One driver barreled across Texas cotton fields in the dark, headlights off, and launched the SUV into the air before smashing against a drainage ditch embankment. Others veered into oncoming traffic or flipped while fleeing from police at incredible speeds only to be crushed in violent collisions.

The vehicles, typically stolen, were packed with immigrants smuggled from the Texas-Mexico border. At the wheel were young men and women -- often undocumented themselves -- desperate to reach their destinations so they could be paid in cash; as little as $100 per person.

As the number of migrant smuggling attempts continues to rise, reaching near-record levels this year in Texas, young drivers out to make a buck are increasingly taking enormous risks. Their reckless speeds and maneuvering have resulted in horrific crashes, some deadly, on roads across Texas and other border states. Immigrants from Central America and Mexico seeking a better life in the U.S. have been maimed and killed.

Most victims were trapped or ejected in fiery wrecks after wild chases over dangerous terrain. Such deaths are relatively rare compared with fatal treks across miles of searing desert, but this year has so far been particularly deadly.

Thirteen immigrants were killed in California in March, including the driver, when a Ford Expedition packed with more than two-dozen people pulled into the path of a semi-trailer. The driver was a 28-year-old unauthorized immigrant from Mexico who had lost his job during the pandemic.

“They’re not very experienced. They’re scared,” said Victor M. Manjarrez Jr., director of the Center for Law & Human Behavior at the University of Texas at El Paso, about the drivers. “That becomes a very bad mix and an opportunity for bad things to happen.”

The increased traffic and vehicle chases that are creating havoc on Texas roads are placing a heavy burden on small, rural police agencies near the border that are left to clean up and sort out the mess. Speeding vehicles crammed with migrants have slammed into businesses, homes, drainage ditches and other vehicles; they’ve weaved through traffic, veered off highways and plunged into heavy brush so occupants could bail out and scatter.

Multiple Texas sheriffs in rural border counties say that crashes and dangerous high-speed chases involving human smuggling vehicles have continued to rise this year and become a regular occurrence.

There’s no centralized data reporting system for the number of police chases and crashes involving smuggling vehicles in the U.S. border region. Each county keeps its own numbers, and the Texas Department of Public Safety did not immediately have statistics available.

Val Verde County sheriff Joe Frank Martinez, a Democrat, said two chases in March in his border county resulted in the deaths of nine Mexican nationals and injury to people in other vehicles. One of the smuggling vehicles tried to pass a semi-trailer and crashed head-on into another motorist, critically injuring two in that car, said Martinez.

Criminal organizations, he said, are recruiting drivers from Austin, Dallas and Houston. Others are known to come from the El Paso area.

Manjarrez said other drivers-for-hire come from areas of Latin America where the police are corrupt and not to be trusted.

“They’re told, ‘If you’re caught, it’ll go bad for you,’” he said.

They’ll be picked out of a group of migrants seeking safe passage across the border for a reduction of their smuggling fee, Manjarrez said. They’re told to follow a scout vehicle.

“It’s not bad for a few hours’ work,” Manjarrez said.

Just last month in Laredo, a white pickup truck sped away to avoid U.S. border control agents, tossing several passengers from the bed of the vehicle. Soon after, the pickup crashed head-on into an SUV while fleeing, authorities said. Three unidentified passengers died in the June 23 incident while eight others were severely injured, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a political science professor at George Mason University, said Mexican smuggling networks are operating with near impunity and becoming highly sophisticated. She said she’s surprised law enforcement isn’t working harder with Mexico to dismantle the growing smuggling networks rather than chasing vehicles around border counties in dangerous high-speed pursuits.

“They place as many people as they can into very small spaces,” she said. “We are seeing just a fraction of what’s happening.”

Arrests and detainments are being made -- of drivers and migrants.

And during a single weekend in mid-May, federal and local authorities in the Rio Grande Valley thwarted 13 different human smuggling attempts and rounded up nearly 100 people, officials said. In one of those incidents, border agents tried to pull over an SUV when it took off, eventually driving off road, hitting a fence and crashing into a utility pole. The driver disappeared and several passengers were taken into custody.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said that between March and early July, the agency made nearly 2,000 arrests and rounded up more than 48,100 migrants as part of a border smuggling crackdown. DPS also reported 455 vehicle pursuits during the same time.

The top two areas of the U.S. for immigrant smuggling offenses last year were the Southern District of Texas and the Western District of Texas, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Just kids



One courier who chose to pull over rather than flee was sentenced to three years and five months in prison on July 9 in Fort Worth after pleading guilty to illegally transporting immigrants.

Francisco Sanchez-Delgado, 22, was pulled over in Wise County in January while driving with 10 migrants crammed into an SUV, including two unaccompanied minors, prosecutors said. Sanchez-Delgado, like his human cargo, was not authorized to be in the U.S., according to a criminal complaint. Eight of his passengers were from Mexico and two from Guatemala.

Two of them lay inside the cargo area of the 2004 Nissan Armada, which had a license plate registered to someone in Arizona. Sanchez-Delgado, a Mexican citizen, told officers he picked up the 10 migrants from a rest area near Flagstaff, Ariz., and was taking them to Fort Worth for a fee of $100 each. He said he had expected to be paid in cash when he returned alone to Phoenix.

“Sanchez-Delgado drove them to Lubbock… where they all slept inside the vehicle while parked at a truck stop for several hours before continuing the trip to Fort Worth,” the complaint said.

Sanchez-Delgado told police he had completed 11 smuggling trips since March 2020, all originating from Arizona. He said he’d driven migrants to New Mexico and Colorado for the same fee.

Tall and stocky with a plump, boyish face, Sanchez-Delgado asked the judge for leniency in a whisper, barely audible in the large courtroom.

His attorney, Michael Lehmann, told U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor that his client works in construction and had no prior run-ins with law enforcement. Sanchez-Delgado came to the U.S. by foot as an infant with his family, he said, and was later abandoned by both parents, becoming a teenage orphan “left to fend for himself.”

After serving his sentence, he’ll be deported to “a country he has never known,” with a limited understanding of Spanish, said Lehmann, in a bid for a lesser sentence.

Another young driver from North Texas also faces multiple years in prison.

On March 16, police stopped a Ford pickup traveling eastbound on Interstate 20 at over 90 mph with 11 undocumented immigrants. Five were lying in the bed of the truck, a federal complaint said.

Noeli Renteria, 23, told Cisco police officers she had lost her job during the pandemic and learned she could make a quick $2,000 by picking up some people in a West Texas border county and driving them back to Dallas, the complaint said.

Renteria, of Dallas, pleaded guilty and faces up to five years in federal prison when she’s sentenced.

Her lawyer, Russell Lorfing, declined to comment on her case. But he said that Mexican criminal organizations intentionally target young, inexperienced drivers who “don’t know what they’re doing.”

“They’re kids. They have no clue of the ramifications or details of the smuggling,” said Lorfing, a former federal prosecutor. “They’re told it’s very safe, not a big deal; that they’re just helping these poor people start over.”

The drivers aren’t told how many people they’re picking up, he said. With multiple passengers stuffed into the vehicles, the chances of getting caught are higher, Lorfing said. And when they see the blue lights, drivers sometimes “panic and take off.”

When they’re caught, drivers can face serious prison time due to punishment enhancements for the number of undocumented migrants involved, Lorfing said.

High risk low reward



Smugglers, known as coyotes , have made matters worse by telling immigrants they can claim asylum once they reach U.S. soil and won’t be turned back. In fact, most immigrants who are caught are being quickly returned to Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Mexican drug cartels and other criminal organizations use these lucrative human smuggling operations to supplement their organized crime portfolio. Experts describe it as a multibillion-dollar industry.

Federal officials say they are increasingly seeing women, children and families being transported across the Mexican border and from there into U.S. cities by vehicle.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials say their immigrant apprehensions during the first nine months of the current fiscal year have reached 1.1 million. That is more than twice as many as the agency recorded for a 12-month period in two out of the last three years, according to agency statistics. The more recent encounters, however, involve a larger percentage of repeat border crossers.

Immigrants who are lucky enough to make it across the border unscathed face the prospect of being stuffed into vehicles for hours. A review of several recent smuggling cases -- along with federal sentencing data -- reveals a pattern.

Immigrants are guided around border stations by foot and taken to shabby motels and “stash houses” on the U.S. side. They’re loaded into smaller vehicles like pickup trucks and SUVs, which are becoming the transport of choice, over semi-trailers or other large trucks.

They travel in small caravans, close together, with scout vehicles leading the way -- on back roads and other lightly-used routes. If suspicious officers start following, the scout vehicles try to distract police by intentionally driving erratically.

If they decide to flee, drivers will look for a suitable place to ditch the vehicle and then instruct migrants to bail out and run.

In November, David Valadez, 27, crashed a Chevrolet Malibu while fleeing from police in Laredo, killing one of the immigrants inside, authorities said.

A trooper had tried to pull him over after running a check on the license plate and finding it had expired. Valadez sped away and drove around stopped vehicles at intersections, ran a red light, and veered onto a sidewalk before crashing into the fence of a local business, according to court records.

A man hidden in the vehicle’s trunk was dead from injuries sustained in the crash by the time police found him, records say. Another passenger was ejected and seriously hurt.

One of the migrants who survived the crash told police he crossed the Rio Grande and stayed with others in a nearby trailer home. A dozen migrants were supposed to be traveling with Valadez, but only three were there when he arrived. After about 20 minutes, Valadaz began driving “crazy” and ignored his passengers’ pleas to stop, the complaint said.

Valadaz said he was paid $360 to take the immigrants to an area near the Guadalupe Flea Market in Laredo. He said he’d completed about seven trips over the previous month. He pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. His lawyer could not be reached.

Those who decide to flee and end up killing passengers can face life in prison or the death penalty.

Sebastian Tovar, 24, of Austin, drove a pickup truck in March at speeds of over 100 miles per hour during a lengthy police pursuit near Del Rio before crashing head-on into another vehicle and killing eight undocumented immigrants, authorities say.

He is awaiting trial. His attorney could not be reached.

Airborne



Jorge Luis Monsivais Jr., of Eagle Pass, still awaits sentencing for a June 2018 crash that killed five unauthorized immigrants, records show. He fled from police in an SUV carrying 13 migrants at speeds of over 100 mph before the vehicle rolled over. His sentencing was delayed in part by an attempt to take his own life while in custody, according to court records.

Monsivais was driving a 2007 Suburban with dark tinted windows and a temporary license plate. His was one of three SUVs traveling in a convoy near the border. They chose a road mostly used by oilfield workers and farmers that is a “notorious” smuggling route because it bypasses two Border Patrol checkpoints, court records show.

When suspicious border agents appeared, the scout vehicle tried to create a diversion by swerving and driving erratically. The SUVs with migrants -- driven by Monsivais and a juvenile -- took off at high speed, court records say.

Monsivais, who was 20 at the time, flipped his SUV and crashed about 100 miles southwest of San Antonio. One of the dead had been planning to donate a kidney to his ailing brother in Seattle, according to court records.

Monsivais pleaded guilty in May and faces up to life in prison when he’s sentenced.

Ivan Dario Puga-Moreno, 31, also pleaded guilty -- after he was looking at a possible death sentence, court records show.

He is serving a decade behind bars for causing a fatal crash in June 2019 while running from police. Six migrants were killed and another 10 were seriously injured in the wreck. The Mexican citizen, who previously had been deported from the U.S., was sentenced in July 2020 in Corpus Christi.

A federal complaint says the 18 migrants, from Mexico and Central America, were guided across a border checkpoint in the brush and picked up in a Chevrolet Suburban on a roadside with Puga-Moreno at the wheel. Four sat in the vehicle’s second row, and the third row was folded down so 14 immigrants could huddle together in the cargo area.

Puga-Moreno was driving to Houston when an officer tried to pull him over shortly before midnight in Robstown, outside of Corpus Christi. He drove off the road and cut the headlights, allowing him to lose the officer. But despite pleas from his passengers to stop, Puga-Moreno continued barreling across farmland and dirt roads in the darkness.

The SUV suddenly “went airborne” and crashed headfirst into a drainage ditch embankment. Puga-Moreno scrambled out of the wreckage and hobbled away, ignoring cries for help from his trapped and severely-injured passengers, authorities said.

In a letter to the judge, Puga-Moreno said he was forced to take the job to pay off a debt his kidnapped brother owed to the Gulf Cartel in Mexico.

“I had no choice. I couldn’t go to the police,” he wrote. “They knew everything about me and my family. I was backed into a corner.”

Manjarrez said the risk is low for the leaders of smuggling operations in Mexico; and that if something goes terribly wrong like a deadly crash, drivers are “left holding the bag.”

“It’s kind of a tragedy,” Manjarrez said. “They don’t know the risk they’re putting themselves into.”