Mexican Woman in Her 60s Was Head of Massive Human Smuggling Ring, US Says

Ofelia Hernandez-Salas headed a transnational smuggling network, U.S prosecutors allege. She was extradited from Mexico this week.
Ofelia Hernandez-Salas in custody in Mexico before her extradition to the US. US prosecutors allege that she ran a massive human smuggling ring. Photo from Mexico's government. 

A 61-year-old woman was extradited to the United States this week to face charges of smuggling people from countries as far away as Uzbekistan and Bangladesh into the States.

According to U.S. authorities, Ofelia Hernandez-Salas headed a transnational smuggling network that was responsible for thousands of people illegally entering the U.S.

Prosecutors allege she picked up migrants at a bus station in Mexicali, northern Mexico, and took them to the U.S. border, where she directed them to cross the border illegally by “providing them with a ladder to climb over the border fence, directing them to a hole to climb under the fence, and providing a plan for them to walk over a waterway,” according to a federal indictment filed in Arizona.


Human smuggling is commonplace along the U.S.-Mexico border, and has become an increasingly booming business as entering the U.S legally has become increasingly difficult under American immigration policy. But most smugglers are men and even teenage boys, so Hernandez-Salas’s gender and advanced age make her an outlier. She ran a brisk business, helping at least 13 migrants sneak across the border in May 2020 alone, according to the indictment.

“This extradition is the result of continued coordination between the Justice Department and our Mexican law enforcement partners to bring to justice human smugglers who exploit migrants’ desperation and undermine the rule of law,” Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicole M. Argentieri of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division said in a statement. 

The indictment against Hernandez-Salas was filed in 2021 and unsealed in March, when Mexican authorities arrested her pursuant to an extradition request. She was extradited on September 5.

In June, the U.S. Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on the criminal organization it says Hernandez-Salas leads.

U.S. prosecutors also allege that Hernandez-Salas and co-conspirator Raul Saucedo-Huipio, 48, robbed migrants of their money, cell phones, and other personal items while armed with guns and knives. Saucedo-Huipio remains in custody in Mexico.

While Central and South American countries are the biggest drivers of migration to the U.S., a surging number of people from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe are showing up at the U.S.-Mexico border. Those with money often pay smugglers to facilitate the journey, including crossing the deadly Darién Gap jungle that separates Colombia and Panama.

Migrants from Afghanistan are almost certain to be allowed into the U.S. to pursue an asylum claim because the U.S. doesn’t have a deportation agreement with the Taliban. But the U.S. is deporting a growing number of migrants from far-flung countries, including Russia and Bangladesh, in an effort to stem the tide of people worldwide seeking refuge in the U.S.