African Smuggling Rings Pose Threat

AP, July 08, 2008

The intercepted e-mail was alarmingly matter-of-fact for anyone worried about a new terror attack: “getting into U.S is no problem at all. thats what i do best.”

The Ghanaian man who wrote it is in prison, accused of smuggling East Africans into the United States via Latin America for economic reasons. But the government worries such operations also could be used to sneak terrorists into the United States now that passports and other travel documents have become harder to acquire and more difficult to fake.

Intelligence officials are focusing new attention on these networks that smuggle people from Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan—known havens for terrorists, including al-Qaida—according to an internal government assessment obtained by The Associated Press.

In the 12 months that ended last Sept. 30, U.S. officials caught 372 East Africans trying to get into the country, the assessment said. This is the most from these countries since the Homeland Security Department was formed in 2003. And 159 people from the same countries have been caught trying to enter since Oct. 1—including 138 from Eritrea, far more than any other country in the Horn of Africa.

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Authorities shut down one major East African pipeline in 2007, according to court documents reviewed by AP.

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Routes have included traveling from East Africa to Johannesburg, South Africa, and from Johannesburg to Sao Paulo, Brazil. East Africans also flew from Abu Dhabi, Dubai, or Rome to Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela in 2007, according to the intelligence assessment. In addition, the smugglers have access to fake and real Belizean, Bolivian, Chilean, Mexican, Peruvian and South African visas.

In the Boateng and Ibrahim smuggling cases, people were stored in luggage compartments of buses for as long as 12 hours and driven to the U.S.-Mexican border. The smugglers escorted clients as they walked across the border into the U.S. between official entry ports.

Ibrahim and Boateng used international carriers DHL and Federal Express to deliver payments and travel documents.

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East Africans are mostly coming to the U.S. to find a better life because of job opportunities that don’t exist in their home countries.

One senior intelligence official said there’s little evidence yet of East Africans trying to cross into the U.S. to engage in terrorist activity. The official requested anonymity because the information in the assessment is not public.

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The number of smuggling networks has remained steady over the past 10 years, with the highest concentration in Latin America, Hatfield said. It’s the price and violence that have gone up. Ten years ago, it might have cost $500 to go from Mexico to Texas, whereas now it could cost up to $2,000.

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