Sep 12, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden's smuggler crackdown

A makeshift memorial is erected at the site where 53 migrants died in San Antonio. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar/Getty Images

GUATEMALA CITY — The Biden administration could begin forcing more human smugglers arrested in other countries to face the U.S. justice system in an effort to crack down on the illegal networks booming throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Why it matters: The border crisis is both a humanitarian challenge and a sensitive political issue that Republicans have aggressively campaigned on, sometimes prompting Democrats in close midterm contests to criticize their own president.

  • The Biden administration has allowed more than 1 million undocumented immigrants into the U.S. to await asylum hearings, according to the New York Times.
  • A record 750 migrants have died at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year, with many facing increasingly treacherous conditions on their journeys to the U.S., CNN reported.

Driving the news: After a sweeping operation last month, four Guatemalans are facing extradition to the U.S., suspected of smuggling "large numbers" of migrants across Mexico and leading a woman to her death in Texas last April. It would be the first time Guatemalan citizens are extradited on suspicion of human smuggling.

  • More extraditions for migrant smugglers are likely to come, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement acting deputy director Patrick J. Lechleitner, who oversees Homeland Security Investigations.
  • "I do think we're going to be trying to use that tool to enhance the penalties," he told Axios.

What to watch: The four Guatemalan smugglers currently facing extradition were apprehended in early August as part of a multi-site raid across Guatemala involving Guatemalan national police and military and a Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (TCIU) of law enforcement trained by the U.S. There were a total of 19 arrests.

  • Their extradition could open doors for others responsible for high-profile, deadly smuggling incidents to face prosecution in the U.S.
  • The same TCIU is currently investigating two such incidents — including the recent tragedy in San Antonio that left 53 migrants dead inside a tractor-trailer.
  • The Justice Department has already filed charges against the four suspected smugglers connected to what is considered the most deadly human smuggling tragedy on U.S. soil.
  • The U.S.-backed Guatemalan investigators are also looking into a case from December that left 55 migrants dead when another tractor-trailer overturned in Chiapas, Mexico.

Between the lines: Limited legal pathways to the U.S. and deteriorating situations in Latin American countries are some of the factors that lead migrants and asylum seekers to turn to smugglers to help them reach the U.S.

  • Smugglers have little incentive to keep migrants safe, and the journey is often perilous.

What they're saying: The decision to bring human smugglers to the U.S. shows the government's determination to hold to account criminals who take advantage of — and endanger — desperate and impoverished people, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala William Popp told Axios.

  • In addition to being prosecuted in Guatemala, where there is a history of corruption and impunity, arrested smugglers could also face prosecution in the U.S.
  • The new efforts could help U.S. investigators learn more about how smuggling groups operate and forge new strategies for dismantling them, officials said.

The big picture: Extradition of smugglers from anywhere in the world is rare. Some countries do not allow nationals to be sent to the U.S. to face the justice system for human smuggling.

  • The Biden administration is in talks with the government of multiple nations in the hemisphere on increasing penalties for human smugglers at home and opening up pathways for prosecution in the U.S. as well, Lechleitner said.
  • Guatemala recently changed its own sentencing guidelines, with convicted human smugglers now facing up to 30 years behind bars.

By the numbers: Guatemala is one of the most cooperative partners the U.S. has in the region on issues like migration and trafficking. It extradited a record 67 individuals — mostly drug traffickers — last fiscal year.

  • DHS officials told Axios they are on track this year to see the second-highest number of extraditions, with 31 arrests of extraditable people so far — including the four suspected Guatamalans.
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