Remarks as Delivered
Thank you for joining us today. We are here to announce the unsealing of an indictment in a case charging eight defendants with human smuggling and conspiracies to commit human smuggling for conduct that placed lives in serious jeopardy. Among those indicted is the alleged leader of this criminal organization, Erminia Serrano Piedra, also known as “Irma.”
Attorney General Garland created Joint Task Force Alpha last year, in consultation with DHS Secretary Mayorkas, to harness the combined forces of DOJ, DHS, and other interagency partners to strengthen efforts to investigate and prosecute the transnational criminal networks responsible for dangerous and prolific human smuggling activities that exploit and victimize migrants. This indictment demonstrates our commitment to holding accountable criminal organizations that prey upon vulnerable people for profit. JTFA personnel work tirelessly to end the scourge of harmful smuggling and trafficking networks.
This indictment is the direct result of Joint Task Force Alpha, led by prosecutors from the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section, or HRSP, and Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section, along with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas.
Piedra and her co-conspirators allegedly coordinated the transportation and harboring of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border near Laredo, Texas, to Austin, San Antonio, and other points in the interior of the United States.
This organization was motivated by personal greed, and Piedra and her co-conspirators prioritized that greed over the safety of those that they illegally smuggled. As alleged in the indictment, Piedra’s organization transported people in suitcases, repurposed water tanks, and wooden crates on flatbed trucks. They packed people in dangerous, tight spaces, with limited ventilation in high temperatures, risking people’s lives and safety for money.
The sole purpose of this conspiracy was personal profit. It has allegedly generated millions of dollars in illegal proceeds.
To this end, the government is seeking to forfeit these defendants’ ill-gotten gains, which includes noticing the criminal forfeiture of three properties in the Austin area which were purchased with the proceeds of illegal smuggling activity or used to facilitate the organization’s criminal activity.
In addition to the defendants’ individual criminal exposure, we are also seeking money judgments of forfeiture against Piedra and two of her co-conspirators, for a total of more than $2 million.
Earlier today, in the HSI-led coordinated take down in which eight defendants were apprehended, additional evidence showing the scope and expanse of this Human Smuggling Organization’s operations was discovered. For example, Katie Ann Garcia was arrested in Laredo earlier today and during the course of her arrest, 12 migrants, including two minors, were discovered in her residence.
Today is an important step in disrupting and dismantling a human smuggling operation that, as the indictment alleges, is endangering the lives of migrants, and impacting our communities. It also serves as yet another example of the substantial effort undertaken by Joint Task Force Alpha since its inception in June of 2021.
By combining the efforts and resources of numerous Department of Justice prosecutors and law enforcement officials, particularly DHS investigators, from across Texas and the Southeast United States, law enforcement actions like this one highlight the level of collective resolve and commitment we have to combating human smuggling. We are marshalling our resources to vigorously target human smugglers wherever they operate with an unparalleled degree of focus and intensity, and we will hold perpetrators accountable.
So, the message to human smugglers should be crystal clear: You will not be allowed to operate with impunity. U.S. law enforcement will continue to aggressively target you and your illegal operations for disruption and dismantlement.
Now, it is important that I acknowledge and express my deep appreciation to our key partners in law enforcement involved in this case, who have worked tirelessly on this matter in close coordination with JTFA’s DOJ leadership team and prosecutors throughout the investigation.
This investigation has been led by special agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and specifically HSI Laredo, and Customs and Border Protection – U.S. Border Patrol, Laredo Sector, with assistance from multiple HSI offices in Austin, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. Additionally, the coordinated takedown that resulted in arrests across multiple districts earlier today is an excellent example of the collective efforts and skilled coordination across law enforcement agencies and sectors. The U.S. Marshals Service, The Human Smuggling Unit in Washington, DC, Customs and Border Protection’s National Targeting Center as well as CBP’s Office of Air and Marine and DHS Office of Inspector General were all instrumental in ensuring that the investigation to date culminated today in a successful operation.
And now it is my pleasure to turn it over to Jennifer B. Lowery, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas.