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US attorney in New Mexico focuses on human trafficking

March 15, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Organized criminal groups are using the crush of asylum seekers from Central America and elsewhere as cover for smuggling immigrants across the state’s remote border with Mexico, according to federal authorities in New Mexico.

“We are making a concerted effort to investigate and prosecute organizations involved in human trafficking,” U.S. Attorney John C. Anderson tells the Albuquerque Journal . He said that includes smugglers as well as those who are taking advantage of asylum seekers.

Anderson described New Mexico as a “transit point” for people entering the country illegally or through the asylum process.

The border state in recent months has seen a surge of large groups — mostly Central Americans — being taken into custody at remote spots such as Antelope Wells or areas further north near Deming.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s El Paso sector — which includes New Mexico — processed thousands of asylum seekers just in February. Shelters in the area have run out of space, resulting in hundreds of the migrants being bused to Las Cruces and Albuquerque while they await travel to other destinations pending formal hearings.

Homeland Security Investigations and Border Patrol agents have identified several organized criminal groups that have been smuggling immigrants across the southern border to ultimate destinations in Alabama, New Jersey, Tennessee and elsewhere.

Agents have arrested human smugglers in the small towns of Hachita in southwestern New Mexico and Dexter south of Roswell as well as Albuquerque and Birmingham, Alabama.

Just this week, Maximo Gonzalez-Sebastian of Guatemala was convicted of holding migrants in the country illegally at a rented home in New Mexico. Prosecutors say he told at least one of the Mexican nationals he was keeping that he would not release them until he received payments by wire transfer from family members or others.

In another case, agents in Deming learned from Guatemalan families about a smuggling operation that had a link to an address in Nashville, Tennessee, according to a search warrant. They suspect it was connected to an organization that has been operating in Mexico and Guatemala for years.

According to court records, one woman told agents she made a down payment of 15,000 quetzals (about $1,950) for her and her son to be smuggled into the U.S. She was promised a job to pay the remainder of the smuggling fee.

Asylum seekers can get a federal work permit if they win their asylum case, or they can apply for a work permit if the case drags out for a certain period of time.

Authorities say the smugglers promise that people willing to pay the fee — about $5,800 — get unfettered entry into the U.S. if the adults are accompanied by a child.

In Dexter, agents recently rounded up more than 60 people — mostly from Guatemala and Ecuador — from a stash house that consisted of a wooden addition attached to a travel trailer with no working toilet. They were all in the country illegally and told agents they had been held there for days awaiting transport — and payment to the smugglers.

Tomas Miguel Mateo, 38, of Guatemala is charged with harboring the migrants and with unlawfully re-entering the United States after having been previously deported. Court records say Mateo made the migrants take off their shoes before entering the trailer so they couldn’t run away.

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com

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