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HSI Yuma, multiagency case results in extradition of prolific human smuggler from Mexico to the United States

Human RightsHSI Yuma, multiagency case results in extradition of prolific human smuggler from Mexico to the United States

YUMA, Ariz. — Extensive coordination and cooperation efforts between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement authorities culminated in the extradition of a human smuggler who allegedly operated in Mexicali on the U.S.-Mexico border for several years as part of an international human smuggling conspiracy. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Yuma is investigating the case with assistance from the U.S. Border Patrol, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the FBI, and the U.S. Marshals Service, working in concert with HSI Tijuana, Interpol, and the HSI Human Smuggling Unit in Washington, D.C. HSI also received substantial assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center/Counter Network Division and the U.S. Department Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

In March, Ofelia Hernandez-Salas, 61, was arrested in Mexico pursuant to a U.S. request for her extradition and surrendered to U.S. authorities on Sept. 5 to face charges previously filed in the District of Arizona and unsealed in March. She made her scheduled initial appearance in federal court Sept. 6 in Phoenix, Arizona.

“This extradition is another testament to our global commitment to investigating, combating and dismantling human smuggling networks,” said HSI Executive Associate Director Katrina W. Berger. “HSI is dedicated to its law enforcement partnerships and mission, notably those accomplished through JTFA efforts, that seek to eradicate these crimes and bring those who propagate them to justice.”

“This extradition is the result of continued coordination between the Justice Department and our Mexican law enforcement partners to bring to justice human smugglers who exploit migrants’ desperation and undermine the rule of law,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “It is another example of the impactful work Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA) is doing to disrupt dangerous criminal operations and dismantle transnational criminal organizations by pursuing their leadership — wherever they operate.”

According to court documents, Hernandez-Salas allegedly conspired with other smugglers to facilitate the travel of large numbers of migrants into the United States from and through Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, Eritrea, India, the United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Russia, Egypt, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Hernandez-Salas and co-conspirator Raul Saucedo-Huipio, 48, allegedly charged the migrants as much as tens of thousands of dollars to make the journey and directed the migrants where to unlawfully cross the border into the United States, including by providing them with a ladder to climb over the border fence. Hernandez-Salas and her co-conspirators also allegedly robbed the migrants of money and personal belongings while armed with guns and knives.

In June, the Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed corresponding sanctions on the Hernandez-Salas transnational criminal organization. Saucedo-Huipio remains in custody in Mexico.

The indictments against Hernandez-Salas and Saucedo-Huipio and their subsequent arrests were coordinated through JTFA. JTFA was created in June 2021 by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, in partnership with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, to strengthen the Justice Department’s efforts to combat the rise in prolific and dangerous smuggling emanating from Central America and impacting our border communities. JTFA’s goal is to disrupt and dismantle 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.

“When international criminal organizations endanger economic migrants seeking a better life in America, an international response is required,” said U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Gary Restaino. “JTFA’s partnership with Mexico holds managers and organizers accountable for the criminal activities of cross-border smugglers.”

JTFA Co-Director James Hepburn, trial attorney Patrick Jasperse of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, and Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Lisa Jennis are prosecuting the case.

The Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs provided significant assistance in securing the defendant’s arrest and extradition from Mexico.

Since its creation, JTFA has successfully increased coordination and collaboration between the Justice Department, DHS, and other U.S. law enforcement agencies, and with foreign law enforcement partners, including in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico; targeted those organizations who have the most impact on the United States; and coordinated significant human smuggling indictments and extradition efforts in U.S. attorneys’ offices across the country. JTFA is comprised of 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. 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 and supported by the Office of Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training; the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section; the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section; the Office of Enforcement Operations; the Office of International Affairs; and the Organized Crime and Gang Section. JTFA also relies on substantial law enforcement investment from HSI, the FBI, the DEA, and other partners.

This investigation is also supported by the Extraterritorial Criminal Travel Strike Force (ECT) program, a partnership between the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and HSI. The ECT program focuses on human smuggling networks that may present particular national security or public safety risks or raise grave humanitarian concerns. ECT has dedicated investigative, intelligence and prosecutorial resources. ECT also coordinates and receives assistance from other U.S. government agencies and foreign law enforcement authorities.

The charges contained in an indictment are merely allegations. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of DHS, responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’ largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity.

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