Border police halt people-smugglers on wheels

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The Independent US

When border police in Texas stopped a team of cyclists in lycra and helmets it was the end of the road for one of the most innovative "coyotes", or people smugglers, on the Mexican frontier.

When border police in Texas stopped a team of cyclists in lycra and helmets it was the end of the road for one of the most innovative "coyotes", or people smugglers, on the Mexican frontier.

Patrolmen operating near Laredo found that the cyclists were undocumented Mexican migrants who had allegedly paid the smuggler $1,500 (£1,000) each to take them into the US in what John Tedesco, a journalist with the San Antonio Express News, termed a "Tour de Fraud".

Officials in the area had become accustomed to seeing clusters of lycra-clad cyclists zip along the narrow access road between the official checkpoint at Laredo and the I-35 highway leading to San Antonio, the nearest big city. "They had 10-speeds, helmets, sunglasses, shorts," said Al Moreno, the head intelligence agent on the Laredo frontier, "We thought it was a local bicycle club."

By putting their water supply in sporty clip-on bottles, rather than the plastic jugs which illegal migrants usually carry, and suiting up in thelatest kit, the bikers avoideddetection even though their cycling skills were often wobbly.

According to John Smietana, a border patrol agent, the scheme took advantage of a constant tailback of bulky recreational vehicles and lorries at the main checkpoint that blocked officials' view .

"He [the coyote] would drop the aliens south of the checkpoint, drive through, and wait up north for them," Mr Smietana said. A wealthy San Antonio resident, has been arrested on charges of aiding and abetting illegal entry.

Texas border patrolmen have intercepted more than 120,000 undocumented Mexicans in the past year. The patrol estimates that the number of illegal migrants who pay smuggling rings has risen by 23 per cent. With border crossings reinforced with extra security, and an outbreak of volunteer ranchers who stop migrants at gunpoint, jobseekers regularly risk crossing barren stretches with the help of coyotes.

In the past nine months, 238 Mexicans have died of exposure while trying to cross the high desert, and surveillance planes used by the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service patrols are being deployed more often for search and rescue.

Many immigrants pay coyotes for their expertise. The $1,500 allegedly charged by the bicycle smuggler represents a year's savings for most. But once they find jobs, they send home thousands of dollars a year. A grand total of $8bn a year is believed sent back to Mexico by illegal immigrants.

Mexico's president-elect, Vicente Fox, wants an open border and rapid economic growth to solve the problem and envisions a common market and single currency within decades. "You will never stop immigration with guns or by building fences," he said.

Rocio Culebro, Amnesty International's director in Mexico, has urged the new president to take action as soon as he assumes office in December to safeguard the human rights of citizens crossing the border.

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