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U.S. reports major spike in human smuggling through B.C. border

Organized crime using train, Uber and foot at ‘unprecedented’ levels
Motorists wait at U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection booths at the Peace Arch border crossing in Blaine, Wash., across the Canada-U.S. border from Surrey, B.C., on Monday, November 8, 2021. A U.S. crackdown on foot crossings is taking place at Peace Arch Park, the unfenced park that straddles the border, in response to the increased operations of what U.S. Customs and Border Protection called “transnational criminal organizations.” THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

In November last year, American border agents ordered that a freight train crossing into the U.S. be halted.

Homeland Security agent David Spitzer said in an affidavit that 13 Mexican nationals were discovered and many “attempted to abscond after the train was ordered to stop.”

But the scene didn’t take place on the U.S. border with Mexico — it unfolded just south of Vancouver, where American prosecutors and law enforcement officers say they’re dealing with a huge increase in human smuggling from British Columbia.

American officials say organized crime groups have employed a variety of methods to move their human cargo, such as hiding people among plastic pellets in freight trains or having them cross the border on foot, as well as racking up tens of thousands of dollars in Uber bills to transport them once across the border.

A U.S. crackdown on foot crossings is meanwhile taking place at Peace Arch Park, the unfenced park that straddles the border, in response to the increased operations of what U.S. Customs and Border Protection called “transnational criminal organizations.”

Matthew Murphy, an assistant special agent in charge with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations based in Washington state, said there had been a major spike in human smuggling through B.C.

“Last year we had record high numbers, higher numbers than we had in a decade, and this year we’re on pace to more than double that,” he said. “These are kind of unprecedented numbers in this area.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show that “encounters” at the B.C.-Washington border — including apprehensions, expulsions and people being deemed inadmissible — are on track to quadruple since 2021. There were 42,913 encounters in the 2023 U.S. fiscal year, up from 12,345 two years earlier. In the first half of the current fiscal year, there have been 27,483 encounters.

The spike is also occurring across the entire northern border, with encounters up from 27,180 in 2021, to 189,402 last year.

Canada Border Services Agency said in an email response to questions that it was responsible for enforcement at Canadian points of entry, and that human smuggling out of Canada was a matter for U.S. authorities.

Murphy said Homeland Security believes transnational criminal organizations are behind the smuggling rings.

Those detained after crossing the border have included Mexicans, Indians and others, according to Homeland Security and U.S. justice officials.

Murphy said Canadian visa rules, which have since been changed, had been “exploited” by Mexican citizens, who would fly to Canada and cross into the U.S., “a much less treacherous journey than trying to hike through the Sonoran Desert in Arizona or come across some of those more challenging areas on the Mexican-U.S. border.”

Between 2016 and February this year, Mexican citizens were allowed into Canada without a visa. Now, Mexicans require either a current or past Canadian visa or a U.S. visa.

The B.C. route is not without risks.

In August 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents in Blaine, Wash., noticed something odd about a freight train car that was filled with plastic pellets, and discovered 29 people, including 28 from Mexico, concealing themselves among the cargo.

U.S. Attorney Tessa M. Gorman called it “an extremely dangerous smuggling scheme” last week, as she announced human-smuggling charges against Jesus Ortiz-Plata, 45, of Oregon and 35-year-old Juan Pablo Cuellar Medina of Washington.

“Being locked in a freight train car is dangerous — there is no control over the heat, cold or ventilation, and people can be injured or killed by shifting freight,” she said in a statement.

CN Rail, a major cross-border operator, declined to comment on the case, and referred questions to other operators. CPKC, formerly CP Rail, did not respond to a request for comment.

Court documents filed in Seattle said Ortiz-Plata and Medina appeared on the radar of Homeland Security investigators after being linked to a phone number used in “numerous human smuggling events” through Blaine dating back to 2022.

But Murphy said Indian nationals were the “No. 1 group” seen trying to cross the border illicitly. Border data shows 7,056 encounters with Indian nationals at the B.C.-Washington border in the first half of the current U.S. fiscal year.

He said there was a “pipeline to Canada” for Indian citizens, with many people arriving on student visas, as well as a large Indian diaspora in B.C.

In June 2023, a 49-year-old California resident named Rajinder Pal Singh, also known as Jaspal Gill, was sentenced to 45 months in prison after admitting to being a “key member” of a smuggling ring that brought in 800 Indian nationals to the U.S. illegally from Canada over a four-year period.

Gill admitted to raking in more than $500,000 in the scheme, which began in 2018. He and co-conspirators used multiple Uber accounts to arrange rides on the U.S. side of the border to bring illegal border crossers to Seattle.

In court documents outlining the charges against Gill, American law enforcement suggested B.C. was a hotbed for human smuggling rings.

“Several undocumented non-citizen smuggling organizations operate in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Canada,” said Spitzer in an affidavit outlining the case against Gill. “These organizations typically charge undocumented non-citizens between $2,000 and $5,000 to be illegally brought across the U.S. border.”

Gill and his co-conspirators, investigators said, used 17 different Uber accounts to arrange rides to drop off people at a “suspected stash house,” and they racked up more than $75,000 in Uber fares between July 2018 and April 2022.

In April this year, Gorman’s office announced human smuggling conspiracy charges against four other people in connection with another alleged scheme involving Indian citizens crossing the Washington border.

In late November last year, a motion-activated camera captured images of people jumping a fence not far from Peace Arch Park near an apartment complex in Blaine.

Five Indian citizens, prosecutors say, jumped into a white minivan that was later stopped by border officers.

The driver of the van, a 67-year-old Californian named Bobby Joe Green, was arrested. Three others were also arrested — Sushil Kumar, 35, of California; Sneha, 20, an Indian citizen in the U.S. on a student visa known only by her last name; and Rajat Rajat, 26, of California.

“The investigation revealed that Kumar and Rajat directed the non-citizens on where and how to cross the border, and that Rajat paid Green to transport the non-citizens from the border,” a statement from Gorman’s office said. “Rajat asked for monetary payments from the non-citizens for being smuggled into the U.S.”

The scheme centred on Peace Arch Park, an unfenced park that straddles the U.S.-Canadian border, was created to commemorate the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. To cross the border, the scheme’s clients simply walked across the park, and then waited to be picked up.

The park was once relatively unguarded, but no more.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in response to questions that it was dedicated to both “preserving the legacy and traditions of Peace Arch Park while also preventing transnational criminal organizations from exploiting the park to gain illegal entry into the United States.”

“Since 2022, the U.S. Border Patrol has seen a dramatic increase in illegal border crossings in and around Peace Arch Park,” it said in an emailed statement.

“Due to this increase, the U.S. Border Patrol is working with local and Canadian partners to identify cross-border smuggling activity and keep it out of the park.”

It said U.S. border agents were instructing people attempting to enter the park along Zero Avenue, which runs alongside the border, to go around and enter via the Canadian portion of the park.

Murphy said the various plots had something in common — human smuggling groups see people as a “commodity,” and seek to profit off of people seeking to get into the U.S. because “there’s tons of opportunity here.”

“Canada and the United States are places that people want to come and there is always going to be smuggling involved,” he said.

“These organizations that are exploiting people and putting them in dangerous situations and profiting off them, that’s what we’re really focused on.”

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