Shootout between cartels and Mexican authorities in Sonoyta, Sonora.
Video shows Mexican national guard in shootout with cartels in Sonoyta, Sonora on Dec 29, 2023. (Video: @Michelle Rivera on X.)
CIUDAD JUÁREZ – Mexican drug cartels are making millions in profits from the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border and are now turning entire border towns into war zones.
The money left by the migrants trying to get across the border wall from Mexico into the U.S. to criminal organizations that are charging to guide them across, extorting them or kidnapping them is creating a multimillion-dollar illegal business. Now the different criminal organizations operating across the border are fighting to death for a piece of the pie.
From small towns like Sonoyta, across the border from Lukeville, Arizona, to entire cities like Ciudad Juárez, across the river from El Paso, Texas, different cartels are killing each other and challenging Mexican authorities to gain control of the smuggling routes.
In a video from Dec. 29 shared online from Sonoyta, Sonora in northern Mexico, an SUV with several armed men around it is set on fire during a violent gunfight between alleged members of a local criminal organization with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel and the Mexican army, according to local news outlets.
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A group of migrants walks to a van as hundreds of migrants gather along the border Dec. 5, 2023, in Lukeville, Arizona. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
The gunfight lasted for several hours, according to Sonora state authorities. The gunmen used AK-47s and AR-15s to fight authorities. After the gunfight, only five of over a dozen henchmen were captured, according to authorities.
Several videos from the same gunfight were shared online by locals where sicarios are seen firing their weapons at authorities barely managing to stay put. The main international bridge between Sonoyta and Lukeville remained closed for days after the incident, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) authorities.
“This last one (shooting) was probably the most publicized because the videos made it to mainstream news, but it is not the first one. This is all because of the amount of migrants arriving to this town,” Joel Pérez, a local Sonoyta resident, told Fox News Digital.
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Mexican federal troops in shootout with cartels in Sonoyta, Sonora. Lukeville, Arizona, sits right across the border. (Screenshot: @Michelle Rivera on X)
A few weeks back, on Dec. 4, the same bridge was closed for a full day by U.S. authorities regarding a large number of migrants arriving at the border and overwhelming U.S. border authorities’ capacities.
The Tucson sector, where Lukeville sits, is one of the busiest sectors on the southern border, recording over 300,000 migrant crossings in FY 2023 alone.
On Jan. 2 in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas, 31 migrants were kidnapped by a convoy of cartel members while riding a bus heading toward the city of Matamoros, across the border from Brownsville.
The group was stopped in the middle of the night on a highway by armed men who ordered them to get off the bus and board several pickup trucks. The migrants had to pay over $2,000 each to be released, according to Mexican news outlets that obtained proof of the ransom. The group was freed 24 hours later.
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Migrants wait to be processed by the U.S. Border Patrol on Aug. 6, 2022, in Yuma, Arizona. (Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images)
A cartel member in Ciudad Juárez, across El Paso, Texas, who oversees human smuggling operations for a local criminal gang, said that over the past two years the illegal business around immigration has become “more profitable than ever before”.
“No one wants to work on anything else right now. Everyone wants to work with the migrants because you can make a lot of money from it these days and it is easy work,” the cartel member told Fox News Digital, at the request of remaining anonymous.
“Right now it is more profitable to smuggle migrants than to traffic bricks of cocaine, and with less risk if you get caught,” he said.
Migrants can be seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, lining up after being detained by U.S. immigration authorities at the border wall, Dec. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)
The attorney general in Chihuahua, César Jáuregui, where Ciudad Juárez is located, also said the city is “[experiencing] a spike in homicides” as a direct consequence of the number of migrants arriving to the city and the illegal business around them.
“Criminals are finding a profitable business in migrants and abusing them to bleed more money from them, and this is increasing as more large numbers [of migrants] keep arriving in the city or transiting along the state,” Jáuregui said.
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Migrants are seen camped out near Lukeville, Arizona, Dec. 5, 2023. (Fox News)
Overall the U.S.-Mexico border had record-setting numbers during 2023 for migrant apprehensions, with more than 225,000 in the first 27 days of December, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.
“It is cruel that we have to go to criminals to help us navigate through the border or get killed, we come running from very similar situations in our countries, only to find more of that here in Mexico,” Alfonso Robles, a Venezuelan migrant in Ciudad Juárez told Fox News Digital.
Robles left Venezuela after a local gang began extorting his small business, threatening to kill him. He traveled from Venezuela to the U.S.-Mexico border along with his wife and his 7-year-old daughter.
“As soon as we entered Mexico they started to extort us, or try to kidnap us. Right now we don’t know what else to do because the (U.S.) government is not allowing us to get into the United States and wait there, but here, it’s only a question of time before a criminal group finds us and takes us,” Robles said.
The border crossing was closed on Dec. 15, 2023, at Lukeville, Arizona. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull/File)
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The same cartel member in Ciudad Juárez confirmed that two gangs, one affiliated with the Juarez cartel and another with Sinaloa Cartel, are fighting for the human smuggling business, and that the turf war has extended to U.S. border cities.
“This business is not only on this (Mexican) side of the border, it is also leaving millions in the U.S. to American smugglers, so they are also fighting for this business over there,” the smuggler said.
Luis Chaparro is a freelance journalist based at the US-Mexico border covering criminal organizations in Latin America.He can be followed on Twitter @luiskuryaki