Targeting smuggling organizations by following the money will be key in stemming the flow of Central Americans crossing the border, a U.S. law enforcement official said Tuesday.
“The whole reason the alien smuggler is in that business is to make money,” said Scott Brown, deputy special agent in charge of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations in Phoenix. “If we make that unprofitable for them, that may take out more than what one arrest can do.”
So far this fiscal year, the U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended more than 100,000 unaccompanied minors and parents crossing the border with their children, many of them through the Rio Grande Valley.
To address the issue, the Obama administration has said the government was going to focus on disrupting the human-smuggling networks here and in the countries of origin. As the share of people coming from Central America — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — has grown, so has the number of smugglers coming from those countries.
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was in McAllen, Texas, Tuesday to talk about a 90-day ICE operation that started June 23 to target human-smuggling organizations in the Rio Grande Valley.
During the first month: Nearly 200 smugglers and people who work with them were arrested; about 500 illegal immigrants were detained; four firearms and 128 vehicles were seized; and more than $625,000 was confiscated from nearly 300 bank accounts held by the smugglers, a news release said.
“We have continued to stress that our borders are not open to illegal migration and that if you enter the United States illegally, we will send you back,” Johnson said.
“Equally important, those who prey upon migrants for financial gain will be targeted, arrested and prosecuted,” he said. “We are focusing on the pocketbooks of these human smugglers, including their money-laundering activities in the United States, working with our Mexican and Central American partners to track, interdict and seize the money flowing through Mexico and Central America.”
The smuggling fees range from a few hundred dollars for someone smuggled from Mexico to upward of $5,000 to $10,000 per person for people coming from Central and South America, ICE said.
Arizona is on the leading edge on money-laundering investigations since it became a prime location for human smuggling in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said Amber Cargile, ICE spokeswoman in Phoenix. While Tucson is a smuggling corridor, Phoenix is a transportation hub. Smugglers bring immigrants through Tucson and take them to Phoenix, where they place them in drop houses before transporting them to the interior of the country.
Over the course of their investigations, ICE agents in Arizona have become experts on mapping how money flows and going after what’s called “funnel” accounts, using techniques that are now being applied in South Texas.
Funnel accounts — bank accounts where individuals can make anonymous cash deposits in one state and an account holder in another state can immediately withdraw the money — started to pop up in Arizona because it was a hotbed for human smuggling. Also there was a settlement agreement reached with Western Union that restricted transactions here more so than in other places along the border, Brown said.
“There was a point we were hitting large drop houses on a regular basis here in Arizona,” he said. “We would go in and find a pollo list, and on that pollo list would be a list of Western Union transaction numbers.” Pollos, or chicks, is the Spanish word smugglers use to refer to border crossers.
But starting in the mid- 2000s, ICE investigators instead started to find bank account numbers and the names of account holders on the smugglers’ books, he said.
The use of the “funnel” accounts continued to steadily increase until there was a big spike in 2011, Brown said, a year after the Arizona Attorney General’s Office reached a $94 million settlement with Western Union. In settling the case, Western Union acknowledged that between 2003 and 2007, the company had information that, viewed as a whole, gave it reason to know that people at several of its locations were actively engaged in laundering money, according to Star news stories.
Over the years, ICE has changed the way it targets these organizations. Instead of using information it finds at a drop house, it starts by looking at how the money is moving and works its way into the organization.
“HSI (Homeland Security Investigations) has recognized that human smuggling is a profit-driven crime, a violent crime, people are treated as a commodity, not as a human being,” Brown said. “If we can attack the profit of that crime, the cause, the goal of that crime, we are being much more effective.” And it has allowed them to go after key players, not just the low-level guides or drivers.
In March, Joel Mazariegos-Soto, 29, a Guatemalan who worked in a dairy farm in upstate New York, was sentenced to five years in prison. From rural New York, he operated a human-smuggling operation that included multiple drop houses in the Phoenix area, an ICE release said. He was part of a family organization with contacts in Guatemala.
Using a “funnel” account, Mazariegos-Soto laundered more than $70,000 during the four months of the investigation.
One of the advantages of following the money is that while key members of the organization tend to remove themselves to avoid apprehension and prosecution, the money trail can always be traced.