Record numbers of Brazilians were arrested on the US southern border this year as part of a US immigration crisis. Police believe a dispute over custody of a child has led her to one of the smugglers who are transporting migrants north.
In early June, the Brazilian Federal Police arrested Chelbe Moraes, a businessman who reportedly fled with his 3-year-old daughter after losing custody to his ex-partner. After tapping the phones of people close to Moraes, the police began to suspect that he was a veteran smuggler, or “coyote”.
In a June 25 police report sent to a federal judge and seen by Reuters, they called for criminal charges of child trafficking, human smuggling and criminal conspiracy to be brought against Moraes.
Police accuse him of charging Brazilians without valid US visas about $20,000 each to enter the United States via Mexico. To accomplish this, Moraes has built an international network that includes corrupt officials and police, as well as family members in the US, according to the court case.
Reuters spoke with more than 20 people with knowledge of the case, including police officers, immigration authorities, Moraes associates and three people who claimed to be his clients. These interviews paint the picture of an experienced smuggler whose business flourished amid the political and economic turmoil in Brazil.
Moraes, who pleaded not guilty to police, told Reuters he runs a legitimate consultancy advising people about US asylum applications in his home state of Minas Gerais. He claims he has served up to 200 clients over a 20-year career, charging clients who meet the US criteria up to $100,000 to help them migrate.
“The advice I charge is really expensive because I know American law,” he said.
During the first 11 months of US fiscal year 2021, 46,280 Brazilians were apprehended at the US southern border, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data show, compared to 17,893 for the full year of 2019. If this is just a fraction of the more than 550,000 Mexicans who have been captured so far this year, Brazilians now rank sixth among nationalities held in 2021.
They are part of a wave of Latin American immigrants fleeing a region ravaged by Covid-19 and are hoping for milder treatment since former President Donald Trump stepped down this year. Seizures on the southern border reached the highest levels in 20 years, causing headaches for US President Joe Biden.
“We’ve had flows with Brazilians that I’ve seen in the past, but not up to this point,” said Ramon Romo, head of the US Customs Enforcement and Immigration investigation unit.
On July 7, the Federal Public Ministry accused Moraes, 60, of trafficking in children for fleeing to neighboring Paraguay with his daughter. Moraes pleaded not guilty, saying it was a pre-planned business trip. Now back in Brazil, Moraes remains at large while awaiting trial. No allegations were filed in connection with his alleged smuggling operation; the prosecutor gave the police more time to investigate Moraes’s cell phone, computer hard drive, and other documents seized.
Two people familiar with his alleged scam — a former client and a former associate — told Reuters that Moraes teaches his clients to impersonate tourists when they arrive in Mexico, sometimes gaining entry with the help of immigration officials Mexican bribes.
Moraes then takes the Brazilians north, where they either bypass the border with the help of hired Mexican coyotes or seek asylum in the US using false documents and elaborate stories Moraes created for them, the sources said.
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, the country’s federal immigration agency, did not respond to a request for comment.
People who can prove that they face persecution in their country because of race, religion, national origin, social group or political opinion may be eligible for asylum in the US. The backlog of cases in US immigration courts can cause those who enter often to remain in the United States for years while their defendants go through.
Moraes said those who say he ran a smuggling operation were “induced” to do so by the police or were jealous of his success.
But he acknowledged that he was benefiting from Brazil’s problems. “The worse the government here, the better for me.”
Brazilian migration to the United States has increased since 2018, when President Jair Bolsonaro was elected. Just over 1,500 Brazilians were detained at the US southern border in 2018. By the end of the following fiscal year, nearly 18,000 had been detained.
Brazil has faced multiple crises under Bolsonaro’s command. More than 600,000 Brazilians died from Covid-19, the second highest number of deaths in the world, only behind the USA. Unemployment is at around 14%, while annual inflation has reached double digits and poverty has increased.
“The average Brazilian is disillusioned with everything,” said Daniel Fantini, the delegate who heads the investigation into Moraes.
Planalto Palace did not respond to requests for comment.
To enter the US on a temporary basis – whether for tourism, work, study and exchange – Brazilians need a nonimmigrant visa. That process has been tightened up due to Covid-19 and the growing number of travelers exceeding their visas, three US officials told Reuters. Many Brazilians are now turning to coyotes, say immigrants, police and authorities.
Lenilda dos Santos, a Brazilian nurse, died of thirst in September after crossing into New Mexico. Her brother, Leci Pereira, told Reuters she agreed to pay $25,000 to a smuggler, promising the house as security. The alleged smuggler, who only gives his customers the nickname “Piskuila,” did not respond to requests for comment.
In California, Customs and Border Protection agents are used to speaking Spanish, the language of Mexico and much of Latin America. But they are struggling to deal with what the agency calls an “unprecedented” jump in the number of Portuguese-speaking Brazilians being stopped at the border. Diplomatic efforts are underway to slow the flow.
Brazilians do not need a visa to enter Mexico, which makes it easier for smugglers to take immigrants there and transport them north. The Biden government wants Mexico to impose visa requirements on Brazilians to complicate this path, two sources familiar with the situation told Reuters.
Talks began in July, but Mexico has resisted, citing lucrative Brazilian tourism and possible reciprocal action by Bolsonaro, one of the people said.
The US State Department declined to comment on “ongoing diplomatic discussions”.
The Foreign Ministry of Mexico and Brazil did not respond to requests for comment.
After Moraes fled Brazil with his daughter, the Federal Police questioned his alleged associates.
Geisiane Batista, who authorities say had managed the finances of the smuggling operation, helped Moraes run a lingerie factory in Minas Gerais, according to her testimony in a police report seen by Reuters. She told police that people wanting to migrate, none with a US visa, used to visit the factory to find Moraes and arrange passage.
Moraes denied Geisiane’s statement, which was not found for comment.
José Martins worked as a driver for Moraes, taking immigrants to Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to take flights to Mexico, he said in a statement to police. He claimed that Moraes charged 100,000 reais to “put someone in the United States” and offered him a commission of 1,000 reais for every new customer he brought.
Among those that Martins said he had transported were Ismael da Silva and his wife. Unemployed security guard, Ismael said in his testimony that he sold a car, furniture and tools to help finance the $17,000 trip.
The couple never did. Mexican authorities denied them entry after they landed in Cancún in May, Ismael told police. Contacted by Reuters, he declined to comment.
Others were luckier. Martins, the driver, told police that the couple da Silva was part of a group of 12 Brazilian immigrants on that trip, six of whom arrived in the United States. Martins declined to comment.
Wiretapping evidence suggests that Moraes depends on some US-resident relatives, including an adult daughter, Janaina Moraes, to help move immigrants, according to the police report. The Brazilian police did not accuse her of wrongdoing.
Janaina Moraes, who lives near Boston, told Reuters that she occasionally used her phone to check into hotels for her father’s clients or to buy food, but she denied working for him.
A spokeswoman for the US Department of Homeland Security declined to comment on what she said was an active investigation.
Brazilian immigrant Bruno Lube, now 41, told Reuters that he hired Moraes in 2016 but was caught by US agents after scaling the border wall near El Paso with a Mexican coyote. He said he spent nearly five months in prison in the US before being deported back to Brazil, where he denounced Moraes to the Federal Police.
A PF spokesman confirmed Lube’s 2017 complaint against Moraes, saying it was under investigation.
Moraes denied Lube’s accusations, saying he didn’t know him. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.
Moraes has been more successful in helping families get in, according to Brazilian police and a source with knowledge of his operation.
Central Americans and Mexicans with children are often expelled to Mexico upon arriving at the US border, as part of a US policy initiated during the pandemic. In contrast, almost all Brazilians traveling with minors who arrive at the southern border in search of asylum are admitted to await their hearings on US soil.
As of August of this fiscal year, 99.2% of Brazilian families were allowed in, data from Customs and Border Protection show, compared with 15% of Mexican families, 57% of Guatemalan and 66% of Honduran families. When the expulsion policy began, Mexico said it would only accept Mexicans and Central Americans expelled from the United States, but it has since accepted a few other nationalities.
To trick the system, the source said, Moraes created fake “families” of unrelated adults and minors, providing them with fake paperwork as well as fictional stories of domestic violence or gang threats to back up their asylum claims.
Moraes denied these allegations, saying he only counseled families in good faith.