Human smugglers put migrants in suitcases and crates, US prosecutors say

New indictments part of effort by President Joe Biden's administration to beak up human trafficking networks

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Officials in US President Joe Biden's administration announced charges on Tuesday against a profitable human trafficking operation they allege brought migrants — some in suitcases and even water tanks — across the southern border, as the number of illegal border crossings continues to rise.

Associated court documents and those involved with the case say that eight people were indicted for playing a part in smuggling hundreds of people into the country, some hidden in wooden crates on lorries in blistering heat. Another six co-conspirators were cited in the court record.

At a news conference in Washington on Tuesday, US officials with the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security said the alleged smugglers were indifferent to human life and concerned only with financial gain.

Law enforcement officers work at the scene where people were found dead inside a hot lorry in San Antonio, Texas, earlier this year. Reuters

“They have become increasingly intertwined with the [Mexican drug] cartels and there is increasing evidence of the abuse, exploitation and violence they perpetrate on migrants,” said John Tien, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

“For too long, they have acted with seeming impunity.”

The indictments are part of an expansive effort by President Joe Biden's administration to halt smuggling networks as border arrests creep up towards two million this fiscal year, which began last October.

US prosecutors identified Erminia Serrano Piedra, a Texas resident known as “Boss Lady”, as the mastermind of the operation, which they said generated millions of dollars.

Ms Serrano Piedra deposited more than $1.3 million in two bank accounts between December 2017 and August 2021, though reported only $120,000 to financial institutions, prosecutors claimed in a pretrial motion unsealed on Tuesday.

There was no lawyer listed for Ms Serrano Piedra in a US court record database, according to Reuters.

In June, 53 migrants died after they were trapped in an unventilated lorry in San Antonio, Texas, during an unsuccessful smuggling attempt. Four men, including the alleged driver, have been charged in that incident.

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Reuters contributed to this report

Updated: September 13, 2022, 10:05 PM