Hipolito Acosta has been a human smuggler and a smuggling victim.Once, while smuggled in the trunk of a car, he was so overcome by fumes he thought there was no way he was going to make it out alive.
Acosta, who infiltrated dozens of smuggling operations as an undercover agent for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, is telling the stories that put this life on the fringe in his book, The Shadow Catcher. The book, which will be released Tuesday, details what he went through in his 30-year career at INS, an agency that has since been disbanded and broken up into three components.
Much of Acosta’s career he worked alone.
“We had great teams. But in my early days I got smuggled in Mexico I had no backup, no communication, we didn’t have the technology we have nowadays,” he said.
Last week Acosta gave Fox News Latino an exclusive tour of some of the smuggling locations he infiltrated in El Paso, Texas.
In 1978, Acosta infiltrated a human smuggling operation that was led by José Medina and his family in their house located just over 100 yards from the U.S./Mexico border. The Medina’s had been operating for about 10 years from their house.
Acosta traveled to Ciudad Júarez and went to a bar that served as a hub for human smugglers. He posed as a Mexican national trying to be smuggled to Chicago.
He connected with Medina and was kept in a fleabag motel in Júarez, he says. Two days later, he made the treacherous swim across the Rio Grande to El Paso with Medina.
“I actually thought that I wasn’t going to be able to make it across,” due to treacherous conditions. They did, however, and ran across the busy border highway and entered the Medina home. At the time, a border fence did not exist.
Acosta was put into a bedroom with a dozen others waiting to be transported to Chicago in the back of a U-Haul truck with no food or water.
“It really concerned me because I realized I would not be traveling in a van where I would have some control,” said Acosta. “I had no idea where we were going, who was behind us. I could not make contact with anybody.”
Acosta convinced the smugglers to allow him to drive portions of the trip. At a gas station in Missouri, he handed a clerk a note on a paper napkin and begged the worker to call his wife and relay the message to her. She would pass it onto his colleagues who would provide him backup near Chicago.
Nine arrests were made for those involved in the operation – but one was not made for Medina, who had fled.
“I had made a promise. That if Medina was ever in the United States, I would find him, and he would be arrested and prosecuted for what he had done,” said Acosta.
Four years later, Acosta was back in El Paso and spotted him at a park near the Medina house.
“I walked over, and sat next to Medina. And I said, ‘Are you José Medina?’ And he said, ‘Who the heck wants to know?’ I said, I’m Hipolito Acosta; I’m the federal agent you smuggled to Chicago four years ago. I have a warrant for your arrest.”
Medina served less than one year in federal prison.
That same year in El Paso, Acosta infiltrated the largest human smuggling operation at that time of the agency’s existence, Operation Villasana. The agency had been investigating the organization for two years. Acosta was assigned to the case and worked as a human smuggler.
The organization operated out of a hotel in Ciudad Júarez. The drop house, where smuggling victim’s are held before they were transported to their respected destinations, was located on the other side of the Rio Grande in El Paso.
At the time, smuggling victims paid on average $500 to be brought into the U.S.
“They would guide them across the (Rio Grande) river,” said Acosta. “In no time at all, were in the drop house.” Within hours, they started to be transported to their destinations.
After five months of infiltrating, 38 indictments were made for the operation.
During Acosta’s career, he arrested hundreds of people who were involved in criminal activity or who were in the United States illegally. In 2005, Acosta retired as the Houston district director of the Department of Homeland Security. Today, his three sons work as agents under the DHS.
Patrick Manning is a junior reporter for Fox News.com.