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Pay $40k and risk brutal murder: Getting into US illegally


By Stuart Ramsay, chief correspondent, and Tom Acres, news reporter

Despite Donald Trump frequently shining the spotlight on those crossing the southern border, demanding Mexico takes action, moving people into the US remains a profitable business.

Thousands of migrants and refugees desperate to leave their homes in search of a better life are choosing to put their lives in the hands of criminal smugglers – and are willing to pay up to $40,000.

Sky News has been granted exclusive access to one such operation, which sees cartels use their expertise in transporting illegal drugs across the border to achieve the same results with people.

Cartels levy their expertise in drug smuggling to transport people
Image:
Cartels levy their expertise in drug smuggling to transport people

Traditionally, those seeking to cross the US-Mexico border are from South and Central America, but more and more are coming from as far afield as Pakistan, Afghanistan and even some African nations.

Hani Singh – a 19-year-old from Punjab, India – has sought passage to the US via an epic but dangerous voyage that has taken in a dozen countries.

Hani was promised 'safe passage' to the US
Image:
Hani, from Punjab in India, was promised ‘safe passage’ to the US

He has been guided the entire way by hired agents working within a lucrative syndicate promising to provide paying customers with passage to the border.

Sky News caught up with him in the Mexican city of Tapachula, where fellow migrants from the Indian subcontinent were there to welcome him.

Parts of the border do not provide much of a barrier to entry
Image:
Parts of the border do not provide much of a barrier to entry

His harsh campaign took in precarious mountain terrain and deadly jungles, and claimed the lives of many. Those who did survive were lucky to avoid rape or robbery by the time their expedition was over.

During a 17-day hike through the Panamanian jungle – which came after travelling through India, Ethiopia, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia – he came to witness terrible things he will likely not soon forget.

Tapachula, near the border between Mexico and Guatemala
Image:
Tapachula, near the border between Mexico and Guatemala

“Dead bodies lying everywhere, some teenagers, some old men,” he recalls of the ordeal.

More brutality followed in Nicaragua, where he witnessed women being raped and people being robbed of their vital possessions by gang members.

Men, women and children all attempt to make the trip
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Men, women and children all attempt to make the trip from Guatemala into Mexico

“You can’t say no to them,” he says.

“If you say no to them, they kill you. Just keep moving – slowly, slowly, slowly.”

Fellow Indians greet one another after their long journeys to North America
Image:
Fellow Indians greet one another after their long journeys to North America

Hani says he was passed through 60 couriers by the time he reached Tapachula and spent thousands of dollars.

All of the smugglers – known as “coyotes” – are said to be controlled by an agent based somewhere in Europe.

Each carries with them a “password”, which they hand over to the next courier to lead the travelling party onto their next transition point – like a relay race with lives at stake.

The deal is that should anything happen on their way, his family would be paid compensation.

Hani claims to know of a man who drowned at sea during a similar journey, and his family were apparently paid – but you would be forgiven for considering him naive.

The teenager admits he has taken an enormous risk by leaving his home in hope of a better life – but is determined to prove that he made the right decision.

“I had to choose to escape the country or to stay,” he explains.

“I am the only son of my family. I can stand one month in prison. But what will my family do without me if I get killed?

“After I get legal papers in the US, I want my family to come.”

The journey requires travel by land, air and water
Image:
The journey requires travel by land, air and water

But getting those papers and successfully claiming political asylum does not promise to be a simple task.

According to the latest Global Study on Smuggling of Migrants published by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, thousands of south and southwest Asian citizens are being deemed “inadmissible” at US entry points.

There were 8,837 given that classification in 2009, up to 10,796 in 2015.

That same year, some 4,700 south and southwest Asians were apprehended and detained for suspected immigration violations by US border and immigration officials.

But those figures are not enough to deter people like Simranjeet Singh – another 19-year-old from India – who also made it to Tapachula in hope of getting into the US.

“It’s been very, very dangerous – I’m still in shock,” he says of his journey, which began in the Indian capital of Delhi.

Simranjeet came all the way from Delhi, India
Image:
Simranjeet came all the way from Delhi, India

From there he reached Addis Ababa in Ethiopia by plane, then flew on to Lima in Peru and then to Sao Paolo in Brazil.

After that he made his way to Panama, where he bore witness to brutal incidents of violence and rape during a 10-day jungle trek that saw those unable to keep up left to die.

Costa Rica was the next stop, followed by Nicaragua, then Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, before he finally arrived in Tapachula – a city in the southwest state of Chiapas.

The entire journey – which included travel by bus, boat, car and bike – took 40 to 50 days and cost him between $35,000 and $40,000, as well as many of his belongings.

Sky's Stuart Ramsey travelled with the migrants on the back of a pickup truck
Image:
Sky’s Stuart Ramsey travelled with migrants on the back of a pickup truck

On his way to Colombia from the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil, Simranjeet had his suit, bag and money taken by police, who told him if he did not pay up he would be sent back from where he had come from.

Gangs have been similarly ruthless, threatening him with murder if he did not hand over his precious cash, as well as taking his luggage from him and even his passport.

By the time he reached Mexico, he had no passport and was travelling without any papers.

And yet he can consider himself one of the lucky ones.

The river crossing between Guatemala and Mexico
Image:
The river crossing between Guatemala and Mexico

Throughout his journey he has come across “lots of dead bodies” – including those of children, attempting to make it through the Panamanian jungle with their families.

Women also made up some of the 20 or so people in his travelling group, and Simranjeet said “every girl” was assaulted and raped by gangs during the Nicaraguan leg of the journey.

So why such desperation to reach the US? Could the trials and tribulations really be worth it?

“We want a safe place – in India my life is in danger,” he explained.

He told Sky News he was a proud and hard working member of a local political party in his home country, and had been threatened and assaulted by members of the opposition.

The teenager wants to get to the US so that he can seek political asylum. He says he can “never go back to India” because his life “is in danger”.

The plan is to get to Mexico City via plane and then to Tijuana, a border city just south of California.

But getting to the border has never been a guarantee of finding a new home, and – as we all now know all to well – it’s not getting any easier.



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