Stephen Sluyter was lounging on his leather couch, taking bong hits and watching the Cartoon Network, when his phone rang. “Bro, you hungry?” his best friend and roommate Max Bocanegra asked on the other end of the line. “I got some beans for you. I need you to get them right now.”
Sluyter was a 28-year-old graduate student at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, and founder of its Kappa Sigma fraternity chapter, famous for the slip-and-slide parties and oil-wrestling events that Sluyter helped organize. “Did you see the movie Old School?” he asks. “I did that in real life. I was the real Godfather.” Over the previous six months, he and Max had also built one of the most unlikely human smuggling rings in Texas history. Through Sluyter’s connections at A&M, they had recruited a small army of mostly white, college-age kids looking for extra cash and adventure. During the summer of 2012, Max estimates, the team was smuggling as many as 40 to 50 immigrants a week — at $500 a head. “I was making so much money,” Max says. “I didn’t have to give a fuck.”
Now, three months away from earning his master’s degree in communications, Sluyter had decided to reform his ways: no more selling weed, no more all-night parties and no more human smuggling. The drive was 85 miles south to a smuggler’s stash house, and involved picking up a carload of newly arrived undocumented immigrants, passing along the most heavily patrolled smuggling route in the nation — U.S. Highway-281 — and dropping the passengers off with a connection in Houston. Sluyter had paid his way through grad school in part by smuggling dozens of undocumented immigrants into the Texas interior. But recently, Border Patrol seemed to anticipate their every move. An increasing number of drivers were getting pulled over. Sluyter felt the trips had gotten too dangerous.
Max, who was calling from the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas, wearing a silver suit and throwing down hundreds of dollars on every spin of the roulette table, had made exactly the opposite determination. If anything, he had pushed the operation beyond its limits, coordinating multiple pickups a night, even as his ranks dwindled due to intensifying police pressure and the start of fall semester. It was because of the staffing crunch that he now pleaded with Sluyter. Networks of human smugglers work on a referral system; if you miss a load, your business collapses. He was desperate. “Come on you little bitch,” Max said. “I need you.”
Their friendship began 11 months earlier, on Halloween in 2011. Sluyter threw a block party, which he says was “fuckin’ sick” — beer bongs, bags of weed and flocks of freshman and sophomore students — at Islander Village, a student housing complex where he served as a Resident Advisor. At the time Corpus Christi, a city of 300,000 on the Gulf Coast, was in transition. Once among the poorest mid-size cities in the country, the shale oil boom had boosted employment, and the downtown was gentrifying. The Texas A&M – Corpus Christi campus, detached from the city on Ward Island in Oso Bay, has its own distinct feel. “It’s a beach vibe,” Sluyter says. And drugs — weed, cocaine and ecstasy — are “everywhere.”