Sep 8, 2022 - World

Axios in Guatemala: Inside U.S. efforts to stop human smuggling

Guatemalan law enforcement prepare for an early morning search warrant execution. Photo: Stef Kight/Axios

MIXCO, GUATEMALA — Two wide-eyed schoolgirls in uniforms watched in silence from their doorway early one morning last week as armed national police, working in partnership with U.S. officials, raided a neighbor's cinder block home to seize evidence of a fraudulent visa-making operation.

Why it matters: The suspect, working under the alias “Robocop,” was the target of a special group of Guatemala's national police who are trained by U.S. Homeland Security officials to crack down on migrant and drug smuggling, human trafficking, fraud and other crimes that impact American security.

  • Axios was invited to embed with the special team to observe how these Transnational Criminal Investigative Units, or TCIUs, operate — the first time a U.S. reporter was given such access to these agents and tactical operations.

Driving the news: I witnessed an arrest in a gang-ridden neighborhood in Mixco and U.S. agents providing first-of-its-kind instruction to Guatemalan police. I also toured a U.S.-funded clandestine facility where vetted Guatemalan agents live and work alongside a handful of temporary U.S. investigators.

  • Human smuggling cases have become a primary focus for the unit, especially after the rise of migrant caravans in 2019 and back-to-back years of record numbers at the U.S. border.

The big picture: Guatemalan police have been working hand in hand with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security since 2011. It's now the largest TCIU in the world.

By the numbers: Officials say vetted agents in Guatemala have dismantled four smuggling networks this year. The search and arrest I witnessed related to visa fraud marked the TCIU's 21st case this year.

  • One case yielded 19 arrests last month. Four are slated to become the first Guatemalans extradited to the U.S. for human smuggling.
  • 800 of 2,500 arrests made worldwide last year by TCIUs were in Guatemala — and that number is expected to double this year, Hector Quintana, who oversees TCIU agent training, told Axios.
Guatemalan anti-narcotics agent conducts a search in the Ciudad Quetzal
Guatemalan police agent on the anti-narcotics unit helps conduct a search. Photo: Stef Kight/Axios

How it works: The U.S. lacks jurisdiction to arrest criminals in other countries. But those counterparts often lack adequate resources or are plagued by corruption.

  • TCIUs leverage diplomacy, tens of millions of dollars, training and equipment to support vetted foreign police in taking down cartels, visa frauds and smuggling networks.
  • "We're extending the border," Ricardo Mayoral, deputy assistant director at HSI, told Axios. "We're providing the capacity, the training to our partners in the Western Hemisphere and other areas of the world," to stop criminal networks from coming to the U.S.
  • DHS surged U.S. personnel to these teams earlier this year amid record numbers at the border. That was part of a new push to crack down on human smuggling and trafficking networks in the hemisphere — and to ready for the end of COVID-era border policies.
Guatemalan investigators executing a search warrant. Photo: Stef Kight/Axios

Between the lines: For years, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — known as the Northern Triangle nations — have been top sources for irregular migration to the U.S.-Mexico border. Migrants and asylum seekers coming from Central America often cite financial strain, violence or political persecution as reasons for fleeing.

  • In FY 2019, 64% of encounters at the U.S.-Mexico border — about two in three — were with Northern Triangle nationals.
  • But that share has fallen to just 24% this fiscal year, as the number of migrants traveling from further south and overseas has skyrocketed. This makes Guatemala a critical transit country as well as a continued source of migration.

Zoom in: Some members of the Guatemalan TCIU have only recently completed a three-week training course in Perry, Georgia, while the longest-serving members joined the team nine years ago.

  • Most are men, but the group does include some female agents. One, who gave only her first name, Victoria, said the unit's women "do not have the same force or strength, but sometimes a woman has more intelligence."

After the death of two TCIU agents in Mexico a couple of years ago, DHS this year launched advanced training sessions to help keep agents safe.

  • The Guatemala team had its first such training over the last week of August, practicing how to clear a room and properly handcuff a suspect, in addition to shooting practice.
  • U.S. officials told Axios they hope in the future to be able to offer stipends to police who work with them. Their wages now come only from Guatemalan government.
Guatemalan police receive advanced training from HSI agents. Photo: Stef Kight/Axios

What's next: Each of the TCIUs, in 14 countries, looks different, depending on the needs and allowances of the host country.

  • Top officials involved in the program told Axios they plan to expand next year — building out current teams, adding an additional training session in Georgia for new recruits and expanding to four more countries.
  • The U.S. is looking closely at Haiti, where escalating gang violence has pushed many more people to flee and is endangering unauthorized migrants whom the U.S. has recently deported.
Go deeper