Washington Nearly 8,000 people from 39 countries were arrested this month in what the Immigration and Naturalization Service calls its largest international anti-smuggling operation ever.
The three-week sting involved law enforcement agencies in the United States, Canada and 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries.
"Operation Crossroads International provides us very important lessons about one of the great, great problems we have today on human smuggling. This multibillion-dollar global industry is becoming increasingly sophisticated and is often intertwined with other criminal activities," said INS Acting Commissioner Kevin Rooney.
Officials said 75 smugglers and vendors of illegal documents were arrested during the operation. Thirty-eight of them face smuggling charges, two in the United States. Fourteen face charges on other immigration related violations. The remaining suspects face other charges.
In 13 cases, officials also seized illegal drugs valued at $9 million, the INS said.
The arrests were largely made through checking of documents at hotels, airports, highway checkpoints and safe houses where smugglers stored immigrants while moving them in the other countries. INS officers also helped some of the countries to check passengers' documents at international airports.
"To date, this is the largest, most successful operation of its kind. The message is clear the United States is committed with its partners to pursuing smugglers wherever they operate," said Hipolito Acosta, the INS Mexico City director who oversaw the operation.
The countries involved were Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama and Peru.
Of the 7,898 arrested, seven were U.S. citizens and most were arrested in Mexico. The majority came from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Most of the arrests were made on the Guatemala-Mexico border.
On average, they paid $3,000 to $4,000.
"This is a two-week time period where 38 smugglers were arrested throughout Latin America and the Caribbean ... You can see that some of those smugglers are capable of moving large numbers of migrants through Mexico, through other Latin American countries and into the United States," Acosta said.
The INS said it spent $600,000 on the operation. The INS estimates it spends about $4,000 on arrest, detention, judicial process and deportation of illegal immigrants. Based on that, Acosta said the country would have spent $30 million had the people made it to the United States and been caught.
Acosta said in Central America, smugglers were bringing 50 to 100 people at a time to the Guatemala-Mexico border in buses, splitting them to smaller groups with the intention of moving them through Mexico to the United States. In Jamaica, he said, smugglers would bring about four people to the airport at a time.
A separate operation that ran from May 29 to June 18 and focused largely on airports resulted in the arrest of 415 people destined for the United States and other western countries.
The INS worked with the countries of Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Netherlands and Singapore. Forty-five people were arrested for smuggling. The INS said the operation was the first to include a major European and Asian airport gateway.