Skip to content

Illustration by Security Management

U.S. Agency Partnership Zeroes In on Human Smugglers at the Border

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is launching a new operation to target transnational criminal organizations that smuggle immigrants across the southern U.S. border, often placing their victims in life-threatening situations in favor of profits.

Dubbed Operational Sentinel, the project seeks to disrupt smuggling operations’ profits through joint action from DHS, Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Citizenship and Immigration Services, Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations, the State Department, the FBI, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, NBC News reported.

During the current surge of migrants crossing the U.S. border, smugglers have abandoned women and children who can’t keep up with larger groups of people being trafficked north into the United States. According to CBP Acting Commissioner Troy Miller, the agency has rescued more than 4,700 migrants who were abandoned by smugglers along the southwest border since October. Video has emerged of toddlers being dropped from a 14-foot border fence by smugglers and a young boy abandoned in the desert. On 22 April, Border Patrol agents apprehended a group of three adults with a two-year-old and six-year-old after human smugglers lowered them by rope down a 30-foot section of the border wall, according to a CBP press release.

“Smugglers often use this tactic to minimize their own risk of injury,” said Chief Patrol Agent Gregory Bovino in the release. “They are willing to put others in jeopardy, including children, even when they won’t risk themselves.”

Smugglers have been seen speeding across backcountry in Texas, driving through barbed wire fences at breakneck speeds, putting trucks full of passengers—as well as bystanders—at risk, NPR reported. In the town of Cotulla in Texas, school officials warned parents to be cautious when letting children play outside or walk to school because the sheriff’s department was conducting up to 10 high-speed car chases a day with human smugglers.

In fiscal year 2020, Border Patrol located 250 migrants who died during the journey, DHS said.

“Transnational criminal organizations put profit over human life, with devastating consequences,” said DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.  “With the help of our federal and foreign partners, we aim to cut off access to that profit by denying these criminals the ability to engage in travel, trade, and finance in the United States. We intend to disrupt every facet of the logistical network that these organizations use to succeed.”

Anti-smuggling efforts have pitted the Biden administration against platforms like Facebook, where human smugglers have marketed their services, according to CNN. Earlier in 2021, the United States launched an international social media and radio campaign to dissuade migrants from using smugglers to travel north. However, crime groups are spreading misinformation online and through word of mouth to encourage people to make the journey.

The Operation Sentinel partners will target personnel and identifiable resources that transnational criminal organizations need to continue to operate by employing targeted actions and sanctions to disrupt profits, such as revoking travel documents, suspending or disbarring trade entities, and freezing bank accounts and other financial assets tied to the organizations’ logistical networks.