MEXICO CITY — X-ray machines at checkpoints in southern Mexico are capturing the ghostly outlines of a clandestine business worth billions a year, people packed tighter than cattle and transported like consumer goods in tractor-trailers to the United States.
The machines in place for less than two years at two state police checkpoints have led to the two largest hauls of migrants, who pay anywhere from $7,000 to $30,000 for passage, depending where they start.
The United Nations estimates that smuggling migrants across Mexico's border with the U.S. is a $6.6 billion business annually, compared to $10 billion to $29 billion in illegal drug running. The migrant smuggling estimate doesn't include another $1 billion paid by thousands of non-Mexicans to cross from Guatemala and travel north, according to a 2010 U.N. report on transnational crime.
The 513 people apprehended Tuesday in two trailers in the state of Chiapas, bordering Guatemala, represented at least $3.5 million in cargo. Another trailer filled with 219 people was discovered in January.
"As far as I know, this is the first time we've seen such big numbers, but it does confirm what we already knew," said Antonio Mazzitelli of the regional U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. "There are more and more people coming from all other regions of the world using the Central American and Mexican corridor to reach the North American market."
While the majority of migrants found Tuesday were Guatemalan, there were also Indians, Nepalese and Chinese.
Smuggling in decades past was the business of small independent operators who helped migrants cross once they reached the U.S. border. But evading U.S. authorities has become more difficult with increased border enforcement in recent years. At the same time, Mexico's migrant routes have become more dangerous, controlled by drug gangs that see new moneymaking opportunities in kidnapping and extorting those who cross their territory.
The harder the trip, the higher the price. Guatemalan officials, who estimate 300 to 500 nationals illegally cross the border each day into Mexico, say those migrants are paying double what they did two years ago, as much as $10,000 for the hope of gaining work in the United States.
Unlike those running drugs, guns or other contraband, people smugglers lose virtually no upfront costs when migrants are intercepted by authorities or escape.