EAGLE PASS, Texas - Investigators say human smugglers are targeting teens on apps like Tik Tok and Instagram. They're offering them money to pick up migrants from Mexico. Migrants will cross over the Rio Grande from Mexico traveling through private property to get to state highways. That's where teen drivers will pick up migrants helping them travel to bigger cities like San Antonio, Austin or Houston.
Christopher Olivarez is a public information officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety. State troopers have increased their presence helping with border security since Operation Lone Star went into effect over a year ago.
"The smuggling organizations are starting to use and recruit juveniles through social media platforms. Tik Tok, Facebook, Twitter, even using WhatsApp for those encrypted messaging," Oliveras said. "There's always been an issue with human smuggling. But what we're seeing right now lately, which we have never seen in prior years is the use of juveniles. So, the smuggling organizations are starting to use and recruit juveniles through social media platforms."
Oliveras said criminals are strategic.
"They’re not coming out saying we need drivers for human smuggling or drivers for drug smuggling. I mean, they'll typically just say we need drivers wanted and drivers needed, and they'll show videos of stacks of money," Oliveras said.
Texas state troopers monitor cameras and drones looking for migrants or human smugglers on private ranches in southwest Texas. This week troopers arrested a 13-year-old who they say was helping smuggle migrants. Oliveras said the people troopers encounter aren’t just regular asylum seekers.
"These are illegal immigrants that are traversing these ranches, privately owned ranches without the consent of the owner. We've encountered criminal gang members and MS13 suspected cartel members," Oliveras said.
The department of homeland security arrested around 1,700 human smugglers in 2020 and over 2,300 in 2021. Police think it could be worse this year.
"Right here, we see a lot of human smuggling," Kinney County Sheriff Brad Coe said.
Kinney County includes 1,400 square miles, but only 16 miles border Mexico. Coe said they don’t operate like a typical border community, but the influx of migrants is starting to impact the town of around 2,000 people.
Coe said in April 2021 they caught 15 human smugglers. This April? More than double that.
"With narcotics, they tried to smuggle it in, and it gets caught. They've lost it. But with the human trade, they can just keep it as long as we keep sending back, they're going to keep trying to smuggle them over," Coe said.
Coe said depending on the current prosecution temperature, smuggling organizations will switch up who they use for human smuggler drivers.
"If they're 17 years old and we don't have we can't find a place to put them. We will book them in and PR bond them out, that way if they're caught doing the same thing in a week or two, there’s record that they're doing continuously which adds to the charge which adds to the sentencing," Coe said.
When Texas State Patrol encounters migrants they can arrest them for trespassing on private property if they find them on any of these ranches. Border Patrol takes migrants to a processing facility that sends them back to Mexico and from there many of them turn right back around and try to make the journey back through Texas again, something very frustrating to law enforcement here.
Texas Department of Public Safety says it’s important to warn kids of these social media schemes and educate them on the consequences of human smuggling. Since Operation Lone Star they have made over 14,000 arrests and over 12,000 of those are felony arrests.