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Smugglers Use Snapchat, Tiktok to Recruit Americans to Drive Migrants From the Border Into the U.S.


The posts appear briefly on social-media apps such as TikTok, Instagram and


promising hundreds or thousands of dollars for just a few hours of driving.

“LMK DRIVERS. We provide the car and gas money,” read one post on Snapchat collected by the sheriff’s office in Arizona’s Cochise County. “Pay: $1500-$2500. SWIPE UP.”

Some details that aren’t included, however, are that the publishers of the posts are migrant-smuggling operations and that the people being picked up just crossed the U.S. border illegally in the remote desert or mountains.

Such posts on social media are becoming increasingly common, according to local and federal law-enforcement officials, as smugglers use social media to anonymously recruit Americans to finish the last leg of a migrant’s trip into the U.S., according to court records, law-enforcement officials, and defense attorneys who work on smuggling cases. The posts, which often appear only briefly, use emojis featuring dollar signs, bundles of cash and smiley faces and promise big money for easy work with little risk.

“About 90% of the…drivers that we are seeing, in post-arrest interviews, are admitting that they were recruited through social media,” said John Modlin, the top Border Patrol agent for the agency’s Tucson Sector.

Arizona Gov.

Doug Ducey

sent a letter in May to social-media companies including Snap Inc., TikTok and

Meta Platforms Inc.,

which owns Instagram and Facebook, asking them to crack down on such posts.

“Kids are being lured with the promise of quick cash to aid the cartels in their smuggling operations,” the Republican wrote.

A Wall Street Journal investigation found that TikTok only needs one important piece of information to figure out what you want: the amount of time you linger over a piece of content. Every second you hesitate or rewatch, the app is tracking you. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann/The Wall Street Journal

A spokeswoman for Meta, owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, said the company prohibits the facilitation of human smuggling and invests in technology and works with law enforcement to address the issue. A spokeswoman for Snap said the company prohibits using its platform for illegal activity and encourages users to report any they see to law enforcement.

A spokeswoman for TikTok, owned by Bytedance Ltd., said the company prohibits such posts and removes them when found, as well as banning the accounts behind them. A spokeswoman for

Twitter Inc.

said the use of its platform to further illegal activity is prohibited.

Getting people into the U.S. from Mexico often isn’t the end of a migrant smuggler’s job. In many cases the smuggler also agrees to drop migrants off in a major city such as Phoenix or Tucson.

Mr. Modlin said in years past migrant guides would accompany groups sneaking over the border before they were picked up by drivers, who were typically part of the larger criminal organizations working in Mexico.

However, such work presents the risk of being caught and facing charges in the U.S. Drivers recruited through social media don’t know whom they are working for and can’t provide information on the smuggling groups if they are arrested. In addition, some are under 18, making any legal punishment they might face lighter.

Though they aren’t told whom they are picking up, people who take the work often figure it out when they are instructed to transport people waiting alone near the border, said Alejandro Munoz, a Tucson attorney who has represented several defendants in social media-driven smuggling cases.

“Some of the clients I’ve talked to in the past have said they were a little confused,” he said, about the nature of the work. “But it became clear soon enough.”

Drivers recruited via social media don’t know whom they work for and can’t provide information on them if arrested.


Rebecca Noble for The Wall Street Journal

Law-enforcement officials said they don’t specifically track which people arrested for smuggling migrants were recruited through social media. Gary Restaino, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, said about half the smuggling cases his office prosecutes involve social-media recruitment.

In Cochise County, outside Tucson, the problem has become bad enough that the sheriff in March launched a multiagency effort to address it.

Between March and the end of September, law enforcement in the county disrupted 751 human-smuggling events and made 693 arrests, including 73 juveniles, said sheriff’s department spokeswoman Carol Capas.

In one instance in March, authorities found a 14-year-old boy driving a


pickup truck with six migrants in the bed, according to a Facebook post from the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office detailing the incident.

Though many smuggling cases are prosecuted by federal authorities, prosecutors in Cochise County have also prosecuted drivers suspected of smuggling for crimes including reckless driving and endangerment of others.

“It is portrayed to these drivers that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” Brian McIntyre, the top prosecutor in Cochise County, said. “But in order to make the money, you have to make it back.”

Kevin Michal Bell told authorities he was unemployed and in need of cash when he accepted an offer he found on social media in April to earn between $5,000 and $10,000 for a driving job, according to federal court records. The 41-year-old used WhatsApp to communicate with a smuggling coordinator and received a location pin to pick up four migrants near Sonoita, Ariz., in his SUV. As Border Patrol agents tried to stop him, a criminal complaint in his case says, he called the coordinator, who told him to “step on the gas.”


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At one point the SUV pulled over and the migrants were told to jump out and run, though they were quickly arrested, according to the charging document. Agents were able to stop the SUV and arrest Mr. Bell at a nearby gas station.

He pleaded guilty in May to one count of conspiracy to transport migrants for profit, during which he placed the life of a person in jeopardy. He is scheduled to be sentenced Nov. 16 and faces up to 51 months in prison under the terms of his plea.

Philip Kimble, a public defender representing Mr. Bell, said in an email he couldn’t comment on the case.

Law enforcement said migrant drivers recruited online are often told to flee if police try to stop them.

“They are told to avoid capture at any cost,” said Ms. Capas, adding that some fleeing drivers in her county were caught driving more than 100 miles an hour. “It’s a miracle there haven’t been more injuries.”

—Salvador Rodriguez contributed to this article.

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at [email protected]

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