Alleged coyote even charged US$ 20,000 to take Brazilians to the US

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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.”