On July 27, 2015, five men appeared on the Mexican side of the sprawling Laredo port of entry at the United States border in Texas. They were all from Homs, Syria, which had seen ferocious fighting between ISIS and Syrian government forces over the previous months. All were in their early to mid-20s, except one, who was in his early 40s. And all five requested asylum in the United States.
This presented an immediate dilemma for U.S. officials. Who were these men? What did they want? And most pressingly, exactly how did five military-age males from one of the most gruesome battlefields in the world make their way to the U.S. border with Mexico?
Answers to many of those questions were spelled out in a detailed memo written by the Laredo field office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security investigators. The document, which was obtained by CNBC, details the operations of a previously unreported entity the U.S. government calls the "Barakat Alien Smuggling Organization."
The leader of that group, the report found, specializes in smuggling Syrian men from Homs to the United States thought the southern U.S. border and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The memo identifies many of the key players: A naturalized Syrian woman in California, an Iraqi man in Turkey and smugglers and phony passport providers on four continents.
The report is stamped "Unclassified//Law Enforcement Sensitive," and CNBC, for potential personal security risks, is withholding certain details from it, including dates of birth and numerical identification information of the Syrian refugees themselves as well as names and contact information for U.S. government officials involved in the investigation. Details in this account come from the report, as well as interviews with U.S. government officials and an attorney for one of the men.