U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) assisted the Brazil Federal Police (PF) in the arrests of ten high-profile targets in Brazil, to include several current and former local politicians, who are part of transnational criminal organizations involved in human smuggling.
On Dec. 3, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Brasilia collaborated with the HSI Human Smuggling Unit in a PF-led enforcement operation as part of Operation Tree of Lies, a parallel initiative to Brazil’s Operation Cai Cai in Minas Gerais and other locations throughout Brazil. The operation resulted in 21 search and seizure warrants and 10 arrests, to include the arrest of a prolific Minas Gerais-based human smuggler and his close associates who are alleged to be responsible for facilitating the travel of a Brazilian citizen who was found drowned in the Rio Grande river near El Paso, Texas on Sept. 11. In addition to the arrests, nine vehicles and bulk quantities of valuable stones and cash were also seized as alleged proceeds of criminal activity.
Operation Tree of Lies and Operation Cai Cai is a joint effort by the Government of Brazil and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to combat human smuggling and identity fraud cells that exploit the immigration systems of the U.S. and Brazil by organizing and facilitating the travel of Brazilians posing as family units utilizing legitimate and/or illegitimate travel documents to the United States.
The operation follows PF’s execution of five search and seizure warrants on Nov. 30 in Cáceres, Mato Grosso, Brazil as part of the joint human smuggling investigation targeting an organization alleged to have smuggled over 500 Brazilian nationals to the U.S. Southwest border.
“This joint enforcement action resulted in the arrest of transnational organized crime members who profit off of inhumane treatment and illegal movement of vulnerable individuals,” said ICE Attaché for Brazil and Bolivia, Robert Fuentes, Jr. “The migrants who are smuggled across our borders were under serious risks, faced inhumane conditions, were forced through corrupt authorities, and were subjected to guides called coyotes, who are armed criminals responsible for these risky border crossing routes. Thanks to our strong partnership with the Brazil Federal Police and our partnering U.S. agencies, we were able to apprehend high-profile targets and put a dent into the criminal organizations responsible.”
ICE Brasilia initiated Operation Tree of Lies in May 2019 after receiving information from DHS Joint Task Force-West (JTF-W) that Brazilian migrants were presenting themselves to DHS officials along the U.S. Southwest Border as family units. ICE Brasilia, corroborating with PF, determined that many of the family units were fraudulent and that the Brazil passports presented to DHS officials were attained under false pretenses with fraudulent identities. This further led ICE Brasilia, JTF-W, and the PF to the positive identification of over 286 Brazilian passports presented to DHS officials were materially false. As a recent example, a group of 10 adults and nine minors traveling from Brazil to Mexico, destined for the United States, were interviewed in-depth by PF. Although the passports themselves were legitimate, the identity documents to obtain the passports were fraudulent and were created in order to simulate a family unit. It was later identified that the travel documents and the transportation were provided by a major transnational criminal organization in Brazil. PF arrested the 10 adults for the use of fraudulent documents, and the nine rescued victims were transferred to the care of Brazil’s social services.
This is a joint Brazil Federal Police and ICE Brasilia-led (HSI and ERO) initiative with significant support from HSI El Paso, HSI HQ Human Smuggling Unit, DHS Joint Task Force-West, ERO El Paso, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Embassy Brasilia Public Affairs and Consular Sections.
The HSI International Operations Division is the Department of Homeland Security’s largest investigative presence overseas. Division personnel serve as liaisons to governments and law enforcement agencies across the globe and work side-by-side with foreign law enforcement on HSI investigations. HSI is the principal investigative arm of DHS and a vital U.S. asset in combatting transnational crime and threats.