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September 1, 2015Washington, DC, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

US, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico arrest 36 in human smuggling takedown

Operation Lucero targeted organizations accused of smuggling hundreds of individuals into US through south Texas each week
Photos courtesy of U.S. Embassy El Salvador.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and law enforcement authorities in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico arrested 36 alleged human smugglers Friday during a large-scale multinational operation. ‘Operation Lucero’ targeted transnational criminal organizations suspected of illegally smuggling hundreds of individuals each week – including children and families – throughout Central America and Mexico into the United States. The operation resulted in 17 arrests in El Salvador, seven in Guatemala and 12 in Mexico.

In addition to the arrests, 39 undocumented migrants were rescued, including 10 unaccompanied minors, 14 accompanied minors and 15 adults. Law enforcement authorities seized 22 properties – 20 in Guatemala and two in Mexico – valued in excess of $2 million in U.S. currency. Four bank accounts containing the equivalent of $142,000, and bulk cash valued at $46,000 was seized, as well as 22 vehicles, six weapons, three smuggling boats, 11 boat engines, ammunition, bank cards, communication devices and an abundance of documents corroborating human smuggling.

“This operation was the direct result of the partnerships we’ve built and we will continue working to reinforce and grow these partnerships,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “We are sending a clear message to human smugglers that crossing borders will not protect them from the long arm of justice.”

The investigation leading to the arrests began in June 2014 with a call to the HSI Tip Line about suspected human smuggling activities. Subsequent simultaneous investigations conducted by the HSI attaché offices in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, in close coordination with the Mexican Attorney General’s Office, the El Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office and the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office, led to Friday’s arrests. El Salvador’s Civil National Police, Guatemala’s Civil National Police, Mexico’s Federal Police, Mexico’s National Institute of Migration, Mexico’s Naval Secretariat and Mexico’s Assistant Attorney General’s Office for Special Investigations on Organized Crime also played an instrumental role in the multinational effort.

Those arrested face various charges in their home countries for multiple violations including money laundering and human smuggling. Through the use of wire taps, surveillance, search warrants and information-sharing, this multinational investigation uncovered several transnational criminal organizations allegedly moving large numbers of individuals from various countries, including unaccompanied minors and family units, throughout Central America and to the United States. The organizations were allegedly smuggling hundreds of individuals through South Texas each week, using land routes in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico, as well as maritime routes from Guatemala to Mexico.

In addition to the 36 arrests, law enforcement authorities also executed 56 search warrants in the region. The investigation into these organizations continues.

Also assisting in the investigation was U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Defense.

Through its International Operations, HSI has 65 operational attaché offices in 46 countries around the world. HSI special agents work closely with foreign law enforcement agencies through a robust network of specialized, vetted units known as Transnational Criminal Investigative Units. Additionally, HSI brings personnel from host countries to the United States to train at the Department of Homeland Security Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.