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'A dangerous world': What's at stake when Syrian refugees are smuggled to US

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.

The U.S.-Mexico border, outside Laredo, Texas.
Rick Wilking | Reuters
The U.S.-Mexico border, outside Laredo, Texas.

The events laid out in the report came at a time the U.S. government was grappling with a rapidly unfolding Syrian refugee crisis worldwide. Ultimately, President Barack Obama would pledge to admit as many as 10,000 refugees to the United States. But critics said allowing any influx of immigrants from the war zone risked allowing ISIS infiltrators to come into the United States in the guise of refugees. They said that risk was highlighted by the ISIS inspired or coordinated attacks in Paris, Brussels, and San Bernardino, California.

Controversy swirled over the vetting process for immigrants, and the difficulty for U.S. officials in determining who was coming to the United States in pursuit of a better life, and who may have darker motives. Meanwhile, Donald Trump was storming toward the Republican presidential nomination on the strength of his call to build a massive wall on the southern border with Mexico.

Even as that campaign rhetoric was reaching a crescendo in 2015, officials privately noted they were seeing a rise in Syrian immigrants trying to cross the border. "Over the past eighteen months there has been an increase of Syrian and Lebanese Nationals attempting to enter the United States along the southwest international border via Mexico," the report found. "A majority of these individuals have arrived at major land ports of entry in the U.S. claiming credible fear of returning to their home countries."

The Barakat Alien Smuggling Organization, the report found, was active along the Texas and California borders. The organization specialized in smuggling people who said they were Orthodox Syrian Christians.

The Barakat group, the report found, "is sophisticated enough to exploit the entire southern border."

'God be with you brother'

For the five Syrian men, the journey halfway around the world began on the internet, where they first made contact with the Barakat organization on Facebook. Elias was 25 years old. The other men were Albeer, 21, Rawad, 21, George, 26, and Alkhateb, the oldest of the group at 42.

Each of the men had a reason to leave Syria immediately. Elias, for example, said Syrian rebel forces had threatened him and demanded money. To show they were serious, they killed his dog.

It's not clear whether the men traveled together for the entire trip. But U.S. officials pieced together the story step by step: From the Facebook page, the men were referred to the Baremoon Travel Agency in Homs, Syria. They paid $350 to $400 to a woman named Lucy for travel from Syria to Beirut, Lebanon, by taxi.

On May 28, 2015, a post on the Facebook page of a man whose full name and biographical details match those of Elias shows a selfie of a young man with close cropped-hair and trim beard posing at the modern, sky-lighted departure lounge of the Beirut International Airport. The man identified as Elias is wearing a purple shirt and black vest, posing with a young woman in a leopard-print top. The caption says, "Traveling to Istanbul, Turkey." Alongside the picture, friends posted more than 80 encouraging messages in Arabic, including "Good luck guys," and "God be with you brother."

The flight from Beirut to Istanbul is less than two hours. But once in Turkey, the men hit some kind of delay. In Istanbul, two of the men waited for more than 30 days before making contact at a coffee shop in the Aksaray neighborhood — a Syrian expat district in Istanbul crowded with refugees escaping the war and known as a major hub for sex trafficking.

At the coffee shop, the men met with a smuggler, Abu, who would arrange travel from Istanbul to the United States. They described Abu as in his 30s, thin, balding, and about 5-feet-10. Abu's services did not come cheap. Two of the Syrian men said they paid him $15,000 for travel to the United States, a package deal including phony passports, airline tickets, guides in each country, food and transportation. It was a surprisingly businesslike operation: Abu even offered a grace period for the Syrians to obtain a refund if they didn't make it to the United States within a certain time.

It's not clear how the Syrians were able to afford such steep fees. One man said he had saved the money over three years. Another said his family sold land and property to raise funds. He also received $3,000 in a wire transfer initiated by a person in Burbank, California.

Wherever it came from, the money was good enough for Abu. He gave the travelling Syrians their documents: airline tickets and phony passports from Israel. The travel papers would now identify two of the men under the false Israeli names "Miller Idan" and "Halam Rotem."

Abu also gave the men airline tickets from Turkey to Mozambique, with a layover in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. But they never intended to go to Mozambique. Instead, the men switched destinations in Ethiopia, and used their new, phony Israeli passports to board a flight to either Rio de Janerio or Sao Paulo, Brazil. Instead of the African coast, the men took off for South America.

The men had no idea whom they would meet in Brazil. They didn't have a name or phone number to call. But when they landed in South America, the smuggling organization had someone on the ground to meet them, identifying the Syrians using photos sent by Abu directly to the smugglers' cellphones in South America. The men turned over their real Syrian passports to the smugglers — from here on out, they would be posing full time as Israelis. The smugglers, in turn, put the passports in packages and mailed them to final destination addresses in the United States. The passports would cross the U.S. border without their bearers.

From Brazil, the men boarded flights to Bogota, Colombia, still posing as Israelis. Then they caught yet another flight, this time to Guatemala City, Guatemala. There, the Syrians said they met a 30-year-old man they describe as tall and slender, with blond hair. The man spoke no Arabic and very little English. To the Syrians, the mysterious smuggler did not appear to be Guatemalan. The tall blond man drove them to the Guatemala-Mexico border, where the Syrians were transferred into the custody of yet another smuggler. The men said they crossed the border into Mexico without being approached at all by Mexican immigration officials.

It was a long drive north through Mexico: Five days in a late-model white four-door Toyota sedan. The Syrians say their latest smuggler was in contact with Abu in Turkey throughout the trip, which ended in the brutally hot border town of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.

The border city is a far cry from the chaos of their hometown of Homs, but Nuevo Laredo is also wracked with violence: the rampages of the brutal Los Zetas drug cartel have prompted the State Department to warn Americans to defer travel to the region because of the prevalence of murder, robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion and sexual assault.

But the Syrians didn't intend to stay long. On July 27, they requested asylum at the Laredo point of entry to the United States. American Customs and Border Protection Agents processed them and sent them to a detention center in Pearsall, Texas, where they were interviewed by officials.

One of the men, Rawad, gave his destination as an address in Fall River, Massachusetts. But officials discovered that the telephone number he provided was linked to visa denials for three other Syrians. The oldest Syrian, Alkhateb, listed a friend named "Amnar" as a contact in the United States and provided a phone number for him with a California area code. U.S. officials found that number was linked to five other rejected visas from Syrian immigrants.

The Americans asked Elias — the refugee who said his dog had been killed — if he had ever volunteered or been paid to carry a weapon for any political or religious organization in Syria. Elias said he had not been part of any group or received weapons training. Instead, he told American officials, "God would provide protection."

"Any underground smuggling operation is dangerous and even more so when you get to falsifications and people moving through many different countries. It's a dangerous world." -Lauren Mack, spokeswoman, Immigration and Customs Enforcement

The U.S. government intercepted the package the Syrians had mailed from Brazil when it arrived in Miami. Inside, they found military ID in Elias' Syrian passport. The document indicates Elias was exempt from military service due to the death of his father. Still, the American interviewer thought Elias showed "nervous behavior" when asked about his military service.

It's not entirely clear what happened to the five men after that. According to the report, Customs and Border Protection officers conducted what's called a "credible fear" interview to determine their status. They were remanded to the South Texas Detention Center in Pearsall, Texas.

According to Facebook pages that appear to match the names and life histories of three of the men, they are still in the United States, either currently or formerly in California.

U.S. officials would not comment to CNBC on the report or the status of the five men. "Due to the sensitivity and nature of this report we are not going to be able to discuss anything about this case," said Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego, who requested that CNBC not identify the five men. "One of our top priorities is to investigate international human smuggling worldwide," she said. "Our goal is to get ringleaders and people who are at the top levels of criminal networks who prey on individuals and put them at risk."

Asked if the Barakat organization itself posed any danger to the United States, Mack said, "Any underground smuggling operation is dangerous and even more so when you get to falsifications and people moving through many different countries. It's a dangerous world."

A spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency has added 300 officers to its transnational criminal investigation units to work with foreign governments to target and dismantle human smuggling networks.

An attorney for one of the Syrian men, who also requested his name not be used, said that his client's asylum case was still pending before an immigration judge while he lives and works in the United States. The attorney said he represents several Syrians who applied for asylum at the U.S. border. "A lot of these people have never left Syria before, and suddenly they're traveling through countries around the world. They come from a police state, they're not very trusting. Back in Syria, their political beliefs are imputed to them because they're Christians. People say, oh, you're a Christian, so you're fair game. They're in a really bad situation."

'I always tell the truth, even when I lie'

The government document lists several "intelligence gaps" that investigators were left with after their interviews and research. Among the loose ends, the officials wanted to know how the Barakat organization got the Israeli passports, and whether they were forged or legitimately issued. They want to identify the specific smugglers in Guatemala and Mexico. They want to figure out just how the passport scheme worked in Addis Ababa, and why Ethiopian customs didn't spot it.

And at the end the report asks one more question: "Are there more Syrian nationals destined for South Texas?"

Nearly four months later, the U.S. officials may have gotten their answer. In November, authorities in Honduras detained five Syrian men trying to reach the United States, this time on stolen Greek passports. Reuters reported that Honduran officials found the men had passed through Turkey, Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica.

A Honduran police spokesman told reporters those men had nothing to do with terrorism. "They are normal Syrians," he said.


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John Moore | Getty Images

Today, a Facebook page for a person with the same name and biographical details as Elias features as its main image a splashy image of Al Pacino in the 1983 gangster movie "Scarface." The page says Elias is living in Los Angeles and working as a tattoo artist. As a sort of a personal motto, the Facebook page prominently features a quote from Pacino's character: "You need people like me, so you can point your f-----' fingers and say, 'that's the bad guy.'"

It's a line from an arresting scene in the classic film. Pacino's character, a Cuban refugee who arrives in the United States with nothing and rises to become a drug kingpin, finds himself confused and out of place in an upscale American restaurant. He lashes out in a rage at the well-dressed Americans who surround him.

The outburst may seem to be an odd maxim for the Syrian refugee. But in the same speech, Pacino's character also says this: "I always tell the truth, even when I lie."