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Attorney General Announces Smuggling Bust

Aired December 10, 2001 - 14:37   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to switch gears once again and go to John Ashcroft, the attorney general, who is now briefing reporters about arrests involving an illegal immigration operation.

Let's listen in.


JOHN ASHCROFT, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I want to congratulate and commend each of the many law enforcement agencies involved in this successful investigation, beginning with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which led the investigation. Approximately 300 agents and officers from various state and federal agencies cooperated in Operation Great Basin to defend the nation's borders.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the South Tucson Police Department and other state and local police in California, Arizona and elsewhere collaborated in this successful investigation.

The terrorist attacks of September 11 remind Americans in the most painful way of the need to defend our borders while keeping them open to peaceful, freedom-loving people. Today's charges prove that we can achieve this balance in our immigration policy. The United States is a compassionate nation built on the hard work of immigrants. We remain committed to welcoming legal immigrants, but we will not tolerate violations of our border. We will have even less patience for those who seek to violate the nation's immigration laws.

The laws of the United States deserve and demand respect. Operation Great Basin serves as a warning to those organizations, companies or individuals who would smuggle illegal aliens for profit. United States law enforcement is ready and able to find you, to investigate you and to prosecute you.

I would like to thank, once again, Commissioner Jim Ziglar and the INS Border Patrol for their exemplary work in this investigation. And I'm pleased now to call upon Commissioner Ziglar for remarks.

Thank you.

JAMES ZIGLAR, INS COMMISSIONER: Thanks, General. As the attorney general noted, this investigation is the culmination of two years of very extensive investigation in something called Operation Great Basin. Now, this investigation was triggered by some very alert and conscientious Border Patrol agents in the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol.

I'd also like to echo the attorney general's thanks to the more than 300 law enforcement agencies -- agents of whatever type, throughout the country who participated in this investigation.

We had folks from, as he mentioned, obviously the INS, which was the lead agency, and we take great pride in our role in leading this investigation, but we had substantial support from the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the South Tucson Police Department and numerous other law enforcement agencies throughout particularly the West. This investigation covered seven states: Colorado, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas and Washington.

We are distributing copies of the indictment -- I'm not sure whether it's been handed out yet or not -- for your edification. It's what's called a speaking indictment, which means that it has a lot of detail in there about the alleged crimes. And so I think you will find that it's fairly detailed in what we believe occurred here.

As you can understand, the U.S. attorney and myself are somewhat circumscribed by our ability to answer any questions about this case beyond what's in the four corners of that indictment, but I can tell you that this indictment shows the thoroughness of this investigation.

What I can tell you is what the attorney general also just told you, and that is this is the largest human smuggling case involving a commercial enterprise, at least in the history of the INS. The assets that are subject to forfeiture here are very substantial. And I also can tell you that we have moved today to prohibit this company from distributing or dispersing any of those assets that are subject to forfeiture.

Human smuggling is a dangerous business and it represents a multi-billion-dollar global criminal problem. I think a good example of the impact of human smuggling was seen his weekend in the case that came out of Ireland where 13 people were found in a cargo container, eight of which died. They were in this container for almost a week without any ventilation. It's a very inhumane, a very dangerous, a very ugly kind of business.

This case, the case we're talking about here, affirms our commitment at the INS to disrupt immigrant smuggling on all fronts, from the border to the boardroom, as in this case.

I'd like to also take this opportunity to reiterate what I told a House committee last week in some testimony, and that is, that the INS is determined to carry out its mandate on interior enforcement, while also being a leading agency in the terrorist investigation. The initiative that I announced last week with respect to putting into the National Crime Information Center index the names of what are called abscondees, people who have gotten final deportation orders but have jumped bail, is a good example of some of the initiatives that we will take. This case is another example of the initiatives.

And I can tell you that in the very near term you're going to hear about a lot of other activities from the INS, in terms of our interior enforcement activities.

With that, I'd like to turn to the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Paul Charlton for a few comments.



I think the attorney general and the commissioner have said all that we really can say about the indictment, but I would like to reiterate what they've said, as well, about the outstanding job that the Immigration and Naturalization Service did on this investigation. I think the public knows about the hard work and the difficulty job that the Border Patrol has watching our frontiers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but they may not be as familiar with the job that the INS and the Border Patrol do in proactive long-term cases, such as the ones reflected in the indictment that you have a copy of today.

One other critical element of good law enforcement is good cooperation with local and state law enforcement, and that's exemplified here, as well. I want to thank, just as the commissioner did, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the South Tucson Police Department for their outstanding work and support in this effort. It's also important to recognize that we already have the FBI's contribution to this case and the United States Marshals Service assistance.

I believe we have some time for some questions, as well.

QUESTION: Mr. Ziglar, I'm confused, because -- is this the largest smuggling ring involving a commercial bus company or is it a commercial enterprise?

QUESTION: And if it's not the largest involving a commercial enterprise, how does it compare to other smuggling rings involving commercial enterprises?

ZIGLAR: When I say commercial enterprise, I meant a transportation company, which is pretty substantial by anybody's measure.

QUESTION: Do you know how much the people who were smuggled had to pay in order to be transported? And with that money, some of that money then kicked back to the smugglers? Or can you give us any detail about how the financial arrangement worked?

ZIGLAR: As I mentioned, if it's not in the indictment, I can't talk about it. So I don't know the amounts of dollars that were being charged. QUESTION: How many people overall were -- I mean, you said 50 to 300 a day. Over how many -- I mean, is there an estimate how many people overall were smuggled?

ZIGLAR: I don't have that estimate. What the indictment says is that the estimate was 50 to 300 per day during the year 2000, when a snapshot of the activities were taken.

QUESTION: Can you talk about the decision then to allow these people to enter the country? Obviously, you had a long-term goal here, which was the investigation. But was there discussion about not allowing these people to come into the country during this period?

ZIGLAR: Excuse me one second.

Excuse me. I had to check with my counsel there.

This only involved people who had already entered the United States. It was not about coming across the border with these people; they were transported once they got here. Smuggling rings got them over the border, then the allegation is that they worked with Golden State to move these people into other parts of the country.

QUESTION: Nonetheless, there are thousands of people, then, that the INS was aware of that were here in this country illegally. And I just want you to walk us through the process that went on here. So you wouldn't, you know, at that point try to remove these people or stop it earlier? ZIGLAR: Well, let me make two points. The first is that the indictment notes that when these folks were -- tickets were purchased -- advanced tickets were purchased for these folks, generally false names were put into the manifest, so we don't know who these people were.

Secondly, we had to build a case, and it takes quite a while to build a case in a situation like this.

ZIGLAR: So, as you know, there are times when activities go on that are criminal in nature that go on, but you're building your case, and so that's what happened. It took us two years to put this case together in a way that we're confident about it.

QUESTION: How much, sir, are you thinking about, in terms of asset forfeiture?

ZIGLAR: I have no way of knowing the real value of it. But let me just say it this way: that there are a substantial number of assets that are involved in this alleged criminal enterprise. And if the -- just in general, I would have to say that this very well could be the largest forfeiture in any immigration type case. But I don't know that for a fact.

QUESTION: How many years prior to the commencement of the investigation do you suspect that this operation was taking place, number one?

And number two, cracking down on Hispanics, 37 of the 39 names here are Hispanics. Is it more so now than ever cracking down on Hispanic illegal immigrants?

ZIGLAR: The conspiracy is alleged to have started in 1996 when there was first, apparently, some evidence of this activity. But the real -- that's the look back -- the real information started about two years ago.

And the answer to you is this, this is not a crack down on Hispanics. This is a crack down on criminals. And wherever we find criminals, we are going to crack down, regardless of their ethnic background.

QUESTION: How large of a concern is this bus company, and can you give us an idea of what their assets are that you intend to...

ZIGLAR: Total assets? I don't know what the total assets of the company are.

QUESTION: How large of a concern?

ZIGLAR: Well, it's a fairly large operation out in the West.

QUESTION: Mr. Ziglar, this is off topic, but have you responded to the FOIA request...

BLITZER: James Ziglar, the commissioner of the INS, continuing to brief reporters on what he described as the largest human smuggling case involving a commercial enterprise in U.S. history, illegal immigration smuggling cases involving a transportation company down in the southwestern part of United States smuggling individuals from Mexico into the United States. There have been more than 30 people indicted, hundreds of people were smuggled across the boarder illegally.




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