'VIP trips' cost migrants their lives in TX tragedy

STORY: At first, Mexican migrant Pablo Ortega enjoyed the smuggling equivalent of a first-class ticket: complimentary beers, safe houses with video games, even a week at a hunting ranch.

But by June 27th – roughly two months after setting out for the U.S. – he was dead… his life ending in the back of a sweltering tractor-trailer in Texas, with 52 other migrants, in what is the deadliest U.S. smuggling incident in recent history.

His journey provides a rare window into the world of human smuggling -- an opaque, billion-dollar industry that is growing ever more deadly as border controls tighten and smugglers lure migrants with expensive routes they advertise as “secure,” “special” or “VIP.”

Hailing from the southeast state of Veracruz, Ortega, who was 19, paid $11,000 for his journey to the U.S. - far above the average of between $2,000 to $7,000 for Mexican migrants, according to Mexican government data from 2019.

His sister Rosa showed Reuters photos and videos he sent from a spacious, well-decorated home where he played video games and smugglers treated him to pizza and Tecate beer while they waited for border patrol presence to decrease.

ROSA ORTEGA: “And when they crossed, he told me they made it, that they were at the house, that the most difficult part of the journey was the river but that they made it to the safe house and that they only had to take a trailer, that it would take three hours and then a car.”

By June 19, Ortega told his mom he was starting to worry about the number of migrants arriving to the Texas safe house.

Then communication ceased.

Eight days later, an abandoned 18-wheeler cargo truck was found in San Antonio, Texas, its partially opened doors revealing stacks of bodies hot to the touch.

The death count was 53… Ortega among them. A U.S. grand jury indicted four men on charges related to the incident.

At the funeral in his hometown in mid-July, a ballad played remembering young migrants who suffocated in a Texas boxcar 35 years ago…

With the lyrics saying (quote), “The air began to run out, and there was nothing they could do. No one heard those cries for help.”

2021 was the deadliest year on record for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border, according to U.N. data going back to 2014. 2022 is on track to keep pace, if not surpass that.

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