Suspected human smugglers caught in California’s Imperial Valley are being handed over to Mexican authorities for prosecution as part of a pilot program that has been so successful in disrupting some illegal immigration that authorities want to expand it across the Southwest, reports the Los Angeles Times. Nearly 40 smugglers, called coyotes, have been arrested and prosecuted since the program began in 2002 to reduce fatalities of immigrants crossing the deserts and swift-moving irrigation canals. Coyotes often had escaped prosecution because scarce resources prevented U.S. authorities from pursuing cases involving fewer than 12 immigrants. Now, Border Patrol agents hand over some suspects to Mexican authorities, who are devoting more resources to handling the cases under their own laws.
The Times says migrant smuggling rings have grown bigger and more powerful on the increasingly fortified border. The difficulty of enforcing anti-smuggling laws in the U.S. was highlighted in April with the discovery of 110 illegal immigrants in a safe house in Watts. The alleged smugglers escaped prosecution because immigrants were unable or unwilling to cooperate with authorities or were hard to track down. Under Mexico’s laws, those who have crossed illegally into the U.S. typically need not testify in person against smugglers. Prosecutors often get convictions after submitting the immigrants’ written declarations. The program, with other safety measures like rescue beacons, helped cut immigrant deaths in the region from 95 in 2001 to 68 in 2003.