help their compatriots achieve their dreams of good jobs and decent housing; to reunite Mexicans with relatives in the United States.
"The 'pollero' has been turned into some type of monster to justify the work of the [U.S.] Border Patrol, so that if they shoot one of these people or beat him, they appear to be doing a public service," Mr. Valenzuela says. "In reality, it is more often the case that the smugglers protect the immigrants from the Border Patrol.
Like travel agency
"It's like a travel agency that you pay to get you safely from one place to another."
The border between the United States and Mexico stretches about 2,000 miles. Alien smuggling has become most prominent in the San Diego-Tijuana area, recognized as one of the most popular gateways into the United States for immigrants from all over the world.
Policing the border is a practically overwhelming task. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service says that about 1.2 million illegal immigrants are arrested and deported each year. Almost all of those apprehensions, agency officials said, are made along the U.S.-Mexican border, and about half are in the San Diego-Tijuana area.
INS officials estimate that about 500,000 illegal immigrants successfully enter the United States each year.
9 Although the number of U.S. Border Patrol officers along the border has been increasing every year, there are still too few agents to effectively stop the influx. Mr. de la Vina says that at any one time, he has only 100 agents patrolling the 66-mile border area for which he is responsible. Since October, his officers have made about 388,000 arrests.
The inlets off the coast of the Mexican state of Baja California are also secluded and poorly patrolled, allowing ships carrying immigrants to come ashore undetected.
In April, a group of 300 Chinese immigrants arrived just south of Tijuana as stowaways on a Taiwanese ship. Police found them cramped in two small sheds in Tijuana, where they were being held while smugglers prepared their passage into the United States.
The arrests of Chinese immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border have increased dramatically from 52 in 1992 to 500 so far this year.
"Alien smuggling has become big business," says Mr. de la Vina.
The methods vary in sophistication.
"What you find is everything from mom and pop operations where people cross on inner tubes along the Rio Grande, to operations that bring in aliens on large international vessels," said Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington. "Sometimes the smugglers get false documents and send people through our international airports.
"There are huge profits being made," he said.
Mexicans interviewed along "El Bordo," a flat knoll overlooking the river that separates Mexico from the United States, said smugglers charged them $300 to help them cross. Illegal immigrants from Central America, waiting for nightfall so they could dart across the concrete channel, said they had met smugglers who offered to take them as far as Los Angeles for between $5,000 and $7,000.
Chinese aliens like the ones caught after their vessel went aground off the coast of New York are said to pay as much as $30,000 for transport into the United States, often being forced to work off their debts as indentured servants or worse.
Juan Jesus Marufo, an official who investigates immigration issues at the Tijuana Legal Office for Human Rights and Citizen Protection, says the same happens to Latin American aliens. "They are sold like cattle," he says. "It's a miserable practice."
Oscar Escalado, director of a home for young runaways who come to Tijuana to cross the border and find jobs in the United States, sees many victims of smugglers' abuse.
He pulled out the written testimony of one newlywed couple who had eloped from the eastern state of Veracruz. The couple met up with smugglers in Tijuana who promised them safe passage to Los Angeles, and jobs and housing once they arrived.
'Like a dream'
"The smugglers told them they didn't have to pay a thing until they started working," Mr. Escalado said. "It was like a dream."
But when the couple arrived in San Diego, they were met by another group of smugglers and were held hostage in a small storage shed. The couple were told that they could not leave until work was found for them, and then they would not be paid until they had worked long enough to repay the smugglers.
"One of the smugglers liked the young woman," Mr. Escalado said. "He raped her and told her that if she told anyone, he would kill her and her husband."
But apparently worried that the couple might make trouble, "the smugglers let them go the next day. They came back to Tijuana, and they plan to stay here," he said.
Jose Nelson Lopez, a 13-year-old resident of Mr. Escalado's home for runaways, traveled alone from Honduras to reach the United States. Along the way, he had become very trusting because he always found people who were willing to give him a ride from one town to another. And at night, said the short, pudgy boy, women would take him into their homes and feed him as they fed their own children.
So when he reached the bus station in Tijuana, he didn't hesitate to accept an offer from a man who promised to take him safely "to the other side."
"I asked him to give me a ride," said Jose. "He told me it would cost a lot of money. I told him I had no money, but he said I could work for it."
Picked up by police
For weeks, Jose said he worked as a huckster for a group of smugglers. He would roam through the Tijuana bus terminal and offer people the smugglers' services and then take them to the secret house near the border. There, he says, he would wait for nightfall and then help the group sneak into the United States. After several trips back and forth, he was allowed to go on to Los Angeles.
Several days later, as he was checking various shops and restaurants looking for work, he was picked up by police and deported.
"I'm going to go back once I am 18," Jose said. "But next time I'll go on my own. I'm an expert now."
Two weeks ago, President Bill Clinton announced that his administration is working on new legislation aimed at securing -- the buffer between the United States and Mexico, and at breaking up the smuggling networks. The announcement was made after the tramp steamer carrying 300 illegal Chinese immigrants ran aground off New York.
The new policies would toughen penalties for smuggling to as much as 20 years in prison. Currently punishment is lenient, even in the worst cases. INS officials predicted that the crew of the ship that ran aground would receive prison terms of no more than 18 months.
Not a solution
The U.S. government is also considering policies that would allow the application of racketeering laws to smuggling operations, permit greater seizures of smugglers' assets and
speed up the admission or deportation of immigrants seeking to enter the country.
"These measures are only going to soothe the U.S. public's concern over illegal immigrants," said Jorge Santibanez, an international migration expert at the College of the North Border in Tijuana. "If you really examine the problems, you will see that law enforcement is not really going to solve them."
Strengthening Mexico's economy is not the entire solution, either, Mr. Santibanez said. According to a recent study in which he and other researchers interviewed thousands of illegal immigrants who had been deported from the United States, 70 percent had jobs when they abandoned Mexico.
"Immigration has more than an economic face," he said. "It has a historic face and a cultural face. Many people simply want to join their families in the United States. It's almost part of the Mexican tradition to want to emigrate to the United States."
Certainly no unilateral efforts will stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico into the United States, he says, citing the metal fence that the United States erected last year in hopes of making it more difficult for illegal immigrants to cross the border.
In the year since the fence was completed, gaping holes have been punched along its base; aliens can crawl beneath it, and junk refrigerators have been propped up alongside it so they can climb over.
"These new laws may make the smuggler's job more expensive, and he will have to come up with methods that are less comfortable for the immigrants or that expose them to greater risks," says Mr. Valenzuela. "But they will not stop the smugglers."