On Tuesday, September 13, the Department of Homeland Security joined the U.S. Department of Justice to announce a significant enforcement operation that disrupted and dismantled a prolific human smuggling operation in Texas and across the Southern United States. The operation, a part of Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), included the arrest of eight alleged human smugglers whose indictments were unsealed yesterday in the Southern District of Texas (SDTX).
In April, the Biden Administration launched a first-of-its-kind effort, unprecedented in scale, to disrupt and dismantle these human smuggling networks. DHS has committed over $50 million and surged over 1,300 personnel in Latin America and along the Southwest Border, to bolster efforts through JTFA, Operation Sentinel, and others. DHS works on a daily basis with its international partners, collaborating to bring the swift hand of justice down on these criminal organizations. Since launching the campaign, nearly 5,000 arrests have been made both in the United States and by regional partners within their borders, and 7,603 kilograms of drugs have been seized.
“At DHS, countering human smuggling is a moral imperative, a law enforcement priority, and a necessity for our national security,” said Deputy Secretary John K. Tien of the Department of Homeland Security. “It is a central plank of our efforts to address irregular migration across the western hemisphere, and to hold transnational criminal organizations accountable for perpetrating vile and horrific crimes. We are unwavering in our commitment and sending a strong message: if you manipulate and imperil and take advantage of struggling migrants, we are coming for you. This investigation is a perfect example of how we’re bringing our agencies and components together to leverage the full force of the federal government to do just that.”
“Transnational criminal organizations often use sophisticated circumvention techniques to facilitate their smuggling and trafficking efforts,” said Acting Deputy Director PJ Lechleitner of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “Special agents with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) employ a full range of law enforcement techniques and cross-border authorities to combat human smuggling by effectively eliminating profit incentives, seizing assets, and maintaining strong collaborative relationships with law enforcement partners across the country and world. Today should be a reminder that if you are going to engage in this type of criminal activity, your criminal network is not invisible. The members of the organization will be exposed, the network will be dismantled, and you will be brought to justice.”
“Human smugglers are criminals who do not care about human life,” said Deputy Commissioner Troy Miller of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “They lie to make money, convincing vulnerable migrants to hand over what is often their life savings in exchange for empty promises to get to the United States. Smugglers regularly abandon migrants in the desert or mountains with no food or water, leaving them for dead. CBP strives to be flexible, adaptable, and to think outside the box when it comes to disrupting these criminal organizations and protecting migrants from harm.”
JTFA has successfully increased coordination and collaboration between DHS, the Justice Department, and other interagency law enforcement participants along with foreign law enforcement partners including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico; targeted those organizations who have the most impact on the United States; and coordinated significant smuggling indictments and extradition efforts in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country. To date, JTFA’s work with its partners has resulted in criminal charges and over 100 domestic and international arrests against leaders, organizers and significant facilitators of human smuggling activities, several dozen convictions, significant prison sentences and substantial asset forfeiture.
“Over a year ago, we launched Joint Task Force Alpha to strengthen our efforts across government to dismantle the most dangerous human smuggling and trafficking networks,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “The charges announced today are just the latest example of these efforts’ success. The Justice Department will continue to bring our full resources to bear to combat the human smuggling and trafficking groups that endanger our communities, abuse and exploit migrants, and threaten our national security.”
Erminia Serrano Piedra aka Irma, and Boss Lady, 31, led the human smuggling operation disrupted and dismantled on September 13. Other defendants include Kevin Daniel Nuber aka Captain, 41; Laura Nuber aka Barbie, 40; Lloyd Bexley, 51; Jeremy Dickens, 45; Katie Ann Garcia aka Guera, 39; Oliveria Piedra-Campuzana, 53; and Pedro Hairo Abrigo, 33. All were arrested in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama pursuant to charges previously filed in the SDTX and unsealed today.
According to the indictment, they facilitated the unlawful transportation and movement of migrants within the United States in deplorable conditions for profit. The migrants were allegedly citizens of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia. The migrants or their families allegedly paid members of the human smuggling organization to help them travel illegally to and within the United States.
According to the indictment, the criminal human smuggling organization allegedly used drivers to pick up migrants near the U.S.-Mexico border and transport them further into the interior of the United States. They allegedly often harbored the migrants at “stash houses” along the way in locations such as Laredo and Austin, Texas. Drivers allegedly used various methods to transport migrants, including by hiding them in suitcases placed in pickup trucks and cramming migrants in the back of tractor-trailers, covered beds of pickup trucks, repurposed water tankers or wooden crates strapped to flatbed trailers. The human smuggling organization allegedly used methods to transport migrants that placed their lives in danger as they were frequently held in contained spaces with little ventilation, no temperature control and in conditions that placed them at great risk. Drivers for the organization were allegedly paid as much as $2,500 for each migrant they unlawfully transported.
The indictment also notices the criminal forfeiture of three properties as well as money judgments amounting to $2,299,152.40.
“This human smuggling organization operated on an enormous scale, placing a high value on financial profit, while putting migrants’ lives at great risk,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “JTFA will continue to use all means necessary to pursue and dismantle criminal smuggling networks and protect the vulnerable populations they exploit.”
“Sadly, this case is an example of what we see in our district, too many times, especially in our border communities,” said U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery for the Southern District of Texas. “Our Laredo office works continuously with our valued partners to bring to justice those who allegedly put profits ahead of everything else. No amount of money should be a substitute for human life.”
The indictments against these defendants were brought under JTFA. DHS Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland created JTFA in June 2021 to strengthen both department’s overall efforts to combat the dangerous rise in human smuggling emanating from Central America and impacting our border communities. JTFA’s goal is to disrupt and dismantle those human smuggling and trafficking networks operating in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, with a focus on networks that endanger, abuse or exploit migrants, present national security risks or engage in other types of transnational organized crime.
JTFA includes detailees from southwest border U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, including the Southern District of Texas, the Western District of Texas, the District of New Mexico, the District of Arizona, and the Southern District of California, and dedicated support for the program is also provided by numerous components of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division that are part of JTFA – led by the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP) and supported by the Office of Prosecutorial Development, Assistance and Training (OPDAT), the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (NDDS), the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS), the Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO), the Office of International Affairs (OIA), and the Organized Crime and Gang Section (OCGS). JTFA is made possible by substantial law enforcement investment from DHS, FBI, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and other partners.
HSI Laredo, along with CBP’s U.S. Border Patrol Laredo Sector and DHS-OIG, led U.S. investigative efforts and received substantial assistance from HSI offices in Austin, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi, Texas; New Orleans, Louisiana; Gulfport, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; West Palm Beach, Florida; and its Human Smuggling Unit in Washington, D.C.; along with CBP’s National Targeting Center; U.S. Marshals Service; ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations – Austin; Police Departments in Laredo, Kileen, and Round Rock, Texas, Wiggins, Missouri, and Bogalusa, Louisiana; Webb County, Texas, Constable’s Office; Webb County, Texas, District Attorney’s Office; Sheriff’s offices in Webb, Bastrop, and Caldwell County, Texas, and Harrison County, George County, and Stone County, Mississippi; Jefferson Parish and Washington Parish, Louisiana; and Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics; and the Louisiana State Police.
Trial Attorneys Erin Cox and Christian Levesque of the Justice Department’s Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section; Assistant U.S. Attorney Jennifer Day for the Southern District of Texas and JTFA; Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Harrison for the Southern District of Texas; Trial Attorney Daria Andryushchenko and Financial Investigator Kelly O’Mara of the Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section handled the case, with substantial assistance from the Justice Department’s Electronic Surveillance Unit of the Office of Enforcement Operations.