HERMOSILLO, Mexico (AP) — The heavy-set man swept through a curtain into the reserved area of a nightclub as his bodyguard stood nearby. In darkness, he agreed to talk about his business: handling the income from smuggling people across a 375-mile stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border.
"We control all the territory" along the frontier with Arizona, said the cartel money man, who asked to be identified only as Manuel. He spoke in the calm tones of a businessman discussing financial strategy rather than someone operating outside the law.
His organization, though he didn't name it explicitly, is the Sinaloa drug cartel.
The hardening of U.S. and Mexican immigration policies has "complicated" the business because there are more security forces on both sides of the border, but Manuel isn't worried. Yes, there are fewer risking the journey and the out-of-pocket costs have mounted with the need to pay ever-escalating bribes. But the cartel also charges more. The money keeps flowing.
In a year of dramatic policy changes on both sides of the border, smuggling networks have adjusted: higher prices, some new workarounds, attractive "package deals" for every budget, as well as tried-and-true smuggling techniques that include well-trodden routes and generous bribes.
During six months of interviews by The Associated Press with immigrants and smugglers along principal migration routes in Mexico and Central America, a picture emerged of a smuggling business that has learned to adapt and has thrived. In most cases, the emigrants and their smugglers refused to be fully identified to speak about a shadowy enterprise that governments on both sides of the border have promised to crack down on.
Manuel says the territory he manages nets an average of $1 million per month. But that's just a tiny piece of a multi-billion-dollar business that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates involves $4 billion annually. The Mexican government has said it could be as high as $6 billion.
The Mexican government says it is targeting body-smuggling rings, but there has been little evidence in terms of prosecutions, much less convictions. While tighter security measures inside Mexico and new Trump administration policies aimed at curtailing the flow appear to have reduced the number of people attempting the journey, it has also convinced those set on going that they need to hire a professional.
"It's a business that you're not going to stop," Manuel said.
When the doors of the semi-trailer in southern Mexico swung open to the crowd of waiting emigrants, the 26-year-old Honduran man wanted to turn around and leave with his wife and 4-year-old daughter.
The windowless metal box was not what a smuggler had promised some 310 miles to the south in Los Amates, Guatemala, near the border with Honduras. There, $7,000 promised a care-free journey to the U.S. border aboard luxury buses with meals included.
Now he could only think of his daughter and the $4,000 they had already paid and couldn't afford to lose.
"I risked my daughter because they told me that we weren't going to suffer, that we were going to come comfortably, eating well, but it was all a lie," said the man, who agreed to be identified only by his middle name, Jesús, out of fear for his family's safety. "On the journey it's another reality."