The U.S. Department of Justice yesterday announced the first ever extraditions from Guatemala to the United States on charges of human smuggling resulting in death, and the first Guatemalan human smuggling extraditions to the United States of any kind in nearly five years.
This announcement was made at a meeting of Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA) in El Paso, Texas. This meeting was convened by Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division to bring together law enforcement leaders to discuss disrupting and dismantling human smuggling networks operating along the Southwest Border.
JTFA was created by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in June 2021, in partnership with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas, to strengthen the department’s overall efforts to combat these crimes based on the rise in prolific and dangerous smuggling emanating from Central America and impacting our border communities. JTFA’s goal is to disrupt and dismantle those human smuggling and trafficking networks operating in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, with a focus on networks that endanger, abuse, or exploit migrants, present national security risks, or engage in other types of transnational organized crime.
Since its creation, JTFA has successfully increased coordination and collaboration between the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and other interagency law enforcement participants, and with foreign law enforcement partners, including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico; targeted organizations that have the most impact on the United States, and coordinated significant smuggling indictments and extradition efforts in U.S. Attorneys’ offices across the country. To date, JTFA’s work with its partners has resulted in criminal charges and over 183 domestic and international arrests of leaders, organizers and significant facilitators of human smuggling activities, several dozen convictions, significant prison sentences, seizure of drugs, firearms, ammunition and vehicles, and substantial asset forfeiture.
“This case demonstrates the deadly threat that human smuggling groups pose to the migrants they endanger and exploit,” said Attorney General Garland. “It also demonstrates that Joint Task Force Alpha and the entire Justice Department are doubling down on our efforts to disrupt and dismantle dangerous human smuggling operations and to find and bring to justice the perpetrators – no matter where they are.”
“JTFA was created to investigate and prosecute the international networks responsible for human smuggling activities that exploit and victimize migrants,” said Assistant Attorney General Polite. “The extradition of four prolific smugglers from Guatemala – in addition to the other cases and investigations we highlighted during this summit – demonstrates the Department of Justice’s commitment to holding accountable criminal organizations that prey upon the vulnerable for profit. Through JTFA, our message to human smugglers is clear: using the combined might of U.S. law enforcement and its international partners, we will continue to aggressively target you and your illegal operations both within the United States and south of the border, using every tool, technique, and resource at our disposal.”
As announced last year, extensive coordination and cooperation between U.S. and Guatemalan law enforcement authorities led to the indictment and arrest of the four leaders, as well as the apprehension of 15 additional targets in Guatemala, in August 2022. Pursuant to an extradition request, Guatemalan authorities ordered the extradition of the leaders to the United States to face charges for their alleged roles in the offense.
According to court documents, Guatemalan nationals Felipe Diego Alonzo, aka Siete, 39; Nesly Norberto Martinez Gomez, aka Canche, 38; Lopez Mateo Mateo, aka Bud Light, 43; and Juan Gutierrez Castro, aka Andres, 46, allegedly conspired with other smugglers to facilitate the travel of large numbers of migrants from Guatemala through Mexico, and ultimately, into the United States, charging the migrants and their families approximately $10,000 to $12,000 for the perilous journey. The defendants are also alleged to be responsible for the death of a young indigenous Guatemalan woman, who died in Texas in May 2021.
“The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas is fully committed to working with our international and federal law enforcement partners to disrupt and dismantle transnational human smuggling organizations,” said U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza for the Western District of Texas. “Through our combined efforts we will hold accountable human smugglers who callously disregard the safety of the people they transport. We are dedicated to ensuring that all victims of these groups receive justice.”
The victim’s family paid the defendants approximately $10,000 for the journey to the United States. As alleged in the indictment, the defendants and their co-conspirators guided her for several days through the desert to Odessa, Texas, where she ultimately died. Upon learning of her death, the defendants and their co-conspirators allegedly disposed of her body on the side of a road in Crane County, Texas. The defendants and their co-conspirators then allegedly arranged for payment to the victim’s family.
“These extraditions speak to the collaboration in this Administration across the federal government and with our partners throughout the hemisphere,” said Deputy Secretary John K. Tien of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “From the frontline efforts of our workforce at Customs and Border Protection, to the investigative capabilities we leverage at Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and the seamless coordination with our partners at the Justice Department, we are unwavering in our commitment to holding transnational criminal networks accountable for human smuggling and their abuse of migrants.”
The indictments and extraditions against Diego Alonzo, Martinez Gomez, Mateo Mateo, and Gutierrez Castro, as well as the assistance provided by U.S. authorities to Guatemalan law enforcement, were coordinated under JTFA.
JTFA is comprised of detailees from southwest border U.S. Attorney’s Offices, including the Southern District of Texas, the Western District of Texas, the District of New Mexico, the District of Arizona, and the Southern District of California. Dedicated support for the program is also provided by numerous components of the Criminal Division that are part of JTFA – led by the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP), and supported by the Office of Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training (OPDAT), the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (NDDS), the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS), the Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO), the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs (OIA), and the Organized Crime and Gang Section (OCGS). JTFA is made possible by substantial law enforcement investment from DHS, FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other partners.
HSI Midland led U.S. investigative efforts in this case, working in concert with HSI Guatemala and the HSI Human Smuggling Unit in Washington, D.C. HSI received substantial assistance from U.S. Immigration and Customs (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO); U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) National Targeting Center/Operation Sentinel; U.S. Border Patrol (USBP); the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS); the Odessa and Midland Police Departments; the Texas Department of Public Safety; and the Ector County, Midland County, and Crane County Sherriff’s Offices. OIA and OPDAT provided significant assistance in this matter. The Department of Justice thanks Guatemalan law enforcement, who were instrumental in furthering this investigation.
JTFA Co-Director James Hepburn of HRSP, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jose Luis Acosta for the Western District of Texas and JTFA, and Assistant U.S. Attorney John Fedock for the Western District of Texas handled the case, with substantial assistance from Assistant U.S. Attorney Adrian Gallegos for the Western District of Texas and HRSP Historian/Latin America Specialist Joanna Crandall.
The charges contained in an indictment are merely allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.