Smuggling suspects receive cash as Brazilians flock to US border

Brazilian citizen Chelbe Willams Moraes writes in a document on June 7, 2021, when he was deported from Paraguay to an unknown location.

12 October 2021

By Gabriel Stargardter

Belo Horizonte, Brazil (Reuters) – A record number of Brazilians have been arrested at the southern border of the United States this year. This is part of the widespread immigration crisis in the United States. Police believe the custody dispute has moved them north, to one of the smugglers.

In early June, Brazilian federal police arrested Chelbe Moraes, a businessman who allegedly ran away with a three-year-old girl who had lost custody of her former partner. After bugging another Moraes’ phone, officers began to suspect that he was a veteran smuggler, or “coyote.”

In a June 25 police report sent to a federal judge and seen by Reuters, they sought to file criminal charges against trafficking, smuggling and criminal conspiracy against Moraes.

Police have accused Brazilians of not having a valid US visa of charging around $ 20,000 per person to enter the United States through Mexico. To do this, Moraes built an international network of corrupt police officers and officials, as well as U.S.-based families, according to court documents.

Reuters spoke to more than 20 people familiar with the case, including police, immigration officials, fellow Moraes and three who claimed to be his clients. These interviews feature veteran smugglers whose businesses have thrived in Brazil’s political and economic turmoil.

Moraes, who has declared his innocence to police, told Reuters he runs a legitimate consultant who advises people on US asylum claims from his home state of Minas Gerais. He said he has served up to 200 clients over his 20-year career and asked clients who meet US standards to help with the transition up to R $ 100,000 ($ 18,086 ).

“My advice is very expensive because I know US law,” Moraes said.

In the first 11 months of fiscal 2021, 46,280 Brazilians were arrested at the southern U.S. border, up from a total of 17,893 in 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data. The 550,000 Mexicans and Brazilians arrested so far this year are currently ranked sixth among nationalities detained in 2021.

They have fled the region devastated by COVID-19 and are part of a wave of Latin American immigrants seeking more generous treatment since the resignation of radical former President Donald Trump this year. Concerns over the southern border have reached their highest level in 20 years, causing headaches for President Joe Biden.

Ramon Lomo, head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Anti-Trafficking Unit, a research unit of the US Department of Immigration and Customs, said:

On July 7, a Brazilian federal prosecutor charged Moraes, 60, with child trafficking for having fled to neighboring Paraguay with his daughter. Moraes pleaded not guilty, saying it was a planned business trip. Moraes, now back in Brazil, remains free until his trial. He has never been charged in connection with an alleged smuggling operation. Prosecutors have given police more time to investigate cell phones, computer hard drives and other documents confiscated by Moraes.

Two people familiar with his alleged racketeering – a former client and a former associate – asked Reuters to impersonate a tourist when Moraes arrived in Mexico, and were sometimes given a bribe. He said he would bring them into the country with the help of an immigration officer.

Moraes then takes the Brazilians north and crosses the border with the help of the Mexican coyote hired there, or with fake documents and elaborate blankets that Moraes designed for them. Claiming asylum in the United States.

The National Institute of Immigration, Mexico’s Federal Office of Immigration, did not respond to requests for comment.

Anyone who can prove that they are facing persecution in their country because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion can be the subject of an asylum application. in the USA. The untreated portion of the US immigration court means that frequent immigrants can stay in the US for many years while the process is ongoing.

Moraes said those who claimed to have carried out the smuggling operation were either “guided” by the police to do so or envious of its success.

But he admitted he was benefiting from Brazil’s predicament.

“The worse the government here, the better for me,” he said.

‘Unprecedented’

Immigration from Brazil to the United States has exploded since 2018, when right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro was elected. In 2018, more than 1,500 Brazilians were detained at the southern border of the United States, an increase of 1,100% in the following fiscal year.

Brazil suffers from multiple crises on Bolsonaro watches. More than 600,000 Brazilians have died from COVID-19. It is the second highest death toll in the world after the United States. The unemployment rate is around 14%, but the annual inflation rate has reached double digits. Poverty has skyrocketed.

“The average Brazilian is disillusioned with everything,” said Daniel Fantini, chief detective investigating Moraes.

Bolsonaro’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Brazilians must obtain a visitor visa to enter the United States. The process has become more demanding due to the growing number of travelers overtaking COVID-19 and visas, three US officials told Reuters.

Many Brazilians are now turning to coyotes, according to immigrants, their families, police and officials who spoke to Reuters.

Renilda dos Santos, a nurse from northern Brazil, died of thirst in September after moving to New Mexico. Her brother, Resi Pereira, told Reuters that she agreed to pay the smuggler $ 25,000 and pledged to keep her home safe. The smuggler suspect, who simply nicknamed the client “Piskuila,” did not respond to the request for comment.

In California, CBP officers are used to speaking Spanish, which is the most widely spoken language in Mexico and Latin America. But they are struggling to deal with what the agency calls an “unprecedented” jump, where Portuguese-speaking Brazilians are stopped at the border.

Diplomatic efforts are underway to slow the flow.

Brazilians do not need a visa to enter Mexico, making it easier for smugglers to send immigrants to Mexico and transport them north. The Biden administration wants Mexico to impose visa requirements on Brazilians to complicate the way, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Talks began in July, but Mexico is resisting due to the potential for favorable Brazilian tourism and Bolsonaro’s interaction, one said.

The US State Department declined to comment on the “ongoing diplomatic debate.”

The Mexican and Brazilian foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment.

Active poll

Federal police questioned the suspect after Moraes fled Brazil with his daughter.

Gaijian Batista, who claims authorities handled the finances of the smuggling operation, helped Moraes run a lingerie factory in Minas Gerais, she said in a police report seen by Reuters. She told police that immigrant applicants without a U.S. visa frequently visit the factory to meet with Moraes and arrange their passage.

Moraes denied Batista’s account. I couldn’t ask Batista to comment.

José Martins worked as a Moraes driver and took immigrants to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo on their way to Mexico, he told police in a testimony file. He said Moraes charged R $ 100,000 to “put someone in the United States” and offered him a fee of R $ 1,000 ($ 181) for each new customer he brought in.

It was Ismael da Silva and his wife who said he had transported them to these Martins. Unemployed caretaker Da Silva said in his bail that he sold his car, furniture and tools to help fund a $ 17,000 trip.

The couple never did that. Mexican authorities refused entry after landing in Cancun in May, Da Silva told police. Da Silva, who was contacted by Reuters, declined to comment.

Others were lucky. Driver Martins told police Da Sylvath was among a group of 12 Brazilian immigrants on the trip, six of whom entered the United States. Martins declined to comment.

Wiretapping evidence suggests that Moraes is relying on US-based parents, including his adult daughter Janaina Moraes, to help immigrants get around, according to police reports. Brazilian police did not charge her with cheating.

Janaina Moraes, who lives near Boston, told Reuters that she sometimes used the phone to manage hotel check-ins and buy food for her father’s customer, but refused to work for him. He said he did.

A spokeswoman for the US Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on what she called an aggressive investigation.

False family

Bruno Lube, a 41-year-old Brazilian immigrant, hired Moraes in 2016 but told Reuters he was captured by a US agent after widening the border wall near El Paso in Coyote, Mexico. He said he spent nearly five months in US detention before being deported to Brazil, where he accused Moraes of federal police.

A spokesman for the Federal Police said he had confirmed and was investigating Lube’s complaint against Moraes in 2017.

Moraes denied Lube’s request and said he did not know him. U.S. CBP declined to comment on Lube’s alleged detention.

According to Brazilian police and sources familiar with his operations, Moraes was able to help the family enter the country.

Central Americans and Mexicans with children are often banished to Mexico upon arrival at the US border as part of US policy initiated during the pandemic. In contrast, almost all Brazilians traveling with minors arriving at the southern border seeking asylum are allowed to wait for their hearing on US land.

As of August this year, 99.2% of Brazilian family units had been admitted to the country, according to CBP data. In contrast, around 15% of Mexican families, 57% of Guatemalan families and 66% of Honduran families. When the policy of exile began, Mexico said it would only accept Mexicans and Central Americans exiled from the United States, but it has since taken on several other nationalities.

To turn the system into a game, sources say, Moraes created a fake “family” of unrelated adults and minors, providing fake documents and fictional interior stories of domestic violence and gang threats. And reinforced the request for asylum.

Moraes has denied the claims, saying he only advises well-meaning families.

($ 1 = 5.5292 Actual)

(Report by Gabriel Stargardter in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, Mica Rosenberg in New York, Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, additional report by Dave Graham and Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico, edited by Marla Dickerson)

Smuggling suspects receive cash as Brazilians flock to US border

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