EXCLUSIVE: Colored wristbands help cartels track migrants, payments for smuggling them, lawmaker confirms

Border Report

LA JOYA, Texas (Border Report) — Mexican drug cartels issue colorful wristbands to identify migrants who have paid them for passage across the Rio Grande, how many times they have tried to cross, and who is eligible to cross again if they’ve been sent back, a South Texas lawmaker’s office confirmed to Border Report on Thursday.

“In the RGV area, the Gulf Cartel controls the alien smuggling groups. The various alien smuggling groups issue bracelets to each alien being smuggled into the U.S.,” the office of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this area, told Border Report.

“Bracelets are different colors because aliens get three chances to cross successfully for one price. First time crossers get red bracelets. If unsuccessful, they get another color. Aliens receive purple bracelets when it’s their last chance to cross,” Cuellar’s office said in an email to Border Report. “The wording represents who has paid and who still owes money for the smuggling.”

Bracelets are different colors because aliens get three chances to cross successfully for one price.”

Office of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas

On separate days last week, Border Report interviewed several groups of migrants just moments after they were apprehended crossing the river into the small town of La Joya, Texas. They were sitting in a community park that U.S. Border Patrol agents use as a field-processing area for the hundreds who come across each day.

Several of the migrants showed Border Report the wristbands they were given by the coyotes or human traffickers who they said are affiliated with Mexican cartel organizations that they paid to cross the river.

Discarded wristbands are seen on the ground alongside items belonging to two migrants who were apprehended before dawn on April 8, 2021, by U.S. Border Patrol agents into La Joya, Texas. The wristbands are issued by cartel and differentiate various groups the coyotes, or traffickers, bring across the river, the migrants said. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)
This wristband with red letters reads “llegadas” or arrivals and was found on the ground April 6, 2021, in La Joya, Texas, where migrants are apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents. Red indicates first-time crossers. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The wristbands we saw had different colors and words. Some wristbands read “entregas,” which means deliveries. Others read “entregadas,” which means delivered. Others read “llegadas,” or arrivals.

Those with red bands are first-time crossers and those with purple bands are not allowed to try to cross again, Cuellar’s office said.

“It’s like a ticket to the carnival,” one Border Patrol agent told Border Report.

None of the Border Patrol agents gave their names or were allowed to speak to media, but they suggested we look around on the ground and see what we find. And on two different days, several wristbands were spotted as migrants were apprehended in the early pre-dawn hours in La Joya.

Border Patrol agents are seen involved in the apprehension of several adult migrants before dawn on April 8, 2021, in Hidalgo, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Nelson Fernando, 22, of Honduras, held his sleeping 2-year-old son, Nelson Manuel, after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents on April 8 in La Joya.

“I was a victim of the hurricanes, Eta and Iota,” he said about the Category 4 and Category 5 storms that struck Central America. “I didn’t have anything else to do but to come North.”

Fernando said he paid a smuggler $2,000 to cross the Rio Grande. His seven cousins living in the United States helped to pay for his crossing. The wristband cartel traffickers gave him was green.

A migrant woman, far left, is seen with a red wristband on her right arm as she is part of a group of asylum-seekers with several children who were being questioned by a U.S. Border Patrol agents moments after being arrested on April 8, 2021, near La Joya, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

He said he was trying to get to Denver, Colo., and it took him 45 days to get to this point. He waited for 22 days in Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas, before they made a dash through heavy fog early last Thursday.

Nelson Fernando, 22, of Honduras, and his sleeping son, Nelson Manuel, are seen April 8, 2021, moments after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in La Joya, Texas. Fernando said he crossed the Rio Grande after his cousins paid a coyote $2,000. The wristband traffickers gave him was green. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Fernando had ditched the green wristband under the metal fence where U.S. Border Patrol agents told him to sit in a line with other migrants. He picked the wristband out of the dirt, and then two other migrants sitting beside him also pulled out their discarded wristbands. One was blue. One was white with neon orange lettering.

When we asked why they had different colors they said “it’s for the different cartels,” one man said displaying four discarded wristbands two blue, and two white with orange lettering. They didn’t want to give their names for fear of retaliation by the cartel.

Security experts say Mexican cartels are highly organized, money-making entities that specialize in the collection of data, and they know how and where to reach family members of those they traffic.

Victor Manjarrez Jr., was Border Patrol chief in Tucson and El Paso and now is director of the UTEP Center for Law and Human Behavior. (Courtesy Photo)

Victor Manjarrez, Jr., is a retired Border Patrol chief who led agents in Tucson, Arizona, and El Paso. Now he is director of the Center for Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas El Paso. He says the various cartel organizations south of the border have long marked their “loads” or inventory –whether drugs or humans — and these new carnival-ride-style wristbands are just the latest tools they are using to traffic humans across the Southwest border.

He told Border Report that they have long used lanyards and other identifiers to cross migrants into Arizona, dating back to the early 2000s. But now they are so overwhelmed with thousands crossing daily into South Texas, that he speculates they have switched to this relatively inexpensive and easy to obtain method to mark the migrants.

“It’s a tool for these criminal organizations. Big time,” he said.

Though it sounds crass, Manjarrez said cartel organizations “store their loads” in warehouses, whether it is humans, or illegal weapons, cash or drugs, and they find a way to mark and inventory everything “they own” as part of their “supply chain.”

It also helps to group migrants who often are moved in the darkness of night, and the wristbands also indicate to the coyotes which migrants go on what rafts and who crosses the river where.

“The colors will mean where this group is in the process of being smuggled over,” Manjarrez said.

“It also provides passage,” he said. “When they’re moving these folks. It’s the badge that shows that they’re in good standing. … because no one crosses for free.”

‘It’s a tool for these criminal organizations. Big time. … Because no one crosses for free.”

Dr. Victor Manjarrez, Jr., retired Border Patrol chief and UTEP Director of Center for Law and Human Behavior

Cuellar has repeatedly told media that the cartel determine where migrants cross the Rio Grande, how long they will wait on the other side, and where they will go after crossing.

“As I’ve said before, it’s all by design. It just doesn’t happen. It’s all by design,” Cuellar told media during a March 28 online news conference.

Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, has said criminal organizations in Mexico are very deliberate in where they cross migrants. For instance, currently many Haitians are crossing near Del Rio, Texas, and in the Rio Grande Valley it’s mostly migrant children and families crossing near the South Texas towns of Mission, McAllen, and La Joya.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent passes out mylar thermal blankets to migrants on April 6, 2021, after they were apprehended in La Joya, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday called on the Biden administration to declare the Mexican cartels as “foreign terrorist organizations” to enhance legal pressures on the criminal groups to stop the influx of migrants crossing into South Texas.

In a letter that Abbott sent to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, his Border Czar, Abbott urged the president to make this change under legal guidelines specified in the Immigration & Nationality Act.

“These cartels bring terror into our communities. They smuggle narcotics and weapons into the United States to fund their illegal enterprises. They force women and children into human and sex trafficking, enriching themselves on the misery and enslavement of immigrants. They murder innocent people, including women and children. These Mexican drug cartels are foreign terrorist organizations, and it is time for the federal government to designate them as such,” Abbott wrote.

Abbott cited two major branches of the drug cartel: Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel and said they “easily qualify as foreign terorrist organizations, as they are foreign organizations that engage in textbook terrorist activity.”

Migrants wait with their backs on a fence in La Joya, Texas, after being apprehended by Border Patrol on April 8, 2021. Many wore different colored wristbands issues by various Mexican cartel and coyotes who helped them cross the Rio Grande. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Manjarrez, who teaches a class that currently is studying whether a drug cartel should be deemed a “terrorist organization,” said they must prove that they are seeking to overthrow a government or influence pain on the government itself.”

“Think of 911, the idea was to influence the government,” he said. “So when these cartels are inflicting pain on these groups and individuals and it’s really directed at them and exploiting these people … and there’s a difference between terrorism and impacting pain on a U.S. government.”

But Abbott wrote in his letter that this exploitation of migrants is hurting “innocent lives” and must be stopped.

“The cartels fuel the ongoing crisis at the border. By exploiting America’s border policies, the cartels have increased their power and wealth at the expense of innocent lives that get in their way. Prompt action is needed,” he wrote.

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