Report: Human smugglers increasingly use Facebook to advertise services on the US-Mexico border

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The logo of social network Facebook is displayed on a smartphone, on January 15, 2019 in Nantes, western France. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP) (Photo credit should read LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNN) — Human smugglers are increasingly utilizing Facebook to advertise services to migrants seeking to cross the US-Mexico border, according to a report released Friday by a tech transparency group.

The influx of migrants, especially unaccompanied minors, at the US southern border has overwhelmed the government’s resources in the last month and posed a steep challenge for the Biden administration. The administration has also been up against human smugglers who in some cases have marketed their services on Facebook, a platform critics say has failed to uphold its content moderation commitments.

Of the 50 Facebook pages identified in the Tech Transparency Project report, more than half were created since mid-November and of those, a dozen popped up in the last month. Most pages used descriptors like “coyote,” a commonly used term used for human smugglers, to signal the service being offered. Pages were also sometimes categorized as “travel company” or “product/service.”

The content of each page, though, was similar: selling the journey to the United States. The names of the pages, included “Cruse Seguro,” translated to “Safe Crossing,” as well as “Viajes a Estados Unidos,” translated to “Trips to the United States,” and “Cruse a usa,” translated to “cross to USA.”

“We prohibit content that either offers or assists with human smuggling. We have removed this content and will continue to do so. We will review this report once we see it and take action against anything that violates our policies,” a Facebook spokesperson told CNN.

Facebook’s algorithm may be exacerbating the issue by showing similar pages to users, the group says. “In the related pages, at least a third of the pages we identified, Facebook was serving up to us in the related pages, especially ones on travel. Facebook would recommend other travel pages, but they were smuggling pages,” said Katie Paul, director of the nonprofit Tech Transparency Project. “The algorithm is really creating this amplification.”

A smuggling incident along the US southern border recently garnered national headlines, when Border Patrol released video of two young Ecuadorian sisters being dropped over a 14-foot-tall border fence in the desert.

“The inhumane way smugglers abuse children while profiting off parents’ desperation is criminal and morally reprehensible,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said. “Just this month, a young girl died by drowning, a six-month-old was thrown into the river, and two young children were dropped from a wall and left in the desert alone.”

US Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than 172,000 people attempting to cross the US-Mexico border in March, a 71% increase from February. And migrants, fleeing deteriorating conditions in Latin America, are still relying on smugglers.

The Tech Transparency Project used searches, like “viajar a estados unidos” (travel to the US) and “cruzando a estados Unidos” (“cross to the United States”) to identify Facebook pages advertising services to illegally cross the US-Mexico border.

“We used the platform the same way anyone looking for such services would do,” Paul said.

Posts range from videos, allegedly of migrants crossing the border, to travel arrangements and questions from Facebook users about who the US is expelling and who may be allowed to stay.

“Some of these Facebook pages offer detailed descriptions of the travel arrangements they offer as well as the cost of passage for a single person, typically in the thousands of dollars. Others simply post cryptic images of buses with American flag emojis indicating the United States as the final destination and wait for users to express interest,” the report found.

The Facebook spokesperson said they have seen instances of the State Department using its platform to share factual information with people considering making the journey to the US.

Human smugglers around the world have taken advantage of social media before to advertise their services, Paul said, casting a wider net of who they can reach.

“Absolutely this is a tool that (smugglers) utilize but at the same time, these kinds of networks operate through trust,” said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, associate professor at George Mason University who studies migrant smuggling networks, underscoring that word of mouth also plays a role.

“They make use of these websites to advertise their products … It’s just an additional tool that these networks operate through trust,” she told CNN, adding she’s seen an increase in smugglers advertising their services in recent months after a difficult year for Central America.

“The criminal organizations have become more sophisticated in the marketing of their services,” said Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas. “They control everything, the routes, complicit authorities.”

The United States has launched a campaign abroad to dissuade migrants from taking the dangerous journey north. The US embassy in Guatemala posted a testimonial on Twitter, showing a woman, whose face is blurred, describing her journey with smugglers. “We walked for five days and five nights. They would only give you canned food and we had run out of water,” she says, in Spanish. “You will suffer a lot on the way.” The video is intended to warn migrants not to put their lives at risk.

The Biden administration also placed around 28,000 radio ads in Latin America as part of a stepped-up campaign to discourage people from journeying to the US.