While most of Houston sleeps, one of America's most sought-after smugglers is busily whisking people into the United States, operating in a dark underground world of secret border crossings that beats immigration authorities at their own game.
The smuggler, who uses the alias Francisco Suarez, told Art Rascon, reporter and anchor at KTRK, ABCNEWS' Houston affiliate, that he is helping illegal aliens start a new life in the land of opportunity.
Suarez also showed Rascon how it's done, taking him along an extraordinary journey through 18 states, which the journalist recorded for the award-winning documentary Smuggler's Highway.
"I'm providing a service that these people have a chance at a new life," Suarez said. "I mean people are coming from Romania, Russia, India, Taiwan, China and Japan."
Since Sept. 11, there have been rising concerns about how the Arab terrorists were able to get into the United States undetected. Suarez said he has smuggled in residents of Middle Eastern countries. Asked if he could have brought in any Muslim extremists, he did not discount the idea.
"We've had our fair share of Muslims too," he said.
The Rise of People Smugglers
It used to be that the typical illegal immigrant came in on his or her own — but no longer. Now, 90 percent of illegal aliens each pay professional smugglers thousands of dollars for assistance in getting over the border, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Business is booming for these "people smugglers," who INS officials say are responsible for bringing hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens across the border.
People from all over the world make their way to Mexico which has become a staging post for people like Suarez to illegally smuggle them into Texas.
Discussing his work, Suarez comes across as streetwise, arrogant and unrepentant. He claims to have smuggled in anywhere from "a half-million people to 800,000, maybe more."
It may sound like an extraordinary number, but the INS says it is not inconceivable.
A Wild 18-State Ride
People smugglers are able to do their work by bribing dozens of people, including border patrol officers, to keep quiet, Suarez said. Those who help deliver the cash for the bribes, and even some American police officers, are on the smugglers' payrolls, he said.
Suarez also claims that airline ticket agents and security personnel at certain airports around the country are paid to turn a blind eye to the people being smuggled into the United States. But it all starts with bundles of cash for corrupt border agents.
In one instance, Suarez says he slapped down $10,000 to bribe a corrupt border agent, but he does not believe he is doing anything wrong.
"I'm providing a service that [lets] these people have a chance at a new life," Suarez said.
That new life begins with a wild ride through the United States. For one of his smuggling missions, Suarez took Rascon on a trip through 18 states, covering 4,136 miles in 72 hours. During that time, he delivered 20 smuggled foreigners.
Desperate to Reach New York
One of those smuggled in was a woman who gave her name as Maria, who hailed from Honduras. She had been on the smuggler's highway for more than a month, and was desperately trying to reach the rest of her family.
It cost her $4,000 just to get to Houston, and it was to cost her hundreds more by the time she arrived at her destination in New York City.
The exhausting road trip stops for only three restroom breaks every 24 hours, usually at night. For food, there is one stop a day, and only at restaurants that have conspired with the smugglers. The restaurant pit stop also gives the illegal aliens a chance to eat and wash up, something they may not have done for days, if not weeks.
Eventually, one by one, the illegal immigrants are dropped at inconspicuous locations. The first stop was in Tennessee, where one of those smuggled paid $2,000 to get dropped off. The immigrants must pay up front, but hundreds and sometimes thousands more dollars are due at delivery.
A Smuggler’s City of Choice
Back on the road after the Tennessee drop, they headed to the city that never sleeps, arriving in New York City 36 hours after the road trip started.
It was the final leg of Maria's 30-day journey, and she tried her best to make herself look presentable for the family.
New York is a prime city of choice for the smugglers. Five illegal aliens are eventually picked up by relatives or friends, and there are happy reunions.
But Maria's story did not have a happy ending. Her family couldn't come up with the final payment, making the smuggler furious.
"Boy, that pisses me off, [stuff] like this," Suarez said. "The family is not even prepared. And it's, it's a waste of our time."
They waited for three hours in Times Square, but the family could not cobble together the $520 payment needed to spring Maria from the smuggler. The sobbing woman was ordered back into the van. The next stop was Houston, which had been her entryway into the United States.