On migrant trail, the ‘donkey route’ that Indians use to illegally enter US | Latest News Delhi - Hindustan Times

On migrant trail, the ‘donkey route’ that Indians use to illegally enter US

ByShiv Sunny
Aug 07, 2023 03:55 PM IST

One of the branches of the “donkey route”, used by hundreds of Indians from Delhi-NCR, Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat to enter US, was busted in Delhi on May 2.

In November 2021, Tarachand, a farmer in Ambala district in Haryana, got his daughter married to a man from his village with the understanding that his son-in-law will move to the US, work for a few years, and return home with enough money to start a business in India.

A screengrab of a video showing people illegally crossing over to the US via Mexico. (HT Photo) PREMIUM
A screengrab of a video showing people illegally crossing over to the US via Mexico. (HT Photo)

Almost immediately, though, his son-in-law, who was unemployed, ran into difficulties, failing to crack the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) test that is a requirement for a work visa to the US. Eventually, Tarachand did what many from his village had done before — he reached out to a member of the local sarpanch, who in turn put him in touch with an agent working for a Delhi-based tour and travel agency.

Tarachand did not share his surname or son-in-law’s name for fear of running into legal troubles. To finance his son-in-law’s entry into the US, Tarachand sold two tracts of land for 51 lakh, of which he handed over 37 lakh to the agent. By May 2022, his son-in-law was working at a general store in New York after a 13-day circuitous route that took him through seven countries, ending with him illegally crossing the US-Mexico border by hopping over a barbed-wire fence.

“When the agent sent me a video of my son-in-law crossing over to the US side of the border, I was happier than the day my daughter got married,” said Tarachand.

A year later, the dream shattered. Tarachand’s daughter suffered health complications, and the family was desperate that her husband return to be by her side. However, Tarachand’s son-in-law cannot come home. He is in the US illegally, and has no documents that can help him get a passport or visa.

Tarachand’s son-in-law is among hundreds of Indians, largely from Delhi-NCR, Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat, who have illegally entered the US using the so-called “donkey route” — a term used by traffickers to illegally push migrants into western countries.

HT had on July 18 reported how gangster Deepak Pahal alias Boxer, 26, used a “donkey route” to escape India after the August 23, 2022 murder of a builder in north Delhi’s Burari. Boxer was eventually nabbed from an airport in Cancun, Mexico in a coordinated operation involving different agencies.

According to Ravindra Singh Yadav, special commissioner of Delhi Police’s crime branch, one of the branches of the “donkey route” in the Capital was operated by Girish Bhandari, 48, the owner of a tour and travel firm based in west Delhi’s Tilak Nagar. Bhandari was arrested on May 2 after a raid at his office, with police seizing the passports of at least 80 of his clients who planned to illegally move to the US or other countries.

“Bhandari operated with the help of agents and sub-agents spread out in Delhi-NCR, Haryana, Punjab and Gujarat, as well as in Mexico,” said Yadav.

The police investigations found that Bhandari would send four to six Indians to the US via the “donkey route” every month. They would be sent in batches of four-five people, meaning that there have been occasions when a family has gone in two separate groups. “It all depends on the situation at the US-Mexico border. If the situation is volatile, the racketeers wait until it eases out,” Pawan Kumar, a crime branch inspector, said.

Investigators said that Bhandari had connections with over a dozen main agents who were further in touch with sub-agents. “These agents either worked for Bhandari, or provided clients to others,” said Kumar, adding that so far, seven people, including Bhandari, have been arrested and a search is on for two more.

According to Yadav, the carefully crafted route operated by Bhandari was Delhi to Sharjah (UAE) to Baku (Azerbaijan) to Istanbul (Turkey) to Panama City (Panama) to San Salvador (El Salvador) to Tapachula (Mexico) and finally crossing over to the US from Tijuana or Mexicali.

“The route via Sharjah was particularly chosen because several Indians travel to that Emirate, and their onward journey to Baku does not arouse suspicion,” said Kumar.

Kumar said that Baku was chosen as the first onward destination on this route as the Azerbaijan visa can be obtained in as little as 30 minutes and is valid for 30 days. However, the Azerbaijan visa requires a return ticket, which these agents would book on Turkish Airlines, as all flights on that airline have a stopover in Istanbul.

“In Istanbul, the racketeers would instruct the passenger to miss the connecting flight to Delhi. They would book a Turkish Airlines flight to Panama City in Panama, from where they would take a COPA Airlines flight to El Salvador,” said Yadav, adding agents are available to handle any difficulties.

In El Salvador, the passengers would wait for two-three days before they were greeted by two agents, who would go by the names Max and Gary Max. The two agents would then arrange taxis for them to go to Mexico via Guatemala, said the police.

This 500-600km cab ride, Yadav said, could take 12-15 hours and is fraught with difficulties as the route has multiple checkpoints. “Max and Gary Max go about handling the situation by bribing officials,” said Kumar. Police said that illegal immigrants travelling by road are at the mercy of local agents, right from the hostile weather to local goons trying to take advantage of their situation.

In Tapachula, a far southeast city in Mexico, police said the agents allegedly facilitate a “temporary card” for the migrant to stay and move about in the country. From Tapachula, the passenger travels nearly 4,000kms to either Tijuana, which borders San Diego in the US, or Mexicali, which borders Imperial County in the US.

“In Tijuana or Mexicali, it could take as little as a day, or as much as weeks, before the passenger crosses over to the US side. It all depends on the situation at the borders, the strictness of the checking, and other factors. Every situation is eased by greasing the palms of officials on both sides of the border,” said a third investigator who did not want to be identified.

Kumar added, “Once the passenger is in the US, he is helped by a local American contact, who is often connected to a local business owner who wants cheap labour, doesn’t complain about the work hours.”

For the families back home, the agents would send video proof of the passengers scaling a wall, jumping across a fence, or rappelling through a tunnel to illegally enter the US. “We have recovered several such videos from Bhandari’s phone,” Kumar said.

Bhandari is currently out on bail. His advocate, cited attorney client-privilege to not comment on the allegations.

A 37-year-old man from Jalandhar, Punjab, who was allegedly sent to the US in January this year, said he does not regret his decision. “I put my head down and worked. In five-six years’ time, I would have accumulated enough money to return to my family and give them a good life,” the man said over the phone from the US, declining to be named. He said he is working to arrange legal documents that will facilitate his return to India.

Since May 2, after the alleged racket was busted and Bhandari arrested, police have been going after agents who allegedly found clients by staying in touch with panchayat members in different villages. of Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat. These panchayat members knew if there was anyone in and around their villages wanting to move abroad, and shared the information with the agents.

For now, the money and dreams of the aspiring immigrants, whose passports were seized by the police, remain in doldrums, but officers say they were saved from a possibly dangerous future.

Tell us what your First Vote will stand for in a short video & get a chance to be featured on HT’s social media handles. Click here to know more!

Stay updated with all the Breaking News and Latest News from Delhi. Click here for comprehensive coverage of top Cities including, Bengaluru, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and more across India. Stay informed on the latest happenings in World News.

Continue reading with HT Premium Subscription

Daily E Paper I Premium Articles I Brunch E Magazine I Daily Infographics
Share this article
Story Saved
Live Score
Saved Articles
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Friday, May 24, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On