‘VIP trips’ cost migrants their lives in Texas smuggling tragedy

Immigration

Relatives of late migrant Pablo Ortega Alvarez, who died due to suffocation while being smuggled in a trailer in San Antonio, Texas, U.S., mourn over his casket during his burial at the local cemetery, in the town of Tlapacoyan, in Veracruz state, Mexico, July 15, 2022. REUTERS/Miguel Angel Gonzalez

TLAPACOYAN, Mexico, Aug 1 (Reuters) — At first, Mexican migrants Pablo Ortega and Julio Lopez enjoyed the smuggling equivalent of a first-class ticket to the United States: complimentary beers, safe houses with video games, even a week at a hunting ranch.

Both had borrowed thousands of dollars and paid extra to secure what smugglers promised would be a comfortable trip avoiding the worst dangers of illegal border crossings.

On June 27, their special treatment ended: crammed and gasping for air in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer in Texas with more than 60 other migrants.

Nearly all, including Ortega and Lopez, died in the suffocating heat. It was the deadliest U.S. smuggling incident of recent times.

Their journeys, reconstructed by Reuters via dozens of texts, photos and video messages with their families, provide a rare window into the world of human smuggling: a billion-dollar trade growing ever more deadly.

As tighter controls drive migrants to greater risks, experts say smugglers are increasingly selling more expensive routes they advertise as “secure,” “special” or “VIP.” Those options usually promise vehicle transportation rather than walking across the desert, as well as more comfortable stays.

Ortega agreed to pay $13,000 and Lopez $12,000, their families said. That is far above the average $2,000-$7,000 for Mexican migrants, according to Mexican government data from 2019.

Embarking separately on their quests for a better life, they were told they would travel alone or in small groups, their families said. At least one other victim, Jazmin Bueso, 37, from Honduras, also paid for the costlier trip, her brother told Reuters.

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