In addition to drug and arms trafficking, which for decades has brought in millions in profits for the drug cartels operating in Mexico, members of organized crime have found in the desire of thousands of migrants to reach the “American Dream,” a business opportunity.
In their desperation to find a better quality of life in the United States, thousands of migrants resort to measures that not only put their lives at risk but also cross the line of legality with criminal groups such as the one led by Ofelia Hernandez Salas, better known as “La Lupe.”
It was last June 16 when the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) imposed sanctions on the transnational criminal organization Hernandez Salas, which was dedicated to smuggling people from its headquarters in Mexicali, Baja, California.
“In close coordination with our law enforcement colleagues and Mexican partners, today’s designation of Ofelia Hernandez Salas and her criminal enterprise is aimed at disrupting the group’s global operations […] we will continue to aggressively target those who seek to prey on desperate immigrants and abuse the U.S. financial system,” stated Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson.
According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, transnational criminal organizations make billions of dollars from human smuggling. Hernandez Salas’ organization was one of the biggest earners, responsible for thousands of people entering the neighboring country illegally.
Hernandez Salas: the migrant smuggling network
Investigations conducted by US authorities and reflected in a Treasury Department sanction show that the Hernández Salas transnational criminal organization is a sophisticated network that has used various methods to smuggle undocumented migrants into the United States, at least since 2018.
Heading the criminal group, Ofelia Hernández Salas charged between USD 10,000 and USD 70,000 for smuggling services. “La Lupe” and her collaborators used facilitators in other regions to move migrants to the US border; the woman originally from the state of Guerrero is also involved in falsifying documents and corruption in Mexico to smuggle migrants, as well as maintaining links to the Sinaloa Cartel, one of the most dangerous and powerful criminal organizations operating in Mexico.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) also detailed that Ofelia Hernández Salas charged people from Bangladesh, Yemen, Pakistan, India, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Russia, Egypt, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, and other countries for her services.
The Hernández Salas migrant-smuggling network adopted the modus operandi of picking up migrants at a bus station in Mexicali and then transferring them to safe houses where they hid them until they thought it was a good time to cross the border.
Once the time came, the migrant smugglers would place ladders for the migrants to cross the border fence and put a plank for them to cross over a canal.
Two years ago, an indictment was filed against Ofelia Hernandez Salas in the District of Arizona, mentioning her involvement in the cases of 15 migrants who hired her services between May 7, 2020, and June 24, 2021.
However, “La Lupe’s” criminal career dates back to the 1990s when, at the age of 28, she was already involved in criminal activities such as forging identification and theft. In March 2008, “La Lupe” was arrested in Orange County for re-entering the country without a permit, and in 2011 a judge sentenced her to 18 months in prison and three years of supervised release until she was released and deported to Mexico in October 2012.
On March 16, Ofelia Hernández Salas was arrested in a house in the Zacatecas neighborhood in Mexicalli following an operation coordinated by the Attorney General’s Office (FGR), the International Police (Interpol), and Baja California state security forces.
“La Lupe” is imprisoned in Mexico awaiting extradition to the United States, where she is accused of heading a criminal organization that smuggles migrants.