U.S. law enforcement officials announced on Tuesday that a crackdown on human trafficking groups near the U.S.-Mexico border has resulted in the disruption of a major smuggling network and the arrest of eight alleged human smugglers.
The takedown comes as the administration of President Joe Biden faces criticism from Republicans over an influx of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America pouring into the United States. Administration officials say combating human smuggling is part of their strategy to address “irregular migration” across the southern border.
Speaking at a press conference at the Justice Department, law enforcement officials said the network ran a “prolific” smuggling operation, trafficking hundreds, if not thousands, of undocumented migrants from Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia into the United States in recent years.
“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 of the Southern District of Texas.
The operation was part of Joint Task Force Alpha, a law enforcement initiative announced last year by Attorney General Merrick Garland to combat dangerous human smuggling groups operating in Mexico and Central America.
In a statement, Garland touted the successful takedown.
“The charges announced today are just the latest example of these efforts’ success,” he said. “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.”
The eight members of the network, which had been operating since 2018, were arrested in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Their leader was identified as 31-year-old Erminia Serrano Piedra, aka “Boss Lady.”
To date, Join Task Force Alpha has been responsible for the arrest of about 120 defendants, many of them leaders of human smuggling networks, and has obtained convictions against about 50, according to said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division.
Referring to the migrants as “boxes” or “packages,” the smugglers used a variety of methods to transport their customers, from hiding them in suitcases placed in pickup trucks to concealing them in empty water tankers, according to the indictment.
“The methods used by the [smuggling network] to transport and move aliens placed the aliens in danger as they were frequently held in contained spaces with little ventilation, which became overheated, and they were driven at high speeds with no vehicle safety methods,” the indictment says.
The smugglers often kept the migrants at “stash houses” near the Mexican border before transporting them to other locations further into the interior of the United States, according to the indictment. Their price: up to $2,500 per migrant.
“This human smuggling organization operated on an enormous scale, placing a high value on financial profit, while putting migrants’ lives at great risk,” Polite said.