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Alleged human smuggler claims fall flat on Operation Lone Star officers

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(The Center Square) – Of the many American drivers pulled over near the border, or along major routes to and from the border, many are charged with human smuggling. But before they are, they make claims that officers quickly identify are false, law enforcement tells The Center Square.

Drivers leaving a border town with a vehicle full of people have said they are going to “visit family in Houston,” going to a funeral in Houston, Dallas or San Antonio, are “traveling with friends,” or a “guy paid me to pick up his workers.”

They “never know their names [of those being transported], even if they claim to be family,” one Operation Lone Star Task Force investigator in Goliad County told The Center Square. The investigator cannot be named because he works undercover.

OLS is Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security mission; the OLS Task Force involves multiple law enforcement agencies working to thwart cartel crime, The Center Square has reported.

“I’ve had people hiding in a toolbox and [the driver] says he was just giving them a ride. We also stopped a male driver where the passenger had a guy hiding in the floorboard in front of him,” the OLS investigator said.

An OLS Task Force investigator in Kleberg County told The Center Square one driver he pulled over said he was “headed south to look at a job site. He was from Houston but headed to a small town by a [Border Patrol] checkpoint for a landscaping job. About an hour later, we got in a chase with him northbound and he had illegal immigrants in his car.”

OLS officers say that those they pull over driving to or from the border claim they are looking for work or are visiting friends, “but most times can’t give an exact location of where they are going or who they are going to see. Most times when they said they were going to visit someone they can only give a nickname or first name and can’t answer any further about it,” an officer told The Center Square.

Drivers pulled over by Texas Department of Public Safety troopers working OLS often say they picked up someone who “needed a ride,” or “was helping someone out” on the side of a road. One alleged smuggler from Georgia made the claim when she was arrested roughly 1,100 miles from home, The Center Square reported.

In other examples, drivers from Houston are responding to social media posts, including Craigslist job ads, The Center Square reported, or claiming they are picking up hitchhikers five hours away from their home.

While one recently arrested Houstonian claimed he didn’t do anything wrong by picking up “hitchhikers” in Eagle Pass, OLS officers argue drivers know exactly what they are doing. No one from Houston or Georgia is driving to the border to pick up “hitchhikers,” law enforcement officers told The Center Square.

DPS spokesperson Lt. Chris Olivarez told The Center Square, “Over the course of the last three years, when we talk about human smuggling, there’s been so many excuses that we have heard, anywhere from, ‘well you know, I was picking up people I saw, people walking on the side of the road;’ ‘I’m just giving someone a ride;’ or ‘I pulled over and these people jumped in my car and I’m just taking them to a nearby location.’”

“A lot of the drivers that we’re dealing with are not from the general area of Eagle Pass or Del Rio, where we see the majority of human smuggling. They’re driving from San Antonio, Austin, Houston, and Dallas to Eagle Pass or Del Rio.”

Human smuggling is coordinated, Olivarez said, people are communicating on social media platforms and through encrypted messaging. “They’re providing GPS coordinates to pick up these individuals that are crossing the border illegally. The intent is there. They know what they’re doing, but again, when they get stopped by law enforcement, they try to distance themselves from the criminal activity.”

Olivarez reiterated what he has been saying for years: human smuggling is dangerous and deadly. People drive to areas they don’t know, pick up people they don’t know, and often are involved in high-speed chases that can result in death.

“We’ve seen so many tragedies involved with human smuggling,” he said. The alleged smugglers “are not only risking their lives but they’re risking the lives of the people they’re smuggling and also the general public. So it’s not only the long-term criminal consequences but also could have a very life-ending consequence.”

Those being smuggled who’ve been apprehended have been found to be members of criminal gangs and cartels, potentially suspected terrorists, and wanted for violent crimes from other countries, Olivarez added. “It is very dangerous for anyone to pick up anybody, let alone a hitchhiker.”

“Criminal networks advertise on social media using deceptive advertising to recruit people, even young drivers, juveniles, who are told they can make $3,000 to$5,000 a person to drive them from one destination to another. But there are consequences,” he said, warning them, “don’t get involved.”

Among several new border security related laws that are in effect, one increases penalties for human smuggling to a mandatory 10-year minimum prison sentence.

Since Abbott launched OLS in March 2021, OLS officers have apprehended more than 512,300 illegal foreign nationals and made more than 43,400 criminal arrests, with more than 38,200 felony charges reported, according to the latest data.

Among them are more than 7,300 alleged smugglers who were arrested ranging from ages 13 to 77, according to DPS data.

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