A lucrative and growing cross-border human smuggling market is attracting domestic and international criminal organizations looking to cash in on moving “vulnerable” people from Canada into the United States, according to the senior RCMP officer who oversees border policing.
Chief Supt. Mathieu Bertrand, head of Serious and Organized Crime and Border Integrity at RCMP Federal Policing, said the force has recently recorded an “immense amount of intercepts” of cross-border smuggling attempts headed south, particularly across the Ontario-Quebec border with New York state and Vermont.
“There’s a lot of money to be made to smuggle individuals across our borders,” Bertrand said.
“There are multiple organized crime groups that are seeking participation in the lucrative market, both internationally based groups and domestic groups.”
U.S. border authority numbers show a substantial rise over the past year in the number of people smuggled from Canada primarily through a stretch of forested and rural borderlands, where eastern Ontario and Quebec meet the U.S.
Between October 2022 and September 2023, U.S. Border Patrol agents working in the Swanton Sector recorded 6,925 apprehensions of people from 79 countries, all crossing irregularly from Canada — a 550 per cent year-over-year increase, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.
U.S. Border Patrol said it detained 71 people crossing illegally from Canada through this region over the last weekend of November alone.
Nearly half of all apprehensions involve Mexican nationals, with Indian nationals comprising about 14 per cent of the total.
Police have limited tools to stop people
The RCMP is responsible for policing the Canadian border between official border customs posts, which are under the jurisdiction of the Canada Border Services Agency.
Bertrand said the RCMP currently has limited legal tools to stop people from travelling to the border.
“If we intercept individuals prior to them crossing the border, they’re in fact not committing any offence,” he said. “We have no authority to ask questions or begin an investigation at that time.”
Bertrand said sometimes people just get dropped off near the border for an eventual attempted crossing, but there’s little the police can do.
“It’s very hard to identify elements of the offence to charge those individuals and bring them to court,” he said.
An ongoing CBC News investigation has found that Canada is increasingly sold as an easy and safe alternative route to enter the U.S., as opposed to the more perilous paths and crossings of the northern Mexico border.
Some human smuggling organizations from Mexico even offer to arrange plane tickets to Toronto and Montreal, passports and electronic travel authorization as part of a package deal, U.S. court records show.
Warrants, traffic cams and Facebook videos
A review of U.S. court records associated with the investigation of a New Jersey-based human smuggling organization with Montreal links reveals just how much potential cash can be generated by runs south over the Canadian border.
The United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Vermont recently indicted three key members of the organization. They include Jhon Reina-Perez, a Colombian national who lived in Drummondville, Que., and Simon Jacinto-Ramos, a Guatemalan national currently wanted by the U.S. for extradition and whose last known address is an apartment in Montreal’s north end.
Jacinto-Ramos, who remains free in Canada, allegedly acted as the network’s Canadian-based broker, arranging and co-ordinating departures and pickups while also acting as a conduit for payments. His cellphone number was found in the contacts of several individuals arrested by border authorities after crossing Quebec bushlands into the U.S., according to court records.
Reina-Perez, who drove a Quebec-plated car in New Jersey registered under his name and a Drummondville address, allegedly hired three drivers who picked up 30 people smuggled into Vermont, according to court records. He was indicted and arrested in New Jersey in October and remains in custody.
U.S. court records reviewed by CBC News show the organization charged between $3,000 and $6,000 US per person for a smuggling run over the Quebec-Vermont border. These runs moved from three to seven people at a time, earning potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in just a few months for committed work.
Within the network, money from each smuggling run was often divided — in varying amounts — between the Canadian and U.S. organizers and drivers, who sometimes subcontracted others to do runs.
Human smugglers charging migrants to cross into U.S. from Canada
Duration6:14Along a stretch of the Canada-U.S. border, human smuggling networks are cashing in on another route to the American dream for people fleeing Mexico’s poverty and violence.
The court records also reveal the level of police resources needed to take down these types of organizations.
U.S. investigators used multiple warrants for cellphone device analysis, along with call, texting and financial records, traffic camera data and online surveillance to piece together a puzzle that began with information gleaned from interviews and cursory cellphone searches of apprehended irregular crossers over several months.
Investigators tracked one network member, Elmer Bran-Galvez, through Facebook videos he posted and allegedly filmed while conducting pickup runs to the Vermont-Quebec border. He was arrested this past June in Vermont, roughly three kilometres from the Canadian border, with four Guatemalan nationals in the back seat of his black Ford SUV, according to an affidavit filed in U.S. federal court seeking a warrant to examine a cellphone.
Bran-Galvez, who currently lives in Trenton, N.J., and was never charged, allegedly received $2,000 per run because he used his own vehicle. He travelled with a driver who allegedly received $1,000, according to the court record. Bran-Galvez allegedly completed at least six successful runs beginning in the fall of 2022 until his arrest in June, the affidavit said. He told CBC News in a text message exchange that he is no longer involved in that type of activity.
The four Guatemalan nationals arrested with Bran-Galvez allegedly paid $6,000 each to be smuggled from Montreal into the U.S. The man who allegedly hired him, Victor Francisco Lopez-Padilla, received $1,800 per person for the run, according to the court file.
The organization would have grossed $24,000 just on that one trip, with $7,200 going to Lopez-Padilla. The court records allege that Jacinto-Ramos — the Montreal contact — received half of the $6,000 fee, meaning he would have made $12,000.
Lopez-Padilla, who is currently in U.S. custody, was indicted in August, along with Jacinto-Ramos.
It’s unclear from the court records whether the New Jersey group was linked to a larger organized criminal entity.
References to ‘El Chapo’
An affidavit seeking authorization to search the cellphone of Lopez-Padilla, allegedly the group’s key U.S. player, notes the Guatemalan national posted “Confidente de la muerte jgl” (Death’s confidant) on his WhatsApp messaging profile.
The initials J.G.L. stand for Joaquin Guzman-Loera, also known as “El Chapo,” the now-jailed narco kingpin of the Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico, the affidavit said. Lopez-Padilla’s cellphone number was also listed under the name “JGL Mochomo” in one of his associate’s cellphones, according to the affidavit.
Mochomo was the nickname of Alfredo Beltran Leyva, a top narco leader of the Beltran Leyva clan who was once allied with “El Chapo.” Beltran Leyva was extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to life in prison in 2017.
Lopez-Padilla, who managed at least three Facebook pages under the alias “Francisco Villa” — perhaps in reference to Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa — and photographed himself holding pistols, appeared on the radar of U.S. investigators after an August 2022 apprehension of Mexican and Guatemalan nationals in Vermont near the border with Quebec.
A search by investigators of cellphones from the incident led to an Alberta phone number with the name “Alejandro Cana” and Lopez-Padilla’s cellphone number under the name Mochomo.
Investigators eventually put a name to the Mochomo phone number, obtained financial transaction records and, in December 2022, connected Lopez-Padilla to Jacinto-Ramos in Montreal. There is currently no arrest warrant for Jacinto-Ramos in Quebec, according to the RCMP.
Bertrand said Canadian authorities can’t always detain individuals indicted in the U.S. due to the two countries’ different criminal statutes.
“Just because an individual can be charged in the United States doesn’t mean we have the grounds in Canada … to do the same,” he said. “Through collaboration and co-ordination … we can share intelligence. There’s always a way to ensure that we can deter or prevent.”
Jacinto-Ramos is scheduled to appear in a court in Montreal on Jan. 4, 2024. He’s facing numerous charges, including assault with a weapon, criminal harassment and breaching the conditions of a restraining order involving an ex-spouse, according to court records.
He also pleaded guilty to drinking and driving in 2021 and was fined $3,000 Cdn, and was sentenced to 10 days in jail that same year for breaching release conditions, according to records.
Source : CBC