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Operation Turbo: How Migrant-Smugglers-Turned-Killers were Brought to Justice
May 18, 2021

Image of Lady Justice Statue.

30th Session of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice
U.S. Side Event on “Operation Turbo: How Migrant-Smugglers-Turned-Killers were Brought to Justice”

Acting Assistant Secretary of State James Walsh’s Opening Remarks, via WebEx
Monday, May 17, 2021

On behalf of the United States, I would like to welcome and thank you for joining us today for our side event on migrant smuggling. A big welcome also to my colleague, Ambassador Ruiz Blanco, who serves as the Permanent Representative of Colombia to the United Nations in Vienna, and Ambassador of Colombia to Austria. Thank you, Mike for introducing me.

In a few minutes our expert panel will highlight the ways in which effective international cooperation can take down smugglers and save lives. They will walk us through a real-life deadly smuggling case, “Operation Turbo,” which resulted in the successful prosecution of the criminals involved, reflecting cooperation across practitioners using our existing international framework. First, I want to make a few opening remarks to place this impressive operation in context.

Migrant smuggling is a heartbreaking confluence of hope, humanitarian crises, and criminal activity. According to the International Organization for Migration, last year there were almost 272 million international migrants. Conflicts, violence, instability, inequality, and health are just a few of the push factors that drive people to migrate and seek better lives. There are also pull factors like better economic opportunities and family reunification possibilities, which make this issue set even more challenging.

Under the Biden-Harris Administration, the United States is taking a fresh look at our immigration system to make sure it is a safe, orderly, and humane process. The President has issued Executive Orders directing U.S. agencies to address root causes of migration and collaborate with countries of origin, transit, and destination to manage migration in the region. The orders direct U.S. agencies to provide more opportunities for prospective migrants to apply for asylum and admissions while they are in the source countries to deter migrants from making a long and dangerous journey. Additionally, the orders direct more expedited review and processing of immigration cases.

The United States remains a major destination for irregular migration, even with the strict access and border controls that were adopted to combat the spread of COVID-19. In 2021, we are experiencing a significant influx of irregular migrants arriving at the U.S. southwest border. Most of these migrants are originally from Mexico and Northern Central America. Many put their trust and welfare into the hands of criminal smugglers, who exploit them, place them in significant danger, and are only concerned with making a profit.

Many of these smuggling operations are part of transnational criminal organizations and networks. Dismantling them requires cooperation across agencies and borders. Last month, the Administration announced Operation Sentinel, a multi-agency crackdown , on the criminal organizations that are engaged in smuggling migrants to the United States. The intention of this operation is to disrupt every facet of the logistical network these organizations use to succeed. This operation is promising, but we cannot combat this issue alone and we recognize that our foreign partnerships and international cooperation are critical in this fight. One of the linchpins for international cooperation is the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea, and Air.

As we know, this protocol promotes effective international action by law enforcement authorities to prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants. We are pleased to be co- sponsoring with Italy a resolution that encourages member states to increase cooperation at the regional and international levels, particularly considering the COVID-19 pandemic, to take steps to protect the human rights of migrants, and to investigate and prosecute those engaged in smuggling ventures.

I’m pleased to be joined by Ambassador Ruiz Blanco and the experts on Operation Turbo, who will discuss the elements of this case and the cooperation that brought it to a successful conclusion. Thank you to each of you for speaking today. And now I will turn it back over to Mike Sheckels, the Deputy Chief of the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section at the U.S. Department of Justice, to kick us off. Over to you Mike.