LAREDO, Texas – The Laredo border area reports an increase in commercial trade due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that’s not all. Customs and border protection [CBP] officers are also fighting an upsurge in human trafficking cases.
Matthew Hudak, the chief patrol officer for the US Border Patrol Area in Laredo, said there could be a number of reasons for this.
“The economy on this side of the border still seems to be struggling, so I think that’s a determining factor,” Hudak said. “When COVID started, I think it was a natural pressure that was holding people back and I think when we see things start to stabilize, people try to move a bit more and take that trip north.
Approximately 7,000 commercial trucks cross the World Trade Bridge entry point in Laredo daily.
“We are seeing a few more trucks pass each day than before COVID and it continues to increase,” said Andrew Douglas, regional port manager for the Port of Laredo. “I think it’s just the importance of trade as the economy continues to rebound from the pandemic.”
The Laredo port of entry handled 40% of all trade with Mexico. The border sector generated 300 billion dollars in annual trade, the highest amount in the country.
Customs and border protection officials also face an increase in human trafficking cases since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
They said the Rio Grande was a popular location for illegal border crossings, including human trafficking.
“The smugglers are also doing ‘splash’ where they attempt to enter the river to escape arrest by our officers or other law enforcement agencies,” Hudak said.
Border Patrol agents are surveying 175 miles in the Laredo sector looking for anyone seeking to enter the country illegally.
“We have made over 45,000 arrests here in the Laredo sector and for us that represents an increase of about 20% over the volume of arrests we had last year,” said Hudak. “So here in this industry things are starting to get a little busier.”
Smugglers are becoming more and more aggressive with their tactics. Recent photos showed people smugglers using semi-trailers and shelters to try to get people across the border.
“We see between 20 and over 80 people packed into the back of a trailer truck,” Hudak said. “They have no ventilation, no personal protective equipment and they are there for several hours as they try to move to other parts of the country.”
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Before June, officers arrested one to 20 people a day. That number has skyrocketed since then.
“In July, August and now in September, we’ve seen days here where we’ve had over 360 arrests in one day,” said Hudak. “This year, we have intercepted 94 hiding places and arrested over 1,700 foreigners.”
Arrests are now more of a threat than usual as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“It’s immensely dangerous in the first place and then we add the threat of COVID to all the things we’re doing right now, it makes this job a little more critical and also a little more dangerous,” said Hudak. “When we get these loads of contraband, they don’t have masks, they haven’t washed their hands or done any of the things we need to do, usually for days, so it’s a really dangerous for COVID. ”
Since March, nearly 20 migrants have tested positive for COVID-19. The current protocol has required any agent coming into contact with an infected migrant to be quarantined; as a result, 30 officers were placed in quarantine.
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“When we have to give them that status, it’s a challenge for us and it means the other agents have to reclaim this space that’s left behind,” said Hudak.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan told a press conference in August that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 10 CBP officers have died from the virus.