Homeland Security agents and Guatemalan authorities busted a significant smuggling organization Wednesday, arresting nine people who were involved in transporting thousands of illegal immigrants from across the globe through Latin America and into the U.S.
The bust was the first fruit of a new cooperation agreement signed this week between the U.S. and Guatemala, authorizing the two countries to pool information and resources to go after the smugglers who are fueling the illegal immigrant surge.
Authorities dubbed the operation the Merida organization, after Lidia Fausta Merida-Lopez, whom a Homeland Security official identified as the ringleader. The organization had assets of $10 million, and facilitated smuggling of people from Guatemala, elsewhere in Central America and South America, and even from terrorist-connected countries such as Somalia and Pakistan.
“They’ve moved thousands of people,” the official said. “They’re diverse, they’re connected and linked to narcotics smuggling organizations, they’re truly a transnational criminal organization.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan was in Guatemala on Wednesday where he is engaged in meetings with Central American governments, looking to find ways to stop the surge of their people fleeing their countries and headed north.
Earlier this week he inked the cooperation deal with Guatemala, which he said is a geographic “chokepoint” for migration from the south up through Mexico. If the U.S. can stiffen Guatemala’s enforcement, it can cut into the overall flows.
“You’ve got to come through Guatemala, so if we can create a border security situation that’s more robust on the Guatemalan border with Honduras, the Guatemalan border with El Salvador … that’s going to disrupt this cycle,” Mr. McAleenan said.
If successful, that could give the U.S. other options besides relying on Mexico, which U.S. officials say has been an iffy partner, swinging from tough talk to lax enforcement.
The agreement he reached with Guatemala commits the U.S. to helping provide better training, information sharing and support as authorities there try to take down some of the smuggling operations that are siphoning its people away. The agreement does not call for any additional financial assistance for Guatemala, the Homeland Security official said.
He said Homeland Security Investigations agents, who are part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), began looking into the Merida organization in January, and found it was moving “special interest aliens,” or people from countries outside the ones that usually make up illegal migration to the U.S.
The organization would charge up to $3,500 to smuggle a child into the U.S. and up to $12,500 for adults, depending on where in the U.S. the wanted to reach, and the mode of transportation it took to get them there.
Latin American press accounts said nine of the Merida organization’s 10 leaders were arrested in Wednesday’s operation. Some migrants being held by the organization were also arrested.
Both U.S. and Guatemalan authorities said the organization was set up like a franchise operation, with smugglers able to control different pieces of the methods and routes, and the organizers chiefly facilitating the passage among those operators.
They used word of mouth, their reputation for getting people successfully into the U.S., and sometimes social media to advertise their services.
The nine arrested Wednesday will be prosecuted in Guatemala.
Mr. McAleenan said taking out smuggling organizations will cut into the flow of people headed north.
“Without those organizations migrants can’t move out of the country,” he said
The operation comes as the border crisis remains a heated debate in Washington.
Congress left town last week without a deal on the $4.5 billion emergency spending request President Trump made to provide better care for the record numbers of illegal immigrant children and families streaming into the U.S. each month.
Most of that money is designated for Health and Human Services, which under a law passed by Congress is required to care for unaccompanied alien children (UAC) who arrive at the border. But some of the money is designated for Homeland Security, and would be used to feed and care for the families and children, and to replenish ICE’s detention budget.
Mr. McAleenan said he was “extremely concerned” that Congress hasn’t approved the money.
“The failure to act on that request is frankly unconscionable, and putting children at risk,” he said.
As for ICE, he said it will face “very stark choices” of either releasing more new border crossers, releasing criminals caught in the country’s interior, or slashing money in other accounts to fund ICE’s detention beds.
“I don’t like any of those choices. I prefer that Congress act on the request,” the acting secretary said.