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WhatsApp has streamlined business communication for human smuggling

Social media, WhatsApp, app, logo, mobile app on an iPhone display WhatsApp app, logo on 20 05 2023.
Rene Traut
The WhatsApp logo

This story was produced by Marketplace. Read more from Elizabeth Trovall here.

For Pedro, who guided hundreds of Haitian, Cuban and Venezuelan migrants through northern Colombia’s Darien Gap to the Panamanian border at roughly $100 per person, WhatsApp played a critical role in business operations.

“For immigration it’s excellent,” he said in Spanish about the free, encrypted, anonymous app that allows for unlimited messaging, phone and video calls. The pseudonym “Pedro” is being used to protect his identity because he has himself immigrated to the U.S. and now has a pending deportation case.

He said the popular direct messaging smartphone app WhatsApp is ideal for migrants because when you get to a new country you can continue talking on the app with the same number and not get charged for minutes.

“For a migrant to receive an international call, imagine how much it’s going to cost them,” he said.

The app has greased the wheels for the multibillion dollar human smuggling business, as it offers smugglers anonymity, reduces costs and has standardized their customer communication.

“WhatsApp is the way to connect the smuggler with the client,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, a professor at George Mason University who has studied smuggling routes and migration for nearly a decade.

“It maintains the anonymity of every one of the people who provide transportation, taxi drivers and parts of the smuggling network,” she said.

This technology is being leveraged as smugglers have been able to charge migrants more for their services and as smuggling operations become increasingly sophisticated, some even offering high-end travel packages to the U.S. for people as far away as Russia.

“The cost of human smuggling has gone up drastically,” said Craig Larrabee, a Homeland Security investigations agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Even five or six years ago you could pay $2,000 for migrant to be smuggled from Mexico and now you’re seeing numbers in the $10,000 [range] and you’re seeing bigger numbers than that.”

Costs have gone up as the U.S. has implemented strict asylum policies that can lead migrants to seek out a smuggler. Political unrest, poverty, violence and climate change-related disasters have all pushed people from South and Central America and other regions to the U.S., where the economy has been more resilient than other parts of the world in the wake of the pandemic. Customs and Border Protection reported nearly 2.4 million migrant arrests at the southwest border in 2022.

Social media platforms, especially WhatsApp, are tools being used by smugglers, who are either directly or indirectly connected to cartels and other large criminal organizations, and who profit off of the passage of both goods and people through the territories they control.

As migrants traverse the forested hills of northern Colombia into Panama — a dangerous route that continues to see hundreds of thousands of crossings per year — thousands of dollars are collected from them each day, which ultimately support the Clan del Golfo, a powerful drug trafficking and paramilitary group, according to Pedro.

As a guide, Pedro made $300 per week for two separate guided trips to the Panamanian border. Before the trips, he would connect with soon-to-arrive migrants who would reach out to him via WhatsApp to make sure they got to the base camp safely.

He’d have motorcycles or horse-drawn carts ready to get them to camp and let them know costs ahead of time. Pedro’s WhatsApp number would get passed from migrant to migrant.

“Since they had WhatsApp they would write each other and give out our numbers, the guide’s numbers, and we would help them,” he said.

It was a way for migrants further into their journey to tell incoming migrants what to expect or who was trustworthy along the route. Many of the migrants he worked with traveled through at least six different countries to make it to the United States, though many Haitians and other nationalities traveled through more.

When Pedro migrated to the U.S. himself, he also used WhatsApp to coordinate the trip.

“Everything was through WhatsApp. All of the contacts,” he said, from the Colombian who helped him coordinate his trip to Mexico to the Mexican coyote who sent him names and meet-up points.

While WhatsApp is the central tool for coordinating human smuggling, other platforms like Facebook and TikTok are being utilized to advertise smuggling services and spread misinformation that could lead someone to immigrate through underground channels.

Nilda Garcia, a professor with Texas A&M International University who studies human smuggling, said she’s seen Facebook groups with people asking about tips on crossing the border and coyotes responding to their messages, offering services.

“You’re also going to see the other way around: coyotes offering a trip and a lot of people responding, asking for other services, asking for more information,” Garcia said.

She’s even seen VIP packages advertised for people to travel to Mexico by plane and then cross the border with fake documents. Some services can cost upwards of $20,000, depending on how far they’re being transported and how comfortably and safely they’d like to go. Some advertisements are even aimed at Russians, she said.

On TikTok, she said there’s less interaction between smugglers and migrants, though it’s still used to advertise services, like a daily crossing from one side of the border to another for a flat price.

Facebook and TikTok is also where misinformation spreads, especially during immigration policy changes, and that could push a migrant to reach out to a smuggler who can provide a more clandestine or quick way to get to their destination country, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera.

“And that’s going to magnify their sense of urgency,” she said.

Almost like a two-for-one promotion or pitching a sale around a holiday, she said these social media messages about a closed border or sudden policy changes can create a climate where more customers are willing to turn to human smugglers and pay them higher fees.

A 2022 report by the Tech Transparency Project laid out examples of how WhatsApp and Facebook parent company Meta did little to limit misinformation targeted at migrants and found migrants were defrauded by coyotes on these platforms.

The tech watchdog’s director Katie Paul said the company should take down certain pages, groups and individuals offering smuggling services, which are often searchable with certain keywords.

“This is something Facebook could easily address by blocking those kinds of terms using its machine learning technology and other automation to ensure that people are not able to access content related to that, but we have not seen any of those moves from the platform. Instead, we see these issues continue to perpetuate, particularly around both misinformation and the issues of human smuggling,” Paul said.

In a statement, a Meta spokesperson said if a user tries to find a smuggler on Facebook, the company will remove the content to “help keep them safe and serve up information about the risks of engaging with smugglers, the signs of potential exploitation, and ways to seek legal migration, including asylum.”

It’s not just migrants who have been preyed on by human smugglers leveraging social media to grow their business. Craig Larrabee, with ICE, said some platforms are being used to recruit young people in the U.S. to pick up people from stash houses and drive them to a drop-off point, sometimes paying as much as $1,000 per person smuggled.

“(The videos) are both in English and in Spanish, we often see flashing large sums of cash,” he said, “you’ll see a lot of flashy things that are just enticing for young people.”

He said while smuggling networks have historically been known to recruit high schoolers for this kind of work in border communities, social media gives them the ability to cast a wider net.

“Now they can recruit from anywhere,” he said.

Elizabeth Trovall covers stories about the economy for Marketplace with an emphasis on immigration and healthcare.

Prior to her post, she covered immigration for the Houston Chronicle and for the NPR affiliate in Houston, Houston Public Media.