Large numbers of illegal aliens demanding asylum continue to arrive at the U.S. southwest border with the help of transnational criminal organizations. The Center for Immigration Studies hosted a panel discussion on Wednesday, October 19, focusing on the asylum surge, the policies which have created the influx, the cartels' role in this phenomenon, and policy prescriptions to address it.
Reports and Panel Media
Report: Border Asylum Claims Up Tenfold Since 2009
Book: The Hunt for Maan Singh
Panel Announcement: Cartels, Human Smuggling, and the Asylum Surge
Panel Video: Cartels, Human Smuggling, and the Asylum Surge
Date: October 19, 2016, at 3:30am
Location: National Press Club, 529 14th St, NW, 13th Floor, Washington, D.C.
Director of Policy Studies, Center for Immigration Studies
Mrs. Vaughan covers the operational side of the Center's immigration research, including immigration enforcement, visa programs and benefits adjudication. Prior to joining the Center, Mrs. Vaughan was a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department. Much of Ms. Vaughan's research and writing focuses on immigration and crime, including a Department of Justice-funded project studying the use of immigration law enforcement in transnational gang suppression efforts.
Former Federal Agent
Mr. Acosta, one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Immigration and Nationalization Service, rose through the ranks from Border Patrol Agent to District Director, U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services in Houston. He is the author of The Shadow Catcher: A U.S. Agent infiltrates Mexico's Deadly Crime Cartels
and co-author with A.J. Irwin of The Hunt for Maan Singh
, the story of the largest alien smuggling organization ever dismantled in United States history.
Former Federal Agent
Mark Krikorian (Moderator)
Mr. Irwin, a highly decorated former federal agent, led ICE investigative operations for the central corridor of the United States. He served as lead case agent in the largest corporate criminal immigration investigation in U.S. history and the largest human trafficking investigation, leading to the prosecution of three separate criminal organizations. He is the co-author of The Hunt for Maan Singh
, which describes the covert operation that destroyed a worldwide smuggling syndicate.
Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies
Transcript By Superior Transcriptions LLC
MARK KRIKORIAN: Good morning.
Will we see this video later, Jessica?
JESSICA VAUGHAN: I wasn’t sure if it was going to work so I didn’t really –
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK. Well, that’s fine. No problem. We’ll turn it on afterwards and if you’re really interested you can watch it.
MS. VAUGHAN: Yeah, maybe during if I have –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Good morning. My name is Mark Krikorian. I am the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, and we’re – the panel today is looking at the issue of human smuggling at the border, part of which is this surge in asylum seekers, but also more generally on human smuggling.
Our first speaker is going to be Jessica Vaughan. She is the one who has put together this brief report outside. She is the director of policy studies for CIS. And the report really just gives us some current information on this situation at the border. It’s the latest numbers of illegal immigrants, many if not most of them smuggled by these human smuggling organizations that coach them to pretend they’re seeking political asylum as a way of getting into the United States.
Followed by Jessica’s talk we’re going to have a presentation by two veteran law enforcement officers who have long experience with these human smuggling organizations – not of course doing smuggling but investigating and breaking up these organizations.
The first speaker is Hipolito Acosta, one of the most decorated officers in the old INS. He retired shortly after the Department of Homeland Security was created, so he was also a top official in DHS, was in the Border Patrol, involved in criminal investigations, high profile investigations not only in the United States but abroad, in Latin America and all over the world. He’s aggressively gone after these human smuggling organizations.
And the – we have two books that our authors are involved with. This is from 2012, I think it is, book, that Mr. Acosta authored, “The Shadow Catcher,” on this issue of infiltrating cartels and breaking them up.
And then the brand new book is “The Hunt for Maan Singh,” which talks – which is by Mr. Acosta and our other speaker, A.J. Irwin, which is looking at a particular large human smuggling network and what was involved in investigating and breaking it up. It basically reads kind of like a thriller except it’s actually real instead of made up.
And Mr. Acosta actually has a book coming out in the spring, his third book, “Deep in the Shadows: Undercover in the Ruthless World of Human Smuggling.”
We only have these two for sale if you’re interested. The other one isn’t out yet. But they will be available afterwards if you want, and the authors can sign them.
And the co-author of “The Hunt for Maan Singh” is A.J. Irwin, another veteran law enforcement agent – was involved in ICE criminal investigations, was recognized for his role in the INS investigation into the 9/11 attacks, and is involved in, you know – he’s out of the government now doing – in the private sector, working basically in the same kind of area, in law enforcement-related areas.
So we’re going to start with Jessica, and then A.J. and Mr. Acosta are going to sort of figure out how they’re going to tag-team their presentation.
MS. VAUGHAN: Thanks, Mark. And thank you all for being here this morning.
It’s a pleasure for me to be here with Poli and A.J. I’ve been an admirer of their work and read “The Shadow Catcher” – it’s great; I highly recommend it – and am making my way through “The Hunt for Maan Singh” and it’s fascinating, particularly in light of current developments in immigration policy and at the border in particular.
Just a couple of days ago DHS Secretary Johnson released the 2016 statistics on apprehensions of illegal arrivals at the border and reported a significant uptick in 2016 over the previous year. They apprehended just over 400,000 illegal aliens. The largest growth was in the category of new family arrivals, most of whom are making an asylum claim, and this is a concern.
And I have in the last six months or so – in the spring in particular had the occasion to visit ports of entry – legal ports of entry along the border in Texas and in California, and in briefings there by CBP was told that their biggest concern – at the time one of their biggest issues that they were dealing with was this phenomenon of large numbers of people arriving at the border seeking asylum. And the Border Patrol is reporting this as well, that a large number of the people that they are apprehending, unlike times in the past, are asking to stay based on a fear of return home.
If you read the statements from DHS and certainly from many of the advocacy groups working on immigration, the impression you get is that this phenomenon of more people arriving at the border seeking asylum is kind of a spontaneous phenomenon – more or less a random phenomenon that’s occurring because of events in these migrants’ home countries that are driving them here, that they are fleeing oppression, when in fact this is not a random or spontaneous phenomenon at all. It is an organized process that is happening, facilitated in large part by criminal smuggling organizations, and in particular the policies that our government has that enable people to – who reach our border to succeed in being able to stay here for some indefinite period of time under the guise of seeking asylum.
And The Washington Times recently – let me see if I can get that. I’m sorry. I think this is – oops. I wanted to just hit – that one? There we go. Thank you, Brian. Now you can see it a little bit better.
This map very nicely illustrates the process that people coming from noncontiguous countries, as they are known – in other words, countries other than Canada and Mexico – are going through to reach the United States. And if you look at the map, you see – this is referring to the Haitians, which is one of the most recent groups of people who are coming in large numbers. Haiti, of course, is up here, but they’re traveling this route to enter in Tijuana.
I noticed this recently in immigration court as well when I was sitting on the day where a lot of Haitian asylum applicants were being – having their hearings. I was sitting in Boston, but almost all of them had arrived in San Diego through the San Ysidro port of entry, which is opposite Tijuana.
So this is a long route, which I am told by my co-panelists actually can take at least six months, maybe up to a year and a half for these folks to make their way through from starting – some of them had been living in Brazil since the earthquake – to make their way all through this multi-step travel, which they can’t do on their own – they are paying criminal smuggling organizations to do it – until they end up in Tijuana.
Different nationalities appear at different ports of entry. And again, it’s not random. There are patterns involved here. Central Americans largely go through the Rio Grande Valley. The Indians who are coming usually go through Arizona. Eritreans go through a different port of entry, all according to the smuggling organization that they’re working for – excuse me, that they’re paying – that the coyotes are working for.
So it’s not an organic process at all. The result has been a huge explosion in the number of so-called credible fear claims that people are making at – to Border Patrol agents when they’re apprehended, and also at the ports of entry. A claim of fearing return to your homeland is the first step in the asylum process. And you can see – these are numbers taken from USCIS’s workload statistics that I collected off of their website and through some other sources – they’re not published normally in one spot – but you can see the huge explosion that’s taken place in the number of asylum applications starting in about 2009 and continuing to today.
There’s no real coincidence that the increase began in 2009, because in December 2009 an executive action was taken by the Obama administration that changed significantly the way asylum seekers were being handled when encountered either by the Border Patrol or the port of entry. Rather than being kept in custody while their applications are reviewed, instead the – a memorandum was issued telling ICE that they were to be granted parole or allowed to enter the country and await the review of their asylum application – basically a fancy way of saying a catch-and-release policy. And as word has gotten around that if you come and make an asylum claim that you will be released, I think that has a lot to do with why the numbers have gone up.
Most of them, as I said, are coming – are being processed in the southwest border, being handled by the Houston Asylum Office, with a smaller number being handled by the Los Angeles Asylum office, which covers California and Arizona. Houston covers New Mexico and Texas. And you see a huge – the Newark office actually covers also La Guardia and Kennedy airport in particular, where a lot of international asylum claims will be – claimants will come through. But you can see this is largely a phenomenon that’s happening in Texas.
And here you have the nationalities of the people that are making the asylum claims, with El Salvador being the number one citizenship of the people who are making the claims.
Interestingly, in 2015, India became the fifth-largest source of asylum applicants, displacing Ecuador, which has long had a tradition of sending people here illegally, or people arriving from there illegally.
And this chart I think gives us a sense of the disconnect between what the law provides for, in terms of people gaining admission and permanent residence in the United States and the way these cases are handled. What I did was I took the number of new credible fear applicants – applications that had been received since October 2014 and going through partway this year. We see tens of thousands of people making asylum applications. The column on the right shows the results of those cases that were decided in 2015 for people of those same nationalities. And as it turns out, while a lot of people are getting let in to make an asylum application, very few of them are actually being approved once their case is fully reviewed.
So we’re letting in large numbers of people to pursue these applications even though they have a very small chance of actually qualifying for asylum, which leads to questions about, you know, is the policy that we have appropriate.
And again, this – when you consider how this issue has been presented to the public as something that is sort of out of our control and that we have international obligations to accept these individuals, in fact under the law and under international agreements, we do have options that we can take as far as how we handle these cases. And as Poli and A.J. will discuss, there are things that we can do from a law enforcement approach as well, that this is not a force of nature that we as a country simply have to manage. It is something that our policies have a lot to do with encouraging, and through policy changes we could do something about this.
There definitely are impacts of this influx of asylum seekers in San Diego. The city government there is concerned that unlike past waves of asylum seekers, the Haitians who are coming through that particular port of entry are not necessarily moving on to other parts of the United States like they used to. They’re sticking around in San Diego, and this is creating a little bit more attention from authorities there and more calls for action.
We understand from some of the press reports coming out of Latin America that there have been about – more than 11,000 Haitians who have transited Mexico and been issued a transit permit by the government of Mexico to wait their turn to seek asylum at the U.S. border. And that again gives you a sense of how this is building up. And we may have – you know, we don’t really have the latest numbers to show what’s – you know, how many people have – are being admitted, but there’s reason to believe based on the numbers coming out of Mexico that there’s been a huge increase in the number of Haitians who are coming.
And I was just showing the tape before we started of – oops – of the people – that was a videotape that was provided by Representative Duncan Hunter’s office showing the numbers of Haitians lining up at the office in Mexico to wait their turn to cross into the United States.
So it is quite an organized process. A lot – some people have asked, you know, well, why do they start in South America? Why Ecuador in particular? And the gentleman at the center of the smuggling organization featured in this book says the answer is easy; you don’t need a visa to get into Ecuador. That’s why they start there. And that’s why the journey begins there rather than the shorter journey from Haiti by boat to Florida, which many people associate with Haitian migration.
And of course the other half of the answer is they can get in in Tijuana; they may be stopped by the Coast Guard if they try to go by boat to Florida.
So, and again, they’re coming because our policy allows them – you know, rewards them with the ability to stay here.
So I want to just move on to Poli and A.J. to talk about what can be done about this phenomenon from a law enforcement perspective, and then we’ll take your questions. Thanks.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Poli, A.J., however you guys want to divide it up.
HIPOLITO ACOSTA: Thank you. And thank you, Mark and Jessica. And thank you all for being with us so early this morning to talk about what I think is a very important and sensitive topic for our country and for the world as well.
And just as a bit of background, while I have a very, very strong background in enforcement, I also worked 13 years outside the country processing refugees in Southeast Asia and Vietnam. I finalized the opening of the first permanent INS office in Havana, Cuba, before we had diplomatic relations. I was the assistant officer in charge at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin during the Mariel Boatlift. And it just goes to show that, thank the good Lord, I’ve been around forever. (Laughter.) But I’ve been able to serve my country in a great profession.
So I had a lot of – a lot of experience with asylum seekers, with refugee seekers, and of course in the human smuggling aspect. And we talked about the Haitians that are coming in, transiting Mexico, Central America, and this has been a tradition also and I – by Cubans as well. But where’s the tie-in? We have Cubans coming into Mexico, orchestrated by human smuggling organizations because they know that once they get into Mexico and then actually enter the United States, they’re home free because of our special agreement we have with Cuba.
Well, we see that over the years, as Jessica mentioned. That has gone on in a little bit of a different way because the Cubans ultimately, after less than a couple of years, are eligible to become permanent residents. Others that are seeking that status in the United States might not get legal permanent residence, but once they make that application, they might get a permit to work, they get a permit to be in the country. So it’s almost the equivalent of having a legal resident status without having to receive the green card. They’re eligible to work. So they’re in the United States, and for the most part the removal of many of these folks is not at the rate of denials that are happening throughout the country.
There’s one other factor, before we get into “The Hunt for Maan Singh,” that I’d like to share. Recently Venezuela has seen a great number of their citizens applying for status in the United States because of the conditions, whether it’s economic or the government. And there was something ironic that happened a few weeks ago. You saw the figures that Jessica put up there with Houston. The number of applications that they have there is huge, which is the area that they process the highest number in the United States.
But I was asked by this lady who lives in Miami, who is from Venezuela, and actually I think has a reasonable claim, if she should transfer her petition to Houston or actually change her address to Houston because they would process it much, much faster than in Miami. So that kind of gives you an idea of how easy it is to manipulate the system.
Now, mind you that our country is a welcoming country, and we extend our arms and we help people throughout the world. But we also need to be strong in the enforcement, the security of our border, and the security of the interior communities of the United States, because I think sometimes we have a big issue. We say, well, we can’t deal with this until we shut the border down.
Ladies and gentlemen, actually, we not only have to secure the borders. We have to secure the interior parts of the United States. A.J. was a joint task force coordinator after 9/11. If he were to share some of the stories of what happened inside the United States, inside some of the communities, you know, it’s a great concern, because we’ve seen recently, for example, in Texas, where we’ve had at least five people indicted since 2011, that either entered as – some of them entered as refugees, were admitted into the country, and ultimately were proven to have ties to some terrorist organizations. As a matter of fact, there was one that pled guilty this week that had entered the United States in that particular status.
But coming back to what Jessica was talking about for “The Hunt for Maan Singh,” I’m proud that in my 30 years we pursued some of the hardest cases of human smugglers wherever they were at. Niranjan Maan Singh was based in Ecuador. And there’s the cover of our book. And, by the way, that’s not Maan Singh, by the way. The middle pilot is my son, so I’m very proud of that.
MS. VAUGHAN: I’ll hold it up.
A.J. IRWIN: While he’s connecting that, I’d just like to say, to tie Jessica’s presentation with the book is that smuggling organizations, whether it be narcotics or people, they have a very effective intelligence-gathering system. And it’s – and I say this; I get criticized a lot – it’s much more effective than what we have in the U.S. government, because they share. They will share the information amongst organizations and then they move people for each other and share the profits.
So when there’s a process like asylum or there’s some kind of policy that happens here that affects detention or your ability to get parole or whatever here in the United States, it travels in the intelligence – you know, the criminal organizations’ intelligence network.
The other thing is – the tie-in is that when people from other countries arrive in Mexico, it becomes a springboard into the United States. That’s why, in this case, we went farther. We went south. We went down to South America and targeted an organization that was operating there. Smugglers like to operate far away from the United States because they believe that they’ll never be arrested, and if they are charged, indicted with some kind of crime, that they’ll never actually be brought to the United States and brought to justice. So that’s kind of a tie-in. And then as soon as we have this PowerPoint up, we’ll go on to the other thing.
MS. VAUGHAN: Our policies actually give the smuggling organizations a product to sell, and that is the strong likelihood that if someone takes that long journey through whatever route and makes it to the U.S. border, that it’s very likely that they’re going to succeed in their effort to stay in the United States.
And before – one of the things I learned when I visited a couple of the ports of entry was that the policy change happened before 1996. People were often sent to our consulate or embassies inside – our embassy and consulates inside Mexico to make their asylum application and wait there. They weren’t immediately allowed to come into the United States, and that that was a big difference to – in their likelihood of success.
MR. ACOSTA: You know, and going back to Operation Seek and Keep, if you look at the news there, we had a press conference in November 1998. So, ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about almost 20 years ago. So is it relevant today? Were the same things going on back then? A.J. mentioned that we pursued Niranjan Maan Singh, who, by the way, had set up his operation in Quito, Ecuador, and it’s 2,002 miles from the southernmost part of Texas. So that kind of gives you an idea. He felt isolated. He was protected. He had officials that were working with him in Ecuador.
And Jessica mentioned something that was extremely important. They had direct ties from Cuba. They were coming in with people that did not have visas. They were allowed to stay. They were given a permit to stay for three days. And, of course, we all knew that that was just an entry point into Ecuador. They were being received by Maan Singh. And he had an extensive organization.
If you’ll go back to the map that we had for the operation back then, you look at where it was coming from. You had people coming from India, Pakistan. We ultimately had individuals from Syria, Iran, Iraq that were using the smuggling organization, one part of the organization or other. But this was one of the most common routes, where they started in India, going into Moscow, going into Cuba, the Bahamas. Ultimately you see the point going down from Cuba into Quito, Ecuador. And then you see the journey being started northward, whether it was by boat, by plane, or by land. And it kind of gives you an idea.
So coming back to give you a little bit of a story on Niranjan Maan Singh, this is one of the pictures that was taken of him in Quito, Ecuador. And I’ll let A.J. give you a little bit of history on Mr. Maan Singh.
MR. IRWIN: Well, Maan Singh was a notorious smuggler. He had been detected by many intelligence agencies. Unfortunately, going back to the intelligence sharing, we didn’t know about it as agents on the ground. Nobody knew about it. When I was first invited to a task force meeting and they talked about him, I had no idea who he was. And I had to read about a hundred pages of intel. Oh, OK, this guy’s a pretty significant smuggler.
A few years before we started this investigation, he was actually on a large cargo ship in Nova Scotia that was full of about 200 aliens. And it was interdicted by the Canadian navy. Maan Singh was taken into custody, and he was put on bond. And he fled. He just took off. But he continued operating. He moved around Central America, the Caribbean, and ended up in Quito, Ecuador.
He – if anything ran through Ecuador and then later Venezuela, Maan Singh had a finger – he was actually the godfather of smuggling in that area. Now, other organizations operated. I don’t want to mislead you. But in order to operate through his route or in his territory, he had to be paid. And that’s how he kind of grew to prominence.
MR. ACOSTA: And if you look at the picture on the right, the one on the left is actually of Mr. Maan Singh before the investigation. The one on the right is after we had already done the indictment in 1998.
A.J. mentioned something that’s extremely important. We did not have the intelligence sharing that, you know, was so magnified after 9/11. And Mr. Maan Singh fled because of the – we had some obstacles that we had to overcome here in Washington, D.C., with our headquarters, pressured not to take the case down. Mr. Maan Singh and I had some conversations by telephone. And he was two weeks away from actually being arrested, and we were ordered to take the operation down. Mr. Maan Singh fled.
And ultimately one thing that I hope that we get across on this message, we were always told we couldn’t do it, but we would never take no for an answer. And even after the indictment was done, we had arrests all over the country and several places outside the United States. A.J. and I continued. Even as our career moved on, we continued tracking Mr. Maan Singh. And we found this – and we got this picture of Mr. Maan Singh in Venezuela, where he had fled. Ultimately he was brought to justice.
And so what we did, when we started doing this investigation, we actually took what we called a two-pronged approach. One of the things that was being done at that time was that they were taking migrants and were putting them on vessels, similar to the one you see there, El Almirante.
On this particular vessel, when we went undercover, they were going to put 28 people in this small fishing vessel. You can imagine how hard it is to travel out there. If you’ve ever been out at sea, if you’re not used to it, you know how difficult it can be. But it’s just an idea of how hard it is for people coming to the country. But that’s not a cheap fare. They were paying anywhere from 25(,000 dollars) to $35,000 to get to the United States.
We ultimately had a very difficult part with this particular phase of the operation because we were required to monitor this boat with stringent guidelines from the Department of Justice. We had to know where it was at at all times. But, of course, we were not on the boat, so it became very difficult.
They hit a storm and they were lost at sea for a period of time. And the Department of Justice made us stop the undercover operation until we found that boat. And it was not an easy thing. We were glad that ultimately it landed. We didn’t know then the Department of Justice required that before we were allowed to continue, that A.J. and I had to personally see the people that had been transported in that vessel.
Now, mind you that they were in Central America. Well, we didn’t take no for an answer. So A.J. and I traveled to the bayous of Guatemala and went and met with the people that were on that boat. Of course, we didn’t tell them we were agents, but ultimately came back with a picture, and we were allowed to continue.
I’ll let A.J. talk a little bit about the air approach.
MS. VAUGHAN: Did you tell them you were social workers? (Laughter.)
MR. ACOSTA: Actually, we took a picture and we left.
MS. VAUGHAN: Oh. (Laughs.) Or from a human-rights organization.
MR. IRWIN: The two-pronged approach here was – and it goes back to what Jessica said in her original presentation – is the land route is difficult. To go from Ecuador or from anywhere in South America all the way up to Central America and into Mexico is very difficult. It’s a long trip. But there’s a lot of different countries you go through. There’s a lot of terrain. It’s dangerous. You face injury, drowning in some of the rivers and lakes, being robbed.
And so these were the alternative routes that they started using. The boat – the vessel scheme was being used. But what we saw, they were overloading these vessels. You’ve seen pictures of just, you know, standing room only on these 40-foot, 60-foot fishing vessels. Obviously that was dangerous.
So when Maan Singh was going to use this, we tried to take control of it so that we could limit the number of passengers that would be on this, so we could do an effective undercover operation but minimize the risk to the passengers.
And then, so secondly – and this case started with a pilot, a commercial pilot that was recruited by Maan Singh. He flew down to the border in South Texas and then he’d fly groups of people back and forth. That ended up in a big mess. You can read about it in the book if you’d like. But this is him. He wanted to be a commercial pilot all of his life. That’s why he was smuggling aliens is because he was getting miles. He was getting hours flying back and forth.
MR. ACOSTA: And getting paid.
MR. IRWIN: He didn’t realize how much – he was only getting paid a little bit of money until he realized exactly what he was doing. One time the smugglers had asked him to fly relatives, cousins. And so he’s Pakistani. They were mostly Indian. And he noticed, on about his sixth or seventh trip, that one of the cousins was Mexican. So he inquired, what’s going on? Do we have relatives in Mexico? This guy doesn’t – and they said, well, you know, actually, you’re smuggling people. And he said, well, then you need to pay me more than $100 a trip. So he started to get greedy as the trip went on.
Anyways, he wanted to be a pilot, a commercial pilot. We were monitoring his activity and miscommunication and other things. He was arrested in San Antonio by our San Antonio without – we were a task force, but San Antonio didn’t call and say, hey, we’re going to arrest this guy. They weren’t supposed to. They were supposed to surveil him. So that screwed up our investigation.
So we had to come up with an alternative plan. So I was just thinking, kind of brainstorming, and I just said why don’t we bring him on American Airlines? That’s as safe as it gets. American Airlines – I’m based in Dallas, Texas. That’s where their base is in Fort Worth. So they said do you know anybody at American Airlines? I said no.
I just looked it up and called their corporate security office and started talking to this guy. I told him who I was, told him our plan. He said he’d get back to me. Within a couple of days we had approval, as long as we were able to get it approved, undercover operation, from the Department of Justice. And that’s what we did. We worked with American Airlines. They allowed our passengers – we were undercover; we were smuggling for Maan Singh – to board.
Now, the part of that that I guess you have to understand is that the airlines is responsible. If they bring people to the United States and that person doesn’t have a proper travel document, then they’ve got to take him back and also face fines. So what we were going to do, we just kind of indemnified American Airlines. We said, no, work with us. Trust us. We’re the government. (Laughter.) We won’t fine you. We won’t make you take anybody back. And it turned out to be a great partnership, because it was safe.
But the best part of it was – is when Maan Singh and his organization heard we don’t have to go the land route, we don’t have to overload boats, we can just put them on commercial airlines, they went crazy. They said we’re going to start moving people. In fact, they wanted to start moving other people, women and children, and charging more money, because the dangerous route was – they didn’t want to subject the women and children to that. They wanted to put them on American Airlines.
So that’s how we got – that was our two-pronged approach. It took a lot of work to get approved by the Department of Justice eventually, after they told us no three or four times and we went over their head. We didn’t make any friends within our agency, but we got approval to do it.
MR. ACOSTA: And A.J.’s entirely correct. When we’re talking about the number of people coming into the country, we – on that first trip with El Almirante, there was 23 migrants that were coming into the United States. But if you were to see pictures of the other vessels that were being used at that time – and are being used today, by the way – you would see vessels that would have 80, 130, 180. I think the largest number in one vessel was 223 on a 40-foot vessel. You can imagine, 223 people in the cargo area of the vessel. So it was dangerous, but it was being used.
And one other thing I want to be very clear about. This operation on the air approach was fantastic for us, but A.J. mentioned it took a lot of work. One is because we had to vet every single person through every single agency – through the CIA, through the FBI, intel communities – before we would allow them to board that airplane coming into the United States.
Now, we did the best we could. Could we guarantee that safety or the security of the United States? I don’t think that anybody can ever say we’re 100 percent guaranteed. And I think that – I say that because it’s relevant to what happens today, when we have people come into the country that want to apply for refugee status from countries where they have been perhaps in camps for two or three years.
We cannot really establish who that person is, where they have been, who they have met. But we had that threshold even back then, and it was very difficult. And I think we have those challenges even today.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Poli, just one question. Did the people that, as part of your undercover operation, you were checking out before you smuggled them in –
MR. ACOSTA: Oh, yes.
MR. KRIKORIAN: – did they know that they were being part of an undercover – I mean how do you do background – I mean, smugglers don’t ask people, well, I’m going to do a background check on you before I take you.
MR. IRWIN: I’ll answer that. It was – the same concern we had is we worked undercover for our entire careers, but how do we get these guys to give us their true credentials? We just asked for them, and they did.
MR. KRIKORIAN: (Laughs.) OK.
MR. IRWIN: And our informant in Ecuador would fax me copies of their passports, every page of the passport, so I could see where they’d entered and exited, their pictures, their biographical data. And that’s what we used to run our background investigations.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So were there any people that you had to turn down and say, no, I’m not going to take your money to smuggle you in because I’m so honest? (Laughs.)
MR. IRWIN: No. No.
MR. KRIKORIAN: OK, well –
MR. IRWIN: There were some that they tried – they were trying to get into the pipeline, but we cut them off early; said, no, we don’t – we’re not going to move those people.
MR. ACOSTA: Yeah, we had set nationalities that we would not –
MR. KRIKORIAN: I see.
MR. ACOSTA: – deal with. So that was another layer, Mark, that we would use to certainly not stereotype, but not put ourselves in a position where anything could happen. And, by the way, even if this case was over, our internal affairs people and our oversight committees – for a year I think we had to continually answer for the people that we brought into the country, notwithstanding they had been vetted by every single agency that worked with us during that particular time.
So, you know, there was – it was arduous and it was time-consuming, and ultimately we ended up having to go undercover ourselves, because when we first started the operation, I was already a senior officer with the agency. I had already been with our agency for over 20 years. As a matter of fact, I had been in so long that even my son was an agent by that time, but I was still working undercover.
It’s very unusual to find somebody who’s head of an office actually doing undercover work, because it doesn’t mean you don’t do your other taskings. But I was lucky that I partnered up with A.J. Irwin, because he was phenomenal. And we decided to pursue it not only from the smuggling aspect, but from two other areas that I think are worth mentioning today. And I’ll let A.J. get into the money.
MR. IRWIN: Yeah, at this time is when the Immigration and Naturalization Service had first received authority to do wiretap, to investigate RICO cases, and they put some of the INS immigration crimes within INA, made them predicating factors for a RICO prosecution.
So the assistant U.S. attorney that decided to take this case took it on the condition that we made it a wiretap, the first wiretap. So the way that I sat and thought about this – and I talked to people; talked to my dad, who was a retired Customs agent – is we went back to the old adage, follow the money. And I know, from all of my experience in investigating smuggling cases, that they’re – especially from India, Pakistan – that there’s somebody here in the United States that’s handling all the money in and out. And they call it hawala is their underground system of banking.
I’d worked a case before where a CPA from India had explained this to me, and I had no idea what he was talking about. But I made notes and I tried to understand what he was talking about. So when we got into this, we sent – Poli had an informant that we sent to Ecuador, and he was a great informant. Poli introduced him to me and I talked to him on the phone four or five times a day. And he was telling me about Maan Singh, about passengers, about the El Almirante boat, everything. And every time I’d say what about the money? I badgered him every – he got so tired of hearing me talking about it.
It took about six weeks, and he finally – he called me Andres – he said, OK, I got the name and I’ve got the telephone number. And he gave it to me. And it was the name of a gentleman, Gunvantla Shah, North Bergen, New Jersey. He was the center of this case. Maan Singh, all of the other people that we found in the book, could not operate without him, because typically these passengers were paying 25 (thousand dollars), $30,000 to be smuggled. Well, they didn’t have that. They don’t have that money in India or Pakistan or those countries. That’s why they’re coming here. So – but they have relatives or they have businesses here that sponsor them. They pay the smuggling fee.
So to pay the smuggling fee, you have to pay the hawala broker here in the United States, and then the broker gives word to the smugglers along the route, whether they’ve started in India or in their – Maan Singh in Ecuador – that it’s OK to move them. So we found Gunvant Shah in North Bergen and we started investigating him. We didn’t get cooperation from our Newark office, but what we did is put on a pen register. For those who don’t know, that’s – it’s what goes on a phone line before a wiretap. You get all of the data, all of the calls live, but you don’t get the sound. You can’t listen to the phone.
So that’s a prerequisite for a wiretap. We did that. And we started studying the data, and then we did what we call tickling the wire. We would move loads of people. We would arrange for undercover meetings with Gunvant or with Maan Singh, and then we’d watch how the traffic was on the phone. And eventually we ended up being able to get a wiretap on this gentleman. It was the very first wiretap that INS ever did, and I don’t think they’ve done many – they did many more.
MS. VAUGHAN: Can I ask, what was his status?
MR. IRWIN: He was a naturalized – no, he was a permanent resident.
MR. ACOSTA: Permanent resident.
MR. IRWIN: Permanent resident. One thing about this photo, I’ll tell you right before – this is a funny story – see the tree right there in the very corner of the picture? Well, we put a pole camera on his house to watch him come and go as we listened to him talk. And that tree was in the way. So our agent, our technical agent that was detailed up there from Denver, Colorado, decided to cut it down. (Laughter.) At the end of the case, INS bought that tree. We had to give the city of North Bergen, New Jersey $10,000 for that tree. (Laughter.)
MR. ACOSTA: And, of course –
MS. VAUGHAN: Probably an environmental violation too.
MR. ACOSTA: He did not ask for permission, by the way. But, you know, the important thing about that particular picture, you look at that picture in New Jersey, nondescript location, nobody’s ever going to think of the center of activity that’s going on in there. And I think when we finally got the wire going – and A.J. can talk a little bit more about the wire – I think we’re having, like, 200 phone calls a day from that particular location. As a matter of fact, when we got the wire authorized – you know, there’s a stringent procedure, write-up that you have to do, the justification, because that’s one of the beautiful things about our country, Mark, that we respect the privacy of everybody inside the country.
So we worked diligently, and certainly A.J. and Mark Sanders, one of the other agents, in getting this authorization from a federal judge. But we turned on the switch. And I’ll show you a picture of the symbolic day that we turned on the switch. And as soon as we turned on the switch, there was a fax that came in within three or five seconds of a transfer of $150,000. And as you can imagine, as young agents, we said yes, because we were right in what we were pursuing. And it took off from there.
I’m going to let A.J. talk a little bit about the players here. I think it’s – we wanted to share these pictures, because when you see the pictures of these players, I think it shows the – it shows a story.
MR. IRWIN: I’m going to start in the middle. The middle is Carlos Martinez. He’s passed away now, so we can talk about it. He was our informant. He was the guy I called five times a day. He was a magnificent alien smuggler before he was convinced to work for the United States government. I think his detention might have convinced him that way. He came over to our side.
Anyways, he was a magnificent smuggler, and then he became an informant. And he was a very good informant. He was good up until the day he passed away. He was in contact with every one of these people. He was kind of the center of the wheel. Him and the gentleman over on the far left, upper, with the turban, that’s Nabtesh Sandhu (ph). And they were partners, smuggling, alien smugglings, in a case that Poli took down.
This is the very first case where the United States government was able to do a rendition, which means take Carlos and Sandhu (ph) from Nicaragua and bring them to the United States so they could be prosecuted. He joined the conspiracy. He had aliens on that boat, the vessel, the El Almirante. And then he also delivered them through Carlos to our American Airlines scheme.
The middle is Maan Singh, Niranjan Maan Singh. That’s what he looked like when he was finally arrested in Miami. He was the big – he was the guy. He was – he taught all these people how to smuggle. They worked for him at one time. And then they became competitors, but still they used each other’s routes and pipelines as they went along.
Nick Diaz is an interesting character right here on the right. He – his name was Nitin Shetty. He went by Nick Diaz because he spent time in Colombia, and he admired Pablo Escobar. He actually even dated a niece or something of Pablo Escobar at one time. He was somebody that the United States government only knew a name. Nobody had a picture of him. We had no idea who he was until Poli met with him in a hotel room undercover in Quito, Ecuador. I was in the other room with the videotape. And when he said nobody has my picture, not even the CIA, I went yes. (Laughter.) We do now.
His partner right here, in the bottom, was Gulu Abdul Farooque. He was just a person coming to the United States. He happened to be an accountant in India. And when he got to the Bahamas, Nick Diaz recruited him to stay and work for his organization. He was the guy who ran the money. And, of course, the guy on the far bottom is the pilot. He was the commercial pilot who started this case.
I want everybody to take a good look at him. Remember his face, because when I became involved, he was kind of – he cooperated with the government after he was arrested, and he was kind of running willy nilly, making phone calls. He lived in the Dallas Metroplex. The agent running him was out of McAllen. So they brought me into the case, and I would go over to his apartment in Hurst, which is a suburb of Dallas, and we would make calls. And I’d record them so we’d keep the chain of evidence.
While we were waiting for bad guys to call us back, he would get on his flight simulator. And he crashed every time. (Laughter.) And I said to myself, you want to be a commercial pilot? So I keep that in my memory. If I ever get on an airplane and he’s the pilot greeting me at the door, I’m getting off. (Laughter.) But he is a commercial pilot now. He flies for airlines in Turkey. He hasn’t been able to come back to the United States. He would love to come back and fly for one of our airlines, but he hasn’t been able to get back here.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So the motto is avoid Turkish airlines. (Laughter.)
MS. VAUGHAN: Just a note to add on him. He came originally to the United States on a student visa and paid someone to marry him so that he could stay with a green card. There’s always a marriage-fraud case in every big case.
MR. ACOSTA: This is – this was the center of activity for Mr. Maan Singh in Quito, Ecuador. Maan Singh had a great operation, but he still needed somebody with local ties. And the local ties in Quito, Ecuador was Francisco Mera (sp). He was the owner of this little hotel here. They call it Hostal (sp). I can’t remember how many rooms they had, but it was the center of activity for the migrants coming in. When they would first arrive, they would house them there and ultimately take them out into houses within the community. And when I first got started – A.J. was talking about Carlos Martinez, our informant, and Nabtesh Sandhu (sp).
I did an undercover operation when I was the officer in charge in Monterrey, Mexico. And Mr. Sandhu (sp) and Carlos Martinez fled to Nicaragua. Ultimately we were able to track them down, and Interpol in Nicaragua was willing to work with us. I was having a good time in Ciudad Juarez, where I had transferred as head of the office there, and they called me up and they said we have these two people located here. You have a warrant for their arrest. You can have them. That had never been done in our agency. And I said, well, fantastic. And they said, and you have to get them out by tomorrow. And so I was in Ciudad Juarez, by El Paso, no direct flights into Nicaragua.
And I mention this story because of what we did before. We would go after the smugglers right on the border inside the United States. And I’ve always protested, the security of our border goes way beyond our border. It doesn’t start there. It starts – the key to Ecuador. It starts in Nicaragua. So I had no idea how I was going to do it. But I said, I’ll go pick him up. I called Washington, D.C., our headquarters. And they said absolutely not. I bought the ticket. (Laughter.) I had to get clearance from the regional security officer. And it just so happened that he was an individual that I knew, Lenny Burnier (sp), who was a great regional security officer of the State Department. He authorized entry into Nicaragua.
Long story short, by the end of that night, I was in Nicaragua working alone or working with agents from another country that I did not know. I had no weapon and no backup. And you know, and it didn’t hit on me – didn’t hit me until I was out in Managua and the power was out and it was completely dark. And I realized, what am I going to do if something happens? Well, we arrested Sandhu (ph), and ultimately Carlos Martinez, and brought them into the country.
But I mention this because Carlos Martinez, when he was in custody in South Texas, he decided that he was going to switch sides. Carlos Martinez started smuggling when he was 19 years old in southern Mexico, one of the most prolific and successful smugglers operating out of Mexico. He knew every single major operative in Mexico. So and he kept telling agents in South Texas: I want to talk to somebody about this, because I want to work with you guys. They blew him off. They blew him off.
At that same time, I had a heart attack. And so as Jessica will tell you from working with the State Department, you have to be medically cleared to work in a foreign mission. So my clearance was revoked because I could not come back to work. So I had a choice, send somebody to talk to Carols Martinez. I couldn’t come on duty. I couldn’t buy a ticket on government funds. So I took some time off and I flew down on my own and met Carlos Martinez in South Texas, and ultimately ended up with him in Quito, Ecuador. I was the first person who ever laid eyes, from the U.S. government, on Niranjan Maan Singh when I had a drink with him at this hotel in Quito, Ecuador.
And from there, we took off. Like A.J. was mentioning, we had a meeting in South Texas, started developing the case. There is Mr. Sandhu (ph) one of the boats. And I think when you look at Sandhu (ph), this picture tells you a lot. Look at the person standing next to him, and how comfortable he feels where he’s at. He feels protected. He felt that he could be operating. This is the wire room, where we’re not as high tech as it is nowadays, with the elaborate systems and folks nowadays.
On your left you have a dynamic assistant U.S. attorney, Matt Yarbrough, who was willing to take the case, and actually came to Washington with us to make presentation before the Department of Justice Undercover Review Committee, when we were turned out. Matt is a very great technical agent. And of course, A.J. and myself. And you can see I still have black hair. (Laughter.) And let me share – I think A.J. has told you a little bit about them. This is a picture – one of the things I want to mention is that we have a lot of great folks in our country. We have a lot of agents. Susan Rivera is one of those agents. She’s still an agent in the government. She was willing to go undercover with me outside the country.
Why did we need a female to go? One, you can have a female as a partner. And she was a great shot, a better shot than I was. Fantastic shape and a beautiful person. And you know, just a very dynamic talented individual. On my right, is an individual that A.J. described to you earlier, Gulu. We are in the Bahamas. He was the accountant for the organization. And he took us into his confidence. And we were able to get a substantial amount of information about how it operated. The phone calls that were coming in – you know, I mentioned before that there was 200 phone calls a day going into the New Jersey apartment. But I think A.J. can tell you how busy it was, because A.J. was actually in the house when the arrest was done in the Bahamas.
And you want to talk about that phone call that came in while you were there, A.J.?
MR. IRWIN: Well, the – when we went into this – it’s a long story how we got to this house in the Bahamas. When we finally got there, Nick Diaz was trying to blend in with the – in a line they were walking – the Bahamian officers were walking the aliens out who were hiding in the bedroom. There were probably about 25 of them. And Nick was hiding in the line. And he had a ponytail and he had it tucked in the back of his shirt. And I’m standing there and I grabbed him because, remember what I said, how he said nobody had ever seen him. And I got you, you – you know, expletives. (Laughter.)
Pulled him out of the line. And so the Bahamian officers took him aside. They put all the aliens in the garage to keep them together. And while I was standing there, we had an undercover operation going on in Fort Lauderdale, where Nick’s organization was going to be sending a group of aliens by boat to our undercover agents who were waiting there in one of those boathouses on the docks in Fort Lauderdale. And the phone kept ringing and ringing. And so I picked it up and answered it. Bueno? And it was our undercover agent calling. (Laughter.) He was calling for Nick. And he goes, A.J.? And I went, George? (Laughter.) What are you doing there? I said, we just got him. We just grabbed him. And he goes, oh, great.
But, you know, they had no idea of what we were doing. The phone just rang steady while we were there. Finally – I think we do this in all undercover operations, whether it be a drug house or whatever. If the phone keeps ringing, you pick it up. You never know who’s on the other – it may be Pablo Escobar on the other end. So it was just lucky for us that we were able to catch him at that time.
MR. ACOSTA: And we talk – we talk a lot about a lot of the fun stuff, a lot of the serious stuff, a lot of the risky stuff that came. And it’s a great story to share, and we’ll come back to the relevancy of what it means today, because I think that’s one of the things that’s important, Jessica and Mark, how is it relevant today? You know, these are fun stories. And I think we’ll share just a couple more war stories, then we’ll come back to why we’re here today.
When we were working in the Bahamas, by the way, we were going to take the arrest down. How, it turns out that the Bahamian official assigned to work with us was under – was being paid by Nick Diaz. He didn’t know that I was an undercover agent until the night that we’re supposed to arrest him. He had just been paid $10,000 by Nick Diaz, and then he was led by our agents to arrest Nick, and he refused to do so. And that’s – you’ll read in the book that A.J. stayed up all night, and we were ultimately successful in getting him because of the persistence of A.J. and, again, by not taking no for an answer.
But before we got to that particular point, when we had worked outside the country, especially on cases like this or any mission that you undertake, you had to get approval from the U.S. ambassador. You had to get approval from the deputy chief of mission. And they have to bless your travel into the country. And you have to get clearance. We don’t just show up in the Bahamas. And we had an issue in the Bahamas, because Nick Diaz was well-entrenched. He was paying off officials at the airport. He was paying officials with the police department. You can’t operate a business where you’re doing $2 million a month of illegal activity without taking care of a lot of tariffs, if you want to call them as such.
But we have to go in and brief the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission. We also had to notify the host country government because we don’t have authority to work in a foreign country. We have to respect those laws as well. So many times you can’t work undercover because perhaps you can’t trust the individuals that you have to brief, whether it’s our counterparts, law enforcement, the prosecutors. So we had to find a mechanism to do so. We went and briefed the deputy chief of mission and the ambassador on what the operation was. And they wholeheartedly supported what we were doing. But they also needed to brief one of the senior officials from the Bahamian government. I think she was, like, the equivalent of the prime minister.
And we couldn’t just go over and travel openly to go brief her, because of course then people would see us. So A.J. had to masquerade as the boyfriend of the deputy chief of mission. And –
MR. IRWIN: One of my better assignments.
MR. ACOSTA: On a diplomatic party. I don’t know if you want –
MR. IRWIN: Well, you know, the irony of it is Poli was the diplomat and I was the agent. I had never done any of that. I was a field agent here in Dallas, Texas. And so I didn’t have a jacket. I didn’t have a tie. I had to borrow stuff from people. (Laughter.) And so when I went and met her I was kind of overwhelmed because she was – the called her the minister of foreign affairs, but later the prime minister. Very nice lady. But they take me into her palace and she had a receiving room. And I’d only seen that stuff on movies. I’d never been in one.
We sit there, and they have all the people come, and then they move us into another room, and she came out. Very nice lady. Told her what was going on. She listened. And then she asked me one question. She asked me if there were people in her government who knew what was going on. And I’d been briefed on protocols by the deputy chief of mission before I went in there. And, you know, told don’t ask for a Bud Light if they ask if you want something to drink. And I just looked at the deputy chief and I said: Yes, ma’am. And she goes, that’s what I was afraid of. And she said, you have my permission to do whatever you have to do. Let me do some work and I’ll get back to the deputy chief of mission.
So we walked out and the deputy chief, she just shook her head because she does I was so afraid how you would answer that question. But later – weeks later we actually set up the meeting where Poli was meeting with Nick Diaz and his goon squad. And the deputy chief of mission called me and she says: We have got to go see the prime minister right away. Meet me at the embassy. So I went over there, and she took me to the Bacardi plantation. They were having a high lunch. And the prime minister was the guest of honor. Again, I went as her boyfriend. Borrowed my clothes. And you know, they had – it was a good meal and free rum and Cuban cigars. It was the first Cuban cigar I had ever smoked. I got a little bit dizzy off of it.
Finally, we went through the receiving line. And as we went up to the minister of foreign affairs, the deputy chief of mission said, you remember my friend. And she says, yes, I do. Get him out of my country – talking about the crook. She said – and that was all she said. And we walked away. And that’s when the whole thing started, negotiating with the national policy of the Bahamas and stuff like that. But we got her permission and that was as simple as it was.
MR. ACOSTA: And just to share some of the risks, and then we’ll get to this particular slide, as they were transporting Nick Diaz, A.J. had quite a task to get Nick Diaz arrested. As they’re taking him, we learned later from Nick Diaz himself that they were thinking about killing both you and Nick Diaz, the officials that we were working with, except for the fact that the orders had come down directly from the prime minister. A.J. had no backup. He was with the national police out of the Bahamas out in the middle of nowhere. So it kind of gives you an idea. We talk about the good stories, it’s a serious – it’s a serious matter.
And I want to get back – so just we can open it up for questions. It’s OK. You know, there was dangers for our country, and A.J. and I wrote a paper that was not released called “Dangers at our Nation’s Backdoor.” Maan Singh was operating in Ecuador. There’s other organizations that had been operating in Panama. They bring all types of nationalities into the countries. And there’s a risk for our country. I spent 30 years working in immigration, criminal enforcement, asylum, benefits. And the great, great, great majority are the people that I’ve had a chance to encounter during that career, even some of the criminal were OK. Many great people come into the country to make our country a lot better.
The problem that we always have – and we have this today as well – is a small number can do a great amount of damage. Terrorists organizations can be patient. When people – when A.J. was talking about a group traveling through South America that can take a year or two years, who is vetting that individual? Who knows if that person perhaps has different intentions when they’re coming to the United States. Who knows what the smugglers’ intentions are? We know that from Maan Singh, he did not care what these people were coming into the country for. All he knew, that he was going to be paid, and he demanded to be paid. He didn’t care what their intentions were and they were not going – they were not going to check. And certainly anybody coming to the country to do us harm is not going to announce that they’re doing it.
So that danger was there then. And we see it now. You know, we – you see some of the things that have happened recently. When you see individuals that – when you look at the first individual that we have up there providing material support to ISIS, and he was indicted in Houston, born in Iraq, but came into the United States in 2009 as a refugee. You know, it’s hard to tell other individuals that you see that an individual born in Bangladesh, do we know for sure – do we vet people that spend two or three years at locations and apply for refugee status? Do we release people that cross the border from Mexico without knowing what their true intentions are?
You know, we have – we have our concerns. But we could talk all day about the case, and we love talking about it, but we prefer that you learn about it from our book. But in the meantime, I’d like to open it up for questions, if it’s OK.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Sure, yeah. It’s definitely – we’ll open it up for questions. And just – I’ll put in the plug, the book’s for sale for anybody who wants to buy it and get all the war stories. But anyone who has any questions, pipe up. The – oh, OK. Yeah, go ahead. Sure.
Q: What challenges –
MR. KRIKORIAN: Oh, wait – hold up. We have a mic for you so that way the video will pick it up when we post the video.
Q: What challenges does this influx of asylum seekers pose for local police departments, in your opinion?
MR. IRWIN: Well the asylum seekers – when he policy is so kind of grandiose like it is right now, that the smuggling organizations hear about this as the way. So what they do is there are a lot of people, the majority of them are people that have some kind of fear. But they infiltrate these groups with imposters. And so these people, whether they be terrorists or they just be members of a drug cartel or of a violent street gang, you know, they present a danger to the public safety when they get into the communities. And they’re free to move throughout – they’re not in the shadows, like Poli’s book is titled. They’re out there because they have unemployment authorization. They have a document that protects them from being arrested by the immigration authorities out there.
MS. VAUGHAN: A lot of the impact of this influx of tens of thousands of people is on the local government and their ability to provide services because you’ve got people joining the school system, you’ve got people who need housing, health care and other social services to be self-sufficient. But the problem for local law enforcement agencies is when you have criminal groups that are already embedded in communities in the United States who are using the fact that we have such a lax process and a minimal screening process to recruit people and bring them in through this system, and then come work for that criminal organization in the United States.
And the most concerning phenomenon has been with the MS-13 gang, which is mainly – its membership is mainly people from El Salvador and other Central American countries. It’s truly a transnational criminal organization, directed in many aspects from gang leaders in El Salvador. And there are cases here in the United States where MS-13 members in different communities have actually recruited teens to come through South Texas and be allowed to enter the United States, join the gang.
It’s a huge problem. The FBI has noted a big surge in MS-13 activity. I can think of at least a dozen murders that have been committed by these teenagers in different places, just on the eastern seaboard – Boston, Long Island, Northern Virginia, Maryland. And of course, the vast majority are not – of people coming in claim asylum are not criminals or violent. But the fact that we don’t do much screening is what enables the gangs to take advantage of this. And they’re the ones that cause huge public safety problems. And that’s something definitely local law enforcement agencies are struggling with right now.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Any other questions? Yeah.
Q: So I was wondering, are you finding that’s happening now? Like, who replaced this guy and what’s being done to stop him – stop whoever replaced the guy?
MR. IRWIN: Oh, who replaced Maan Singh?
Q: Or the big guys.
MR. IRWIN: Well, the human trafficking and human smuggling is still going on in Ecuador and South America. It’s still happening. Nick Diaz, when he got out of prison, went right back to Ecuador and continued working, unfortunately. In the middle of smuggling a large group of people he had a heart attack and died in the Dominican Republic about a year ago? About a year ago. So, you know, I don’t work for the government anymore, but these people still call me and tell me what’s going on. Both Poli and I pass the information on to agents we know, agents we don’t know but in the areas of responsibility. And then what goes on, I don’t know. You know, I wish something was going on. I don’t know that anything’s going on.
MR. ACOSTA: I can tell you, you haven’t seen another press conference since we had our press conference in 1998 to announce an arrest of what we did back then. I know that there’s many, many agents that are very dedicated that work hard. And they want to – they want to do the right thing for our country. Three of them are my sons. So I know that they’re very dedicated. You know, working this particular case was exhausting. It takes a lot from your family. I spent weeks away at a time, while still managing an office. And it just – it just takes a lot.
There’s the unique – you know, don’t mean to be – sound like I’m bragging about myself and A.J., but takes a certain type of dedication to be able to do this. It takes a bravado, if you want to call it, to go work undercover in those places. And I know we have many great Americans who are willing to do that. I think we have a huge bureaucracy. We didn’t have the resources that the government provides nowadays. And I’d like to think that there’s some folks out there that are doing it.
And by the way, just so you all will know, these two books and my third book have already been purchased by a production company in Hollywood. So we hope it gets there.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Who are you – who are you hoping is going to play you? (Laughter.)
MR. ACOSTA: Well, I’m going to be handsome for a change. (Laughter.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah, yeah.
MR. IRWIN: I’m going to play myself. (Laughter.)
MR. KRIKORIAN: Oh, good, good. I was always hoping for Tom Cruise, you know, when they make the movie about me. (Laughter.)
Was there a question? Well, yeah. OK, yeah, sure.
Q: It seems that your ability to speak fluent Spanish was a pretty essential part of your exploits. So my question is, do we have enough foreign language speakers in our intelligence services – especially Arabic, Urdu, et cetera?
MR. ACOSTA: You know, I think we have the capabilities. Remember that on this particular wiretap it wasn’t in English. It was in Urdu and Punjabi. And so we had a whole bunch of Americans from throughout the country that actually worked – who, by the way, whose origin was from some of the countries that we were investigating. So I think we have the capabilities. Also, remember, at the – there’s two things that I would say. Of course, Nick Diaz spoke Spanish, spoke English. The good thing about criminals, the only language they understand is money. (Laughter.)
MS. VAUGHAN: The universal language.
MR. ACOSTA: And so that’s –
MR. IRWIN: By the way, Maan Singh spoke Spanish as well.
MR. KRIKORIAN: Yeah. I just had one last question, because we have to vacate the room at some point. But this is sort of a general question. In your experience – whether it’s in the Maan Singh case or in other of these human smuggling cases – how much overlap is there between different kinds of smuggling? In other words, smuggling people or smuggling drugs or smuggling counterfeit sneakers or counterfeit – smuggling whatever it is, how much overlap, in your experience, have you seen?
MR. ACOSTA: I’ll take an initial shot. And A.J. I think has some real good points on this. But the – you know, we have seen the transformation of Mexico during the past 10 years, Mark, where we see the cartels not only in human smuggling now, in narcotics trafficking, in extortion, in kidnappings. So there’s a huge overlap in Mexico. A.J. mentioned something about Maan Singh in Quito, Ecuador. That type of nationality was coming in, people would smuggle, but they had to have a concurrence by Maan Singh or somehow be able to evade that. In Mexico, we see the cartels from the different patches throughout, they control human smuggling, kidnapping. They control businesses. So the overlap, as far as Mexico, is huge.
And the final point, when you’re talking about the MS-13, they’re involved in kidnapping, narcotics trafficking, human smuggling. There is no crime that they are not capable or not in. And there’s a huge danger, you know. Because, you know, the other thing about the MS-13, for you all that might not be aware of it, this gang has strong ties throughout the United States. At one time it was kind of started, based in Los Angeles, but now you have the southern border of Mexico, through Mexico, Houston. There’s not a single place, I don’t think, that they don’t have any ties. So the overlap is huge.
MS. VAUGHAN: Almost every state.
MR. IRWIN: I’ll just say this, that we had a target – an original target who was very close to Maan Singh. His name was Dr. Leon Dunke (sp). He’s a Mexican. He is a pharmacist. He operated a smuggling route from the border – the Guatemala-Mexico border around Tapachula up. And in the middle of our case, he was murdered because he had stolen 21 kilos of cocaine from a drug trafficker. So they work together.
MR. KRIKORIAN: So there was real overlap. And the lesson is, don’t steal drugs from drug traffickers. (Laughter.)
OK, well, thank you, everybody, for coming. And just as a reminder, “The Shadow Catcher” and “The Search (sic; Hunt) for Maan Singh,” we have both here for sale if you want them. And the authors would be happy to sign them. They’re also on Amazon, for those of you watching from home on the video. Thanks, everybody, for coming. I think our speakers here are willing to be accosted for a little while before their appointments the rest of the day. And thanks for coming. (Applause.)