An Indian national pleaded guilty on Jan. 18 for his role in a complex, transnational conspiracy to smuggle aliens from India to the Unites States for profit, which claimed at least one life and endangered many others.

Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Special Agent in Charge Ivan Arvelo of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Puerto Rico made the announcement.

Yadvinder Singh Bhamba, 60, an Indian national, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy and 15 counts of smuggling aliens to the United States for profit before U.S. Magistrate Judge Sivia Carreño-Coll of the District of Puerto Rico.  Judge Carreño-Coll has recommended that District Judge Carmen C. Cerezo accept the guilty plea.  A sentencing hearing before Judge Cerezo is scheduled for April 23, 2019.  Bhamba was charged in an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in the District of Puerto Rico on March 15, 2017.

According to admissions in Bhamba’s plea agreement, since 2013, Bhamba had a leadership role in a human smuggling conspiracy operating out of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, India and elsewhere.  As part of the conspiracy, Bhamba personally assisted around 400 aliens to unlawfully enter the United States between 2013 and 2015.  He also oversaw and directed co-conspirators operating out of the Caribbean.

Bhamba and other members of the conspiracy made flight arrangements for aliens to travel from India through other countries – including Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Iran, Panama, Venezuela, Belize, and Haiti – to the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic was used as a staging area, where aliens were housed before being transported to the United States.  The organization brought groups of aliens from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico or Florida by boat.  Once the aliens reached Puerto Rico or Florida, they were picked up by co-conspirators and taken to stash houses until flights could be arranged to California, New York, or elsewhere in the United States.  Bhamba and others arranged for fraudulent identifications for some aliens to use in the United States.

The boat trips organized by Bhamba and his co-conspirators were perilous.  Boat captains used old, damaged, cracked, unlicensed, overcrowded, and unsafe boats to make the journey.  In at least one instance, an alien died in a boat on his way to the United States.

At times, the smugglers would take passports from the aliens during their journeys, physically assault them, and threaten their families to collect money.  Aliens paid between $30,000 and $85,000 to be smuggled from India to the United States.  From at least 2013 to 2016, human smuggling was Bhamba’s primary source of income.

Members of the conspiracy, including Bhamba, would use false names or nicknames to communicate with the aliens and with each other.  Bhamba, whom fellow smugglers and aliens knew as “Ruby,” also instructed others to use false names or nicknames to avoid detection. Bhamba used fraudulent Indian, Dominican, and Jamaican identifications for travel and financial transactions related to the conspiracy.

As part of the conspiracy, Bhamba directed associates to unlawfully smuggle 15 aliens to Puerto Rico in July 2016.  Bhamba personally met the 15 aliens in various countries along their journeys, including in Dubai, Thailand, Iran, and the Dominican Republic, and he communicated with them throughout their journeys, which began approximately in January 2016.  In some instances, Bhamba created and provided false employment documents on behalf of the aliens to authorities to obtain foreign visas.  Bhamba also instructed aliens traveling through foreign airports how to find, and in some instances, pay cash to, corrupt immigration officials, passport control officers, or airport employees in order to bypass regular immigration and passport control procedures.

After the aliens arrived in the Dominican Republic, Bhamba used an alias to arrange and pay for a hotel for them.  On July 25, 2016, Bhamba alerted co-conspirators in Puerto Rico to be ready to receive 15 aliens. On July 27, 2016, 15 Indian nationals were transported from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico in a 22-foot wooden vessel. The vessel was not marked or equipped with basic safety features, such as lights or navigational equipment.  The outside of the vessel was painted black, to make it difficult to see in the water at night. Per safety regulations, the size of the boat should have limited the number of occupants to eight people, but it carried 15 aliens, plus members of the conspiracy who captained the vessel.

The aliens were supposed to be met in Puerto Rico by another smuggler, but they were apprehended instead.  Bhamba contacted other members of the conspiracy to find out what happened to the aliens and paid a co-conspirator to locate the aliens and confirm they did not drown, so that the co-conspirators would not lose money.  Bhamba was arrested in the Dominican Republic in August 2017, and thereafter transferred to Puerto Rico.

The investigation was conducted under the Extraterritorial Criminal Travel Strike Force (ECT) program, a joint partnership between the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and HSI. The ECT program focuses on human smuggling networks that may present particular national security or public safety risks, or present grave humanitarian concerns. ECT has dedicated investigative, intelligence and prosecutorial resources. ECT coordinates and receives assistance from other U.S. government agencies and foreign law enforcement authorities.

HSI Puerto Rico investigated this case.  The government of the Dominican Republic and the Transnational Crime Investigative Unit of the Dominican Republic National Police provided significant assistance and support during the investigation and have brought charges against other members of the smuggling network.

Trial Attorneys Ann Marie E. Ursini and Christian A. Levesque of the Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section prosecuted the case, with the assistance of the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Puerto Rico.