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Border securityTo stem flow of minors, U.S. goes after human traffickers’ finances

Published 24 July 2014

Many of the 57,000 Central American minors who have crossed the Southwest border since October 2013 did so with the help of smugglers operating as part of a human trafficking network. To bring down these networks, federal agents from DHS and the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network(FinCEN) are reviewing suspicious bank transactions at U.S. banks, specifically accounts that are experiencing a sudden surge in transfers to Mexico.

Many of the 57,000 Central American minors who have crossed the Southwest border since October 2013 did so with the help of smugglers operating as part of a human trafficking network. To bring down these networks, federal agents from DHS and the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) are reviewing suspicious bank transactions at U.S. banks, specifically accounts that are experiencing a sudden surge in transfers to Mexico.

Officials familiar with the investigation report that many human trafficking networks are supported in part by billion-dollar narcotics syndicates. The cartels are not directly running the human-smuggling operations but for a per-migrant-fee, they provide security as migrants travel along the routes controlled by the cartels. The cartels’ “main line of business is drug trafficking, but of course they are profit driven, and any activity they can make a buck from, they will seize that opportunity,” said a senior U.S. law enforcement official familiar with the human-trafficking investigations.

The Los Angeles Times reports that Mexican and Central American smugglers, or coyotes, tend to charge $3,000 to $12,000 to bring a child from Central America into the United States. The small transaction amount, often less than $10,000 makes it difficult for treasury officials to quickly identify suspicious activity but FinCEN has issued an advisory to U.S. banks on the “increased use of funnel accounts” by money launderers. Common red flags for accounts used by smugglers include accounts in Southwest border states receiving multiple cash deposits of less than $10,000 from bank branches in other parts of the country, frequent deposits into accounts from people who do not know the account owner, and checks or wire transfers moving funds from such accounts into Mexican banks.

In March, Joel Mazariegos-Soto, a Guatemalan who worked at a dairy farm in upstate New York, was sentenced to five years in prison for operating an illegal funnel account for a human smuggling ring. In the four months before his arrest, investigators tracked $70,000 in deposits into the account from individuals paying to have their family members smuggled into the country.

The number of child migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador is estimated to reach 90,000 by the end of 2014. DHS and Justice Department officials worry that the cartels supporting the smugglers will continue to increase their participation in human smuggling.

Last month, DHS chief Jeh Johnson sent sixty additional human smuggling investigators to field offices in Houston and San Antonio. As part of its $3.7 billion proposal to immediately improve border security and manage the influx of child migrants, the Obama administration has requested an additional $109 million from Congress to expand DHS’ anti-smuggling operations. “The agency is starting to put more energy toward dismantling these groups than they had in the past,” said Alonzo Peña, former deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2008 to 2010. “Before, making a great narcotics seizure was always looked at as much more career-enhancing than getting a load of aliens,” Peña said.