By Kareem Parson, Special Agent, Overseas Criminal Investigation Division, Diplomatic Security Service
The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) is the law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of State and is charged with investigating illegal passport or visa issuance or use, identity theft, or document fraud that affects the department or the integrity of U.S. travel documents, along with crimes committed overseas in the special maritime or U.S. territorial jurisdiction. Because visa and passport fraud often intertwine with other illegal activities such as document fraud, sex and labor trafficking, terrorism, and money laundering, DSS has worked for decades with U.S. and foreign law enforcement and immigration partners to combat those crimes in the United States and other countries. With 2,000 special agents, hundreds of criminal fraud investigators, and analytic experts working around the world and in 31 U.S. field offices, DSS has on-the-ground relationships with an extensive global network of international law enforcement officials, immigration officers, and governments and agencies around the world, including Europol and Interpol. DSS offers a unique global investigative resource to U.S. law enforcement: a sustained, global presence with the expertise, access, and skill to combat transnational crimes that pose a threat to the United States and those living there.
Additionally, worldwide programs administered by DSS, like Rewards for Justice (RFJ) and the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), help combat terrorism, mitigate global threats, and disrupt transnational crime. For instance, the RFJ program—which aims to bring international terrorists to justice and prevent acts of terrorism against U.S. persons or property—was what led DSS agents to find 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef in Pakistan. Since RFJ’s inception in 1984, the U.S. government has paid more than $125 million for actionable information that put terrorists behind bars or prevented acts of international terrorism.
OSAC, an advisory committee that manages a network of 4,600 organizations, has a presence at 151 locations outside the United States; and represents U.S. businesses, academia, faith-based groups, and non-governmental organizations. These trusted public and private sector DSS partners create a nexus of security information and best practices critical in crisis situations. All OSAC constituents have access to embassy consular messages; social media feeds; and comprehensive reports on crime, terrorism, cybersecurity, political violence, natural disasters, health issues, and related mitigation tactics. Large international businesses and small organizations rely on OSAC and its information network to help plan and manage security measures for their overseas operations and for large-scale events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games.
It was an OSAC constituent who, in the thick of crisis response during a November 2015 attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, Mali, provided OSAC with a list of U.S. guests staying in the hotel. With that information in hand, DSS special agents on the scene were able to quickly locate and rescue those trapped in their hotel rooms.
Perhaps one of the most dynamic DSS overseas resources working on transnational cases, however, is the Overseas Criminal Investigations (OCI) Division and its assistant regional security officer-investigators (ARSO-Is). ARSO-Is are special agents assigned to U.S. embassies and consulates, who focus on criminal cases involving U.S. and foreign passports, visas, and other travel documents, which often lead to multi-agency transnational investigations.
The OCI and its ARSO-I program are on the front lines of the fight against transnational crime. Their investigations have stopped transnational criminal networks and organizations operating in California, New York, Florida, Minneapolis, Washington, Texas, and elsewhere in the United States, and have led to convictions of sex and labor traffickers, document fraud vendors, money launderers, and more. With a sustained presence in partner countries and strong relationships with foreign law enforcement, security, and immigration officials, ARSO-Is are positioned to deter transnational crime before it crosses U.S. borders. When transnational crime does occur within the United States, or a U.S. case involves an international suspect or crime, ARSO-Is and their colleagues can quickly leverage their extensive global network to support their U.S. law enforcement partners.
ARSO-Is also frequently support the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) and other U.S. law enforcement entities with fugitive returns. As recently as June 2017, DSS assisted with the return of a USMS Top 15 Wanted Fugitive connected to the 2011 double murder of two sisters in Boston. In March 2017, an ARSO-I and DSS special agents posted in two African countries helped escort a fugitive charged with stealing the identities of disabled children and those in foster care back to Pennsylvania. And in 2014, DSS joined forces with U.S. law enforcement to return one of the FBI’s Most Wanted fugitives, a man charged with child sexual abuse and kidnapping in New Mexico, and who had fled to Nepal.
Combating human smuggling and sex trafficking is a U.S. government and State Department priority, and DSS is increasingly a major partner to U.S. and international law enforcement in these often long-term, high-profile investigations that require overseas expertise. The ARSO-I at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, for example, worked a four-year investigation with the DSS New York Field Office, South Korean law enforcement, and several U.S. law enforcement partners to dismantle a transnational human trafficking criminal network smuggling South Korean nationals to the United States to work as prostitutes.
ARSO-Is bring a wide range of specialized training, as well as their overseas expertise, to transnational criminal investigations. In addition to foundational special agent training and overseas security management training, ARSO-Is receive instruction in immigration law; consular processes and databases overseas criminal investigations; and, in most cases, the native language of the country in which they are working. As no U.S. law enforcement officer in another country has investigative authority beyond the walls of a U.S. embassy or consulate without authorization from the U.S. Congress and the consent of the host nation, partnerships with local authorities are key to the success of any investigation outside the United States, and language skills will often make or break those partnerships. That’s where the “diplomat” element of diplomatic security comes in—the varied and in-depth training DSS special agents undergo enables them to communicate, navigate countries and cultures, and build relationships with local law enforcement anywhere in the world as soon as they arrive in-country. It also enables them to partner with foreign police to build local capacity to enforce local laws and pursue local prosecutions. When a global threat or crime occurs, ARSO-Is are already well-positioned on the ground and in sync with local authorities to work in concert on areas of mutual concern.
In 2012, an ARSO-I in a Central American country with which the U.S. government does not have strong relations was investigating a smuggling operation that was trafficking a significant number of Indian nationals through the Central American country to a final destination in the United States. The ARSO-I’s thorough investigation and diplomatic work with that country’s immigration and government officials led to successfully disrupting the illegal flow through the country and a significant decrease in illegal border crossings at the U.S. southern border.
The case began when the ARSO-I found a number of trends pointing to a transnational smuggling operation in the Central American country. Smuggling organizations were exploiting the fact that the country did not require Indian citizens to obtain a visa to travel to or transit through the country. A majority of those smuggled shared a similar profile: single males between the ages of 16 and 26, carrying little to no luggage, who claimed the Central American country’s capital city as their final destination. The migrants claimed to be traveling to the country in order to learn Spanish, and they carried fraudulent invitation letters from one of three local Spanish-language schools. As the ARSO-I investigated further, he found that groups of 20 to 40 Indian nationals would arrive at a specific airport and stay at one of a handful of local hotels for 2 to 10 days before departing the country by land.
The ARSO-I identified more than 900 Indian nationals who had been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border using the scheme. When the ARSO-I informed his local immigration counterparts, the country’s government changed its policy to require an in-person interview for Indian nationals seeking transit visas. After the policy change, a northbound neighboring country began turning Indian travelers without visas back to the country from which they travelled, thus preventing alien smuggling organizations from using the country as a way point for their eventual attempt at illegal entry into the U.S.
In another case, ARSO-Is in two Asian countries used their linguistic, diplomatic, and investigative skills to support a request from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) involving document fraud and human smuggling into Los Angeles, California.
The CBP noticed that a group of asylum seekers who had flown to Los Angeles, California, had boarded a plane in a non-visa waiver Asian country using passports from a third country in the region that does participate in the U.S. visa waiver program. Upon arrival to the United States, however, the individuals identified themselves as citizens of the non-visa waiver country, requested asylum, and falsely claimed that they had lost the passports they had used to board the plane.
The ARSO-I recognized elements of a familiar human smuggling pattern: an individual from a visa waiver country uses his or her true identity to schedule a flight to the non-visa waiver country, with a follow-on leg to the United States. A different individual from a non-visa waiver country uses his true identity to schedule a flight from his home country to meet the other traveler. Both travelers and a fraudulent document facilitator arrive at the same airport in the non-visa waiver country at the same time. The facilitator provides high-quality fraudulent passports to the two travelers and transfers the legitimate boarding passes between the two travelers inside the airport’s secure area. The traveler from the non-visa waiver country boards the plane using the other’s identity, and claims asylum upon arrival to the United States.
The investigation was complicated. The two countries involved in the transnational smuggling case have weak diplomatic ties, which required the ARSO-Is on the ground in each country to put on their diplomatic hats and ensure that information flowed quickly while they undertook the investigation. Conducting their research and outreach in both countries’ native languages and working to foster cooperation between two countries with a history of mistrust ultimately resulted in local law enforcement officials quickly identifying and arresting two suspects within two days of receiving their information from DSS. A month later, the investigation led to the arrest of a fraudulent document vendor from a third Asian country. Eventually, officials identified the primary alien smuggler, who turned out to be a dual national citizen of the United States and one of the Asian countries with an extensive, decades-long criminal history of human smuggling.
The Asian human smuggling and document fraud investigation also provided the ARSO-Is an opportunity to train both countries’ law enforcement and immigration officials, as well as international airline staff. One of the cornerstones of the ARSO-I program is bolstering foreign partners’ capabilities through training on travel document security features, fraudulent document detection methods, imposter detection, suspect traveler profiles, and related illegal activities. Over the past decade, ARSO-Is and supporting DSS staff have trained nearly 150,000 individuals around the world.
This training has contributed to officials in other countries successfully disrupting human smuggling rings, interdicting foreign terrorist fighters, and capturing high-profile fugitives before any of those crimes or criminals reached U.S. territory.
One excellent example of the impact DSS training can have can be found in Colombian officials’ fight against the powerful, transnational Ipiales Trafficking Organization (ITO). In 2014, Colombian immigration officials shared statistics on third-country nationals’ movements within Colombia with the ARSO-I assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. The ARSO-I began researching the stats and realized ITO was using a sophisticated network of safe houses, transportation routes, financial advisors, smaller human smuggling organizations, coyotes, fraudulent document vendors, and corrupt officials to move United States–bound individuals from Syria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Bangladesh through Colombia. ITO also paid criminal, paramilitary, and terrorist groups to move people, which in turn financed terrorist activities in Colombia.
The ARSO-I worked with Colombian officials and local law enforcement on all levels to combat the situation. He provided fraudulent document identification training to law enforcement and immigration officials as well as airport and airline personnel so they could spot forged and fraudulent documents and identify entry and exit points along smuggling routes. As a result, the investigation grew and the Colombians boosted their presence at key locations and detained third-party nationals attempting to gain entry into the country. In addition, the Colombian police conducted raids on safe houses where immigrants in transit were kept.
Operation Easy Borders resulted in 223 arrests; 8 prosecutions; and the seizure of more than 300 passports, visas, and other travel documents in Colombia. The Colombians also seized over $100,000 and identified more than $2 million in wire transfers to ITO in Colombia from countries around the world.
The ARSO-I’s training and assistance has led to Colombia increasing its focus on investigation and prosecution of transnational crimes, and it now has stronger immigration controls, more arrests and prosecutions, and tougher sentences for human smugglers. Although DSS and its Colombian partners dealt a major blow to ITO, smaller groups in Ipiales and Antioquia are taking control of the human smuggling trade in Colombia. The current ARSO-I in Bogota and neighboring countries continue to conduct operations in partnership with their foreign law enforcement and immigration counterparts to take down these new targets.
These are just a few examples of the types of support and resources DSS contributes to the U.S. law enforcement community’s fight against transnational crime. Sex and labor trafficking, money laundering, human smuggling, international criminal networks—they all impact the safety of U.S. residents and overall U.S. security, but these crimes can be difficult for U.S. law enforcement to pursue when the investigation heads across borders. When these types of cases hit an international wall, DSS has the right people with the right combination of expertise and diplomatic know-how standing at the ready—around the world and on the front lines—to assist and move those international investigations forward.
[NOTE: This article originally appeared in the September 2017 edition of Police Chief Magazine.]