Cartels lure Americans online (and it’s only getting harder to stop)

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the legislation, Combating Cartels on Social Media Act, was re-introduced in 2023.

(NewsNation) — Cartels cast a wide net on social media to lure Americans to help them smuggle people into the country. Oftentimes, those calls to action draw those desperate for money, duped into thinking they found legitimate work, or actively seeking out cartel labor.

Neither federal governments nor social media giants have delivered a solution that fully stops these solicitations, according to experts who have studied cartels.

“Basically, the motivation (for Americans) is on some level greed, quick money,” said Nathan Jones, a nonresident scholar in drug policy and Mexico studies at Rice University. “And sometimes you do feel for the person in a desperate situation, but the act is still illegal.”

Americans play a critical role in getting migrants trafficked across the border from cartels and deeper into the United States. Those caught on smuggling runs say they found the jobs via social media, from Facebook to TikTok to Telegram.

Callouts on Facebook looking for smugglers might include photos of the individuals hoping to cross the border, their asylum status, a drop-off location and a price tag for operation, said Texas A&M Assistant Professor Nilda Garcia, who wrote the book “Mexico’s Drug War and Criminal Networks: The Dark Side of Social Media.”

Sometimes the offer comes with promises of better pay and treatment and an invitation to finalize details on encrypted messaging apps, Garcia said.

One suspected American smuggler arrested this week by border agents said he learned about the gig on an Instagram post and communicated with the “boss” using WhatsApp.

“I feel like I’ve ruined my life,” said the man, who was from Tucson, Arizona. “I was recently let go from my job at Amazon and I had no way to pay for a day care or any bills.”

Texas DPS Lt. Chris Olivarez said that juveniles, as young as 12 are being lured into human smuggling.

“We’ve encountered juveniles as young as 12 years old that are involved in human smuggling. … “It’s a very important issue, and I think it’s an issue that we really need to spread more awareness of.”

As the U.S. toughens its stance on border security, more opportunities arise for Americans to work with the cartels, Jones said. More money spent on U.S. border security in turn drives up the price to be smuggled and makes the operations more complex, thus the need for more U.S.-side couriers grows.

Social media companies say they use technology to filter out suspicious posts. A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said the company works with law enforcement. The sites also remove content “seeking cross-border smuggling services” and offer information about the risks of engaging with smugglers. It also provides information about asylum, the spokesperson said.

But Garcia said she hasn’t seen much effort to take the cartel’s posts off platforms — even when they clearly violate social media companies terms of services around content related to crime and criminal organizations.

Their approaches so far to curb online recruiting for smuggling have been too “one-size-fits-all,” she said. The language cartels use vary, for example, so social media and law enforcement need a region-specific approach to identifying and intervening in cartel activity.

“You have to be familiar with criminal organizations and how they operate all across the border in the United States,” Garcia said.

Federal officials have complained tech giants from YouTube to Meta want it both ways: posting terms of service that ban illegal activities but still making money off ads paid for by the cartels.

Lawmakers have also taken a stance on the issue. Last year, Independent Arizona Sen. Krysten Sinema introduced a bill focused on the cartel’s online activity, but it didn’t pass. She reintroduced the legislation again this week.

The proposed law, Combating Cartels on Social Media Act, would require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to analyze cartels’ social media use. It would have also built a way for technology companies to report to the government cartel recruitment efforts in the United States.

Ali Bradley contributed to this report.

Border Report

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