MCALLEN, Texas—When they last spoke, Luis Fuentes heard relief in his wife Marilu Noely Alas Santos's voice. She had her feet firmly planted on U.S. soil. And after a 2,000-mile journey from El Salvador, she and her sister Reina Carolina had just crossed the Rio Grande into Hidalgo County, Texas. After being extorted along the way, the women thought the most treacherous leg of their journey was behind them.
It was the last time Luis spoke with his wife.
Within hours, as Marilu and Reina loaded into a car that had come to pick them up and take them to Houston, Texas, Reina was drug by her hair into a separate vehicle and driven to the Palace Inn in Alamo, Texas where she says was raped in Room 116 for two-and-a-half days until she escaped.
Her sister, Luis' wife, is still missing. Her whereabouts are unknown.
"I am very hopeful that I am going to find her alive. I am going to get an answer for my children. There is no stopping me until I know," he says.
He spends his days now in New York as a single parent on hold with law enforcement, sifting through records and scouring the Internet for any signs of his missing wife. Every time the phone rings, he rushes to answer it in hopes it's Marilu on the other end.
Luis and Marilu met in 2006 in the United States where they lived together until Marilu's father fell ill and she returned to El Salvador to care for him. As an immigrant who had entered illegally and had already been apprehended by border patrol once before, Marilu sought to return to the U.S. in 2012 with the help of a human smuggler.
"I told her a million times it was dangerous," Luis says. "It used to be a lot easier. Now it is just crazy."
The landscape immigrants must endure to attain the American dream has radically transformed in recent years. As the number of border patrol agents along the southwest border has more than doubled since 2001, crossing from Mexico into the U.S. has become a nearly impossible feat to accomplish alone.
"Human smuggling is a function of border patrol," says Rey Koslowski, an expert on human smuggling and a professor at the University at Albany. "Zero border control and there is no need to pay anyone to help you cross. If you increase the difficulty of crossing the border, that leads to a market for people to help you evade whatever those obstacles may be."
As demand for smugglers has spiked so have the costs, and what used to be a relatively inexpensive journey shepherded by mom-and-pop smugglers has transformed into a lucrative business. In the mid 1990s, immigrants might pay $50 or $100 for a "coyote" to float their things and guide them across the Rio Grande. Today, the United Nations estimates, immigrants traveling from Central America pay anywhere from $6,000 to $10,000 to sneak through Mexico into the United States. Immigrants crossing just from Mexico still pay an estimated $2,000.
With migrant smuggling becoming more profitable, transnational gangs and drug cartels have jumped at the chance to get a piece of the pie. Crime groups like the brutal Los Zetas have elbowed their way into the business, terrorizing migrants who attempt to cross the border without paying off their network and abusing those in their care.
In 2010, members of the drug gang executed 72 immigrants in Mexico when they refused to join the organized crime unit and declined to pay a ransom fee. When police raided the Mexican ranch where the migrants were shot, they found an arsenal of assault rifles and military combat gear including bullet proof vests.
The violent turf wars being waged in Mexico between cartels are no longer just for drug territory, but for human smuggling routes.
"That has changed the morality of smuggling. Smuggling has become human trafficking. Migrants are coerced, threatened and killed along the way," Koslowski says.
The U.N. estimates transnational crime organizations make nearly $7 billion annually smuggling migrants from Mexico. With so much money to be made, the groups are emerging as sophisticated forces against other crime units and against U.S. law enforcement.