Desperate to reach the US, moms and kids put themselves in hands of human smugglers

PHOTO: Border Patrol agents process two mothers caught shortly after being smuggled across the Rio Grande, one with a year-old child, the other with her 12-year-old daughter. PlayABC News
WATCH Chasing alleged human smugglers on the South Texas border

Despite a crackdown by the Trump administration on illegal immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border, mothers with their children dreaming of a better life continue to put their faith in smugglers to get them across the Rio Grande to the promised land.

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ABC News correspondent Tom Llamas and a crew went on a ride-along Monday with an official from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and saw, firsthand, a smuggling operation in action.

"That's a smuggler!" shouted Border Patrol Agent Robert Rodriguez on a dirt trail on the northern bank of the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas.

Rodriguez ran through the brush and trees chasing after an alleged smuggler who had just dropped off a teenage boy and two mothers and their children, including a 1-year-old, on the U.S. side.

When the barechested man saw Rodriguez, wearing a green border patrol uniform, charging after him, he scrambled back down the path to his inflatable raft and began quickly paddling to the other side.

"I can't go into the river to apprehend him," Rodriguez said as he watched the man paddle away. "I assure you he was a smuggler. No shirt on and ready to jump back into the river."

In the sprint from his SUV to the river's edge, Rodriguez raced past the newly-arrived undocumented party, including the young mothers, one with her 12-year-old daughter, the other with a baby sporting a purple tank top that had a Charlie Brown figure on the front. All of them had a look of desperation, fear, and were dripping in sweat.

By the time Rodriguez made it back to the spot where he had raced past the people moments earlier, they were all gone.

But as he drove a quarter mile up a dirt road towards Granjeno, Texas, he spotted them walking on the shoulder, taking their first steps on American soil as the temperature registered 95 degrees but felt over 100.

One of them, Sara Posades, 30, told ABC News she's been traveling for a month from Honduras with her 12-year-old daughter. Asked why she would make such a treacherous journey -- having just crossed the Rio Grande with an alleged smuggler -- she burst into tears.

"The poverty," she said, as she clutched her daughter explaining the dire situation she was trying to escape.

The other mother, 19-year-old Ingrid Caseres, spoke of a nightmarish ordeal.

She crossed with her 1-year-old son, Angel, to escape unfathomable violence.

In between tears, she told ABC News of her difficult life in Honduras. Asked about the baby's father, she looked in a state of despair.

"They killed him. And they threatened to kill my baby," she said of gangs back home she was running away from.

Both mothers and their children are now in custody of the Border Patrol

"Every single day agents encounter those types of situations," Rodriguez said. "My goal is to make sure that once they're in our custody and everything is OK, that they have water, is to assure them that they're going to go somewhere safe, that they're going to be fed, that they're going to be taken care of properly."

He said the migrants will be moved to a processing center, where their background information will be taken.

Under an executive order signed by President Donald Trump last week, undocumented parents crossing the U.S. border may no longer have to worry about being separated from their children upon their detention.

The two mothers in custody with the Border Patrol, Caseres and Posades, said they had not heard of possibility that they could have been separated from their children before Trump reversed the policy.

The agent, Rodriguez, said he warned the mothers not to put their trust in smugglers again.

"Just because these family units and unaccompanied children have already made it to the U.S. side doesn't mean that the danger is over," Rodriguez told ABC News.

He said just a couple of weeks ago, agents came upon a mother caught with her son and daughter, who was about 12 to 14 years old.

"When they came across, the smuggler tried to extort them for additional money," Rodriguez said. "So the mother said that she didn't have any more money and the smuggler told her that she was going to have to pay one way or another."

He said the smuggler threw the son and mother on the river bank, grabbed the daughter and proceeded to take off her clothes.

"The motherly instinct kicked in. She started fighting with the smuggler and I guess he decided that it wasn't worth it and he went back to Mexico," Rodriguez said.

Kevin McAleenan, the commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told ABC News that the recent attention focused on the crisis of separating families caught sneaking across the border missed the larger issue.

"I think there's a misplaced focus, that it's not just about what's happening at the border. It's about what's happening to these families that led them to make the decision in Central America to try [and get to the United States]," McAleenan said. "They’re in the hands of Mexican cartels, dangerous organizations, and then the dangers of the crossings. That piece has lost focus in the current dialogue."

He said that since Trump signed the executive order stopping the act of separating of families, nearly 540 children have been reunited with their parents.

"It's really tough seeing families and children, and what they go through to get here," McAleenan said. "They're putting themselves in the hands of the most violent criminal organizations in the Western Hemisphere. They’ve often suffered terribly. We’re trying to make sure they’re medically OK when they arrive."

McAleenan said that enforcing the border laws and making sure migrants caught entering the country are safe has been a "huge challenge, operationally for our agents."

"They're here to do a job, to protect the border, to enforce the law," he said. "They've had that responsibility for humanitarian care at the same time."