SEATTLE – U.S. and Canadian authorities announced Wednesday that they have broken up a human smuggling ring suspected of illegally shepherding dozens of Indian and Pakistani nationals into Washington state from British Columbia.
To date, a federal grand jury in Seattle has indicted 14 U.S. and Canadian men for their roles in the alleged scheme. Twelve had been arrested as of Wednesday.
Leigh Winchell, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Seattle, said investigators on both sides of the border have worked closely for more than a year, apprehending roughly 50 people who had paid as much as $35,000 apiece to be smuggled into the United States.
Winchell said none of those smuggled or involved in the operation were suspected of terrorist activity.
The two countries have a long history of cooperation, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Whalley, one of two federal prosecutors on the case.
"This was exceptional communication," Whalley said. "It allowed us to not just arrest one or two smugglers but to arrest the organization."
Canadian authorities plan to file 25 charges against some of the same 14 people and others, Whalley said. When the cases overlap, the two sides will meet and decide which country is in the best position to pursue the case, he said.
Investigators started tracking the Vancouver, B.C.-based operation in January 2005, when U.S. customs officials got a tip about three men near Oroville, a small Eastern Washington town just south of the Canadian border. The men had bought maps of the border and had asked about border patrol and Canadian police enforcement activity in the area, U.S. and Canadian officials said in a joint news release.
Several days later, border patrol agents intercepted a minivan carrying 10 illegal aliens near the Oroville port of entry. The van was registered to the man investigators believe was the ringleader of the operation: Kavel Multani, 46, a dual Canadian and Indian citizen living in Vancouver, B.C.
Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers arrested Multani on Tuesday, along with three other men believed to be involved in the smuggling ring: Nizar Sabaz-Ali, 38, a Pakistani citizen of North York, Ontario; Sandip Parhar, 26, a Canadian citizen of Delta, B.C.; and Armardeep Singh Powar, 23, an Indian citizen of Vancouver.
Multani was named in a nine-count indictment unsealed Wednesday charging him with smuggling and transporting illegal aliens. Others arrested so far are:
—Raman Pathania, 19, an Indian citizen of Surrey, B.C.
—Anthony Maclean, 21, a Canadian citizen of Richmond, B.C.
—Jatinder Brar, 19, a Canadian citizen of Surrey.
—Sukveer Sandhu, 18, a Canadian citizen of Surrey.
—Matthew Dehagi, 35, a Canadian citizen of Port Coquitlam, B.C.
—Harjeevan Parhar, 23, an Indian citizen of Surrey.
—Harminder Singh, 37, an Indian citizen of Kent, Wash.
—And Lawrence Carter, 23, a U.S. citizen of Whidbey Island, Wash.
Authorities were still seeking two other men who have been indicted. Their names were not released.
"This type of cooperative effort between Canadian and American law enforcement agencies demonstrates our commitment to ensuring that our shared border remains closed to criminal activity," Bud Mercer, RCMP chief superintendent, said in a statement.
Winchell said two undercover agents infiltrated the alleged smuggling operation, which slipped most immigrants across the border in between patrolled ports of entry. He said the network in Vancouver is part of an organization spread across Canada, which means authorities have plenty of work ahead of them.
Winchell said he expects the close ties U.S. and Canadian authorities have maintained in recent years to continue. "It's as much a concern to them as it is to us," he said, "because these organizations that have gained expertise or are willing to risk their own well-being in penetrating the border ... operate bilaterally."