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US tries spy tactics to stop human smugglers

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2000


They've come a long way from the mom-and-pop scofflaws who would guide immigrants across the Rio Grande for a hundred bucks and the thrill of it. These days, smugglers have infrared scopes, two-way radios, and computer databases to keep track of each immigrant, how much they have paid, and where they are supposed to go.

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It is this new breed of smuggler - call them "Coyote 2.0" - that has forced the US Immigration and Naturalization Service to make monumental changes in its border strategy. Now, after a decade or so of building up personnel and equipment in military-style "operations," the INS is breaking out the wiretaps, sending in the undercover agents, and opting for a little cloak and dagger.

If it works, the INS's pumped-up efforts in targeting smugglers will likely be hailed as a cost-efficient and humane solution to America's immigration problems. If it fails, the strategy is likely to invite calls for a complete change in the country's goals and policies.

"What it tells me is that the Border Patrol and these INS operations are only a part of what needs to be a broad strategy on immigration," says Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "More agents on the border and even individual operations are insufficient, but they happen to be politically easy things to do."

The change in approach was announced earlier this month by Doris Meissner, INS commissioner, during a visit to southern Arizona, where Border Patrol agents are catching more than 60,000 illegal immigrants a month. Referring to Operations Hold the Line in El Paso, Texas, Gatekeeper in San Diego, and Rio Grande in south Texas, Ms. Meissner said, overall, INS policies were "working," but acknowledged the INS had underestimated how many immigrants would risk their lives in Arizona deserts.

In some ways, the local Border Patrol has already begun taking steps to target smugglers. Tucson, Ariz., sector chief David Aguilar has begun working closely with local law enforcement, and even the state health department, to coordinate efforts to shut down the "drop houses," where dozens of immigrants cram into small rooms, waiting for their rides up north. In addition, Meissner says, plainclothes agents will now patrol the airports in Phoenix and Las Vegas, two major hubs for immigrant smuggling.

But targeting smugglers will go far beyond all that, officials say. The INS has received two important powers in the past few years: In 1997, Congress authorized the INS to tap phone conversations and e-mail, and just this month, Congress gave the INS the power to seize the assets of accused smugglers. With these new tools, the INS will likely resemble a hybrid of the anti-Mafia techniques of the FBI and the drug-war policies of the Drug Enforcement Agency.

Consider Operation Seek and Keep, a year-long 1998 sting operation that dismantled a $200 million smuggling ring based in Dallas. Led by alleged ringleader Nick Diaz, aka Nitin Shettie, the group is believed to have smuggled as many as 12,000 Indian nationals and other foreigners through Russia and Cuba to transit sites in Ecuador, the Bahamas, and Mexico. Some immigrants paid as much as $20,000 apiece to be smuggled from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, and India, to safe houses in 38 states of the US. The case is still pending.