Habtom Merhay, a national of Eritrea and a citizen of the United Kingdom, made his initial appearance today in Washington, D.C., federal court to face human smuggling charges for his role in smuggling primarily Eritrean and Ethiopian undocumented migrants from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, through South and Central America and Mexico into the United States.
Acting Assistant Attorney General David A. O’Neil of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. of the District of Columbia and Acting Special Agent in Charge Katrina W. Berger of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) made the announcement.
Merhay, 47, arrived in the United States on April 25, 2014, and made his initial appearance today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson in the District of Columbia. He was indicted under seal in the District of Columbia in 2012, and the charges were unsealed today. Merhay has been in the custody of Moroccan authorities pending extradition since his arrest in Marrakech, Morocco, in August 2013.
The indictment charges Merhay with one count of conspiracy to bring undocumented migrants to the United States for profit and 15 counts of unlawfully bringing an undocumented migrant to the United States for profit. Court documents allege that Merhay operated with a network of smugglers in Africa, the United Arab Emirates, South and Central America, Mexico and elsewhere to coordinate and implement arrangements, including providing fraudulent identity and travel documents, for undocumented migrants to travel through Latin America and ultimately into the United States without authorization. For up to $15,000, Merhay arranged for individual undocumented migrants to travel from points in Africa to a house or apartment in Dubai, where he provided travel documents, tickets and instructions for meeting other smugglers while on the way to the United States. Merhay coordinated the migrants’ air travel to South America, where they would meet with Merhay’s associates, who would direct or guide them across the various country borders. The undocumented migrants then met with other smugglers associated with Merhay and were further guided north to Mexico and then into the United States, sometimes by crossing the Rio Grande River by raft.
The investigation was conducted under the Extraterritorial Criminal Travel Strike Force (ECT) program, a joint partnership between the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and ICE-HSI. The ECT program focuses on human smuggling networks that may present particular national security or public safety risks or present grave humanitarian concerns. ECT has dedicated investigative, intelligence and prosecutorial resources. ECT coordinates and receives assistance from other U.S. government agencies and foreign law enforcement authorities.
The investigation was conducted by HSI Washington. This case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Jay Bauer of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Frederick Yette of the District of Columbia. The extradition was handled by Dan E. Stigall of the Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs.
The Department of Justice and HSI expressed their appreciation for the significant assistance provided by the Moroccan Ministry of Justice.
The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.