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INTRODUCTION

In 1996, the U.S. Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service’s (DSS) then-Visa Fraud Investigations Division and the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ (CA) Office of Fraud Prevention Programs initiated a revolutionary experiment. This action combined CA’s fraud detection capabilities with DSS’ criminal investigative acumen by embedding DSS special agents with consular fraud teams. DSS and CA kicked off the project at three of the busiest U.S. diplomatic posts at the time: Kingston, Jamaica; Lagos, Nigeria; and Manila, Philippines.

The process was simple: the CA fraud prevention manager (FPM) forwarded visa and passport fraud cases suspected to have fraudulent or criminal information to a DSS special agent who was co-located with the CA FPM. The DSS special agent, called an assistant regional security officer-investigator (ARSO-I), then investigated the case and initiated a criminal investigation, if warranted. The benefits of this on-the-ground collaboration were immediate, and the quick return on this modest investment was striking.

From these humble beginnings more than two decades ago, the CA-DSS fraud-prevention partnership has grown significantly in sophistication, scope, and impact. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this relationship became the department’s most prolific instrument to detect, disrupt, and dismantle terrorist and criminal entities from fraudulently obtaining U.S. travel documents used to carry out global crimes such as human trafficking and smuggling, money laundering, child exploitation, and more. After years of success, DSS determined that, in addition to actively investigating fraud and pursuing its perpetrators, it was vital to aggressively train and liaise with host nation counterparts. Giving host-country partners the tools and support needed to prosecute fraud to the fullest extent possible resulted in tangible successes.

As part of the program’s growth, in addition to DSS special agents, the ARSO-I program today includes criminal fraud investigators (CFIs), highly capable individuals who are former senior prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement and security leaders in their respective countries. CFIs are subject matter experts in local law and capacity building, and provide vital continuity, cultural sophistication, native language skills, and institutional knowledge to each operation. Today, three pillars comprise the ARSO-I program: transnational investigations, liaison, and training. The program has become one of the most expansive and far-reaching networks of global criminal investigators of any law enforcement agency in the U.S. government. With 122 special agents embedded in consular sections at 108 diplomatic posts in 76 countries, the ARSO-I program is a force multiplier on the frontlines protecting the homeland from terrorists and transnational organized crime networks.

ARSO-I CRIMINAL FRAUD INVESTIGATIONS: PROTECTING THE HOMELAND

The Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) and the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) have worked together for decades to successfully identify, disrupt, and dismantle large scale fraudulent document operations that support transnational organized crime networks and their illicit global activities. The Assistant Regional Security Officer-Investigator (ARSO-I) program enhances DSS, CA, and the department’s wider efforts to identify nefarious actors, take down their criminal enterprises, and greatly hinder their ability to gain access to the United States.

The ARSO-I program is a global investigative force with a sustained presence in 76 countries. In addition to working with their consular officers, ARSO-Is have on-the-ground relationships with an extensive network of U.S. and international law enforcement officials, immigration officers, and governments around the world. ARSO-Is root out crime where it originates rather than waiting for it to cross U.S. borders. When transnational crime does occur within the United States, or a U.S. case involves an international suspect or crime, ARSO-Is can quickly leverage their extensive global network to support their U.S. law enforcement partners.

In the past five years, the ARSO-I program has led to 7,032 arrests, 1,171 of which were of large-scale fraudulent document vendors. In 2019 alone, the ARSO-I program, in close collaboration and partnership with fraud prevention and other consular colleagues, facilitated 1,036 arrests and over 300 U.S. fugitive returns, trained a record number of security personnel – more than 44,000 individuals – and added nearly 40,000 new entries into a consular database, which strengthens the U.S. visa system. ARSO-Is also provided information that contributed to the denial of nearly 13,000 visas and consular reported births abroad, and responded to over 30,000 requests for investigative assistance. 2019 investigative highlights include: The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, disrupted multiple fraud schemes, including a regional Chinese prostitution ring, an extensive passport-for-sale scam, and a U.S. visa-fraud scheme involving domestic workers from South Asia. The ARSO-I teams at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara and U.S. Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, uncovered and disrupted an organized crime group exploiting the U.S. visa system by using falsified Turkish passports to obtain U.S. visas.

The group’s members were subsequently arrested by Turkish police. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, partnered with the Royal Thai Police and the Thai Immigration Bureau to dismantle a major visa-fraud ring that was producing and selling counterfeit U.S. visas. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, trained Ugandan partners to spot and detect fraudulent documents. This training led to the identification and dismantling of the largest fraudulent document vendor ring in ARSO-I Kampala program history. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Managua, Nicaragua, played an instrumental role in providing investigative assistance to the Nicaraguan National Police regarding a dual U.S.-Nicaraguan citizen sexual predator, which led to a 12-year in-country sentence for sexual abuse of a minor, bringing closure and justice to the victim’s family.

ARSO-I TRAINING BUILDS VITAL LOCAL ANTI-FRAUD CAPACITY

ARSO-Is, often in conjunction with CA fraud prevention units, frequently train host-nation law enforcement, airline, hotel, immigration, and transportation staff to detect fraudulent documents. As a result, deceptive travelers are stopped in their tracks. In 2019, ARSO-I teams at U.S. diplomatic posts in Brazil, China, India, and Mexico trained over 15,000 host nation partners

2019 program highlights include:

The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, Italy, brokered a historic training agreement between DSS and all Italian police agencies. ARSO-I team members now provide training on document fraud recognition, criminal fraud investigations, and imposter detection to hundreds of Italian police officers at police training academies throughout the country each year. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Barbados, implemented several training programs in the Eastern Caribbean that included training officials from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, and Grenada regarding crimes against children. Training included how to interview children by using a victim-centric approach. These and other initiatives are making a positive impact not only at the U.S. mission, but also for DSS partners in the Eastern Caribbean. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, demonstrated the reach of the ARSO-I program by traveling to a remote city in Peru to provide fraudulent document training to local law enforcement and immigration officials who shortly thereafter identified an imposter using a stolen U.S. passport.

This discovery led to the uncovering of a large-scale human smuggling and trafficking network, which was expediently dismantled when the network’s ringleaders were arrested by ARSO-I-trained Peruvian National Police. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Consulate in Mumbai, India, and consular colleagues partnered with security and consular counterparts at the German, Canadian, and UK consulates to provide sweeping fraudulent document detection training to over 250 employees at the international airport and received multiple requests for successive airport trainings.

ARSO-I PROGRAM LIAISON OPENS NEW DOORS, ADVANCES MISSION STRATEGIC GOALS

ARSO-I teams’ creative, forward-leaning, and impactful liaison efforts further advance DSS and the department’s goal to strengthen U.S. border security, counter transnational crime at home and abroad, and strengthen our partners’ capacity and capabilities. 2019 highlights include: The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, organized the ambassador’s first visit to Zamin Uud, a remote region at Mongolia’s border crossing with China, notorious for cross-border trafficking and illicit activity. The ARSO-I team combined this historic visit with Joint Interagency Task Force interdiction training for 100 host nation border agents.

The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Consulate in Cape Town, South Africa, successfully positioned itself as the premier law enforcement partner with South Africa by building a network of contacts who provide criminal intelligence, conduct visa fraud investigative operations, and use the ARSO-I team as the conduit to pass information to all other U.S. law enforcement agencies in-country. Besides better case coordination and collaboration, these efforts resulted in 14 visa fraud-related arrests by the South African police. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana, Mexico, created the Fraudulent Document Border Intelligence Group at the U.S.-Mexico border. Through the ARSO-I team’s leadership, the group has led to a significant increase in vital interagency collaboration and information exchanges between DSS, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), and U.S. Border Patrol on document fraud, human smuggling, and human trafficking. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, leveraged key relationships between host nation security leaders and the embassy to help launch the “Protection of Women through Empowerment and Response” (POWER) program. The POWER program represents a two-year, $1 million commitment to join forces with Sierra Leone officials to confront gender-based violence.

ARSO-I TEAMS HELP END MODERN-DAY SLAVERY

Given its close collaboration with CA FPUs and, by extension, consular managers and line officers, the ARSO-I program is uniquely positioned to undermine transnational criminal enterprises that illicitly obtain legal travel documents or produce fraudulent travel documents to move trafficking victims from country to country. In 2019, the global ARSO-I program hosted 166 human trafficking-related meetings and conducted 139 training events. ARSO-Is trained over 7,000 global security and private sector partners to identify and dismantle trafficking networks. These efforts resulted in 26 human trafficking arrests in 2019.

Additional 2019 highlights include:

The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, organized four human trafficking awareness training workshops with participants from non-government organizations as well as international companies such as Uber. The ARSO-I team also trained 185 host nation attendees from Romania’s anti-trafficking units as well as the Romanian Deputy Prime Minister’s office. Significant press coverage led to additional local awareness of the scale of human trafficking in the region, and neighboring countries have already committed to emulating this successful training model. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Consulate in Chennai hosted a workshop for more than 250 Indian government immigration officials to provide participants the knowledge and techniques to identify victims of human trafficking and smuggling, and to recognize how criminal elements use fraudulent U.S. and Indian travel documents to facilitate their crimes.

Using detailed case studies of current and recent investigations originating in India and directly affecting the United States, participants gained a better understanding of the patterns and methods modern transnational trafficking networks use. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Consulate in Hyderabad, India, in close collaboration with HSI, uncovered a sex trafficking network in which traffickers lured Indian actresses to the United States under false auspices, but then were forced into prostitution upon arrival. The traffickers were arrested and charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Consulate in Vancouver, Canada, spearheaded a human trafficking working group initiative with the Royal Mounted Canadian Police (RCMP) and U.S. partners to build collaboration to analyze specific trafficking trends emerging in British Columbia and to improve cross-border collaboration on trafficking-related investigations. The RCMP now hosts a human trafficking working group, which ensures timely and effective collaboration regarding shared counter trafficking investigations and regional efforts.

ARSO-I PROGRAM SUCCESSFULLY DISRUPTS TERRORISTS, GANGS, AND TRANSNATIONAL CRIMINAL ORGANIZATIONS

DSS special agents’ investigative expertise helps to detect and dismantle transnational criminal organizations that include violent gangs operating in the United States and multiple other countries. As criminals constantly evolve their methods and operations, DSS continues to advance its investigative tactics and partnerships through data-driven analysis and decisions. Gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street, which operate throughout the Americas, are notorious for their ruthless violence and global criminal operations. The ARSO-I team and consular fraud prevention unit at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador, combined forces in 2017 with their regional partners to create an enhanced gang vetting process called Operation FRONT-Line. As a result, suspected gang member detection has increased by 400 percent since the program’s implementation. Between 2017 and 2019, DSS ARSO-Is identified 1,158 gang-affiliated individuals not previously known to U.S. law enforcement.

Now entering its fourth year, Operation FRONT-Line has been adopted by U.S. diplomatic missions throughout the Northern Triangle region and continues to stop gang-affiliated individuals from exploiting the U.S. visa system. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, a region with porous borders and abundant transnational criminal networks, the ARSO-I and Consular FPU have bolstered Brazil’s capabilities and increased U.S. border security by integrating operations and expanding host nation capacity to combat transnational criminal organizations and human smuggling rings. This effort led to DSS assisting Brazilian authorities with 61 arrests, better identification of terrorist-group affiliates in the Tri-Border Area, and the identification of over 1,100 members of Primeiro Comando da Capital, Brazil’s largest transnational criminal organization. The collaboration also led to the team entering 2,685 pieces of data tied to organized crime group members to a consular database, submitting 573 visa revocations, and providing airport security and fraud detection training to more than 2,000 host nation security personnel.

NOWHERE TO HIDE: ARSO-I PROGRAM IS THE LINCHPIN IN INTERNATIONAL U.S. FUGITIVE RETURNS

Capturing U.S. fugitives who fled the United States rather than answer for their serious crimes is a U.S. law enforcement priority. By leveraging their local relationships and investigative resources, ARSO-I teams serve as the linchpin to locate wanted fugitives, no matter where they may hide. In 2019, ARSO-I teams helped return more than 300 U.S. fugitives to the United States to face justice for crimes including murder, rape, spousal and child assault and abuse, and child pornography.

Additional 2019 highlights include:

The ARSO-I teams at the U.S. Embassies in Bangkok, Thailand, and Manila, Philippines, returned a combined total of 23 fugitives. In just 18 months, the ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, facilitated the return of five fugitives to the United States. The fugitives were wanted for charges such as armed rape, robbery, first-degree murder, homicide of a U.S. Marine, and tax and wire fraud. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in London, United Kingdom, closed a multi-year investigation into the whereabouts of a U.S. Army Most Wanted fugitive. After he was extradited back to the United States, the U.S. military sentenced the fugitive to 11 years in prison for multiple charges, which included desertion and child pornography productio fugitive who fled to Ethiopia in 2016 after committing a double homicide in Virginia.

VETTED UNITS INTEGRAL TO THE DISRUPTION OF MAJOR TRANSNATIONAL ORGANIZED CRIME NETWORKS

A key component of the ARSO-I program’s crime-fighting arsenal is its global police partnerships. At 11 U.S. diplomatic posts, local police officers work side-by-side with ARSO-I teams in vetted units assigned directly to the embassy. These vetted units provide the subject matter expertise, local resources, and authority essential to facilitate large-scale operations to disrupt and dismantle transnational organized crime networks. These units were key to dismantling prolific human smuggling operations in 2019, including: Operation Bahamas 2: The ARSO-I team and its vetted unit at the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, facilitated the largest operation in Dominican National police history, dismantling a prolific transnational organized crime network.

The operation executed 17 search warrants and resulted in 29 arrests countrywide. The network provided fraudulent travel documents to individuals who were smuggled into the United States and other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Operation Mercado Negro: The ARSO-I team and its vetted unit at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru, worked side-by-side with their Peruvian police counterparts to dismantle a large-scale transnational organized crime and smuggling operation in Lima. The operation netted six arrests and recovered hundreds of fraudulent passports, false identification documents, and counterfeiting equipment. Operation Wrong Way: “You can run, but you can’t hide from the Americans”—Top Channel TV, Albania. Even in countries without formal vetted units, ARSO-I teams are successful in leveraging their police partnerships to advance major operations, which disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal networks. For example, during Operation Wrong Way, the ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Tirana, Albania, assisted the Albanian police to take down a regional human smuggling operation that resulted in 32 arrests and the confiscation of hundreds of fraudulent travel documents. The operation was widely reported by local press and the ARSO-I team was recognized specifically for their key support.

DSS GLOBAL INVESTIGATORS – MVPs FOR INTERAGENCY INVESTIGATIONS

Countering terrorism and other sophisticated transnational criminal actors require a coordinated, focused, and skillful investigative effort of law enforcement personnel overseas. ARSO-Is have a strong, global network forged over years of sustained, on-the-ground collaboration with foreign local police partnerships, immigration officials, non-governmental organizations, and travel industry security partners. Additionally, with DSS liaison agents at Europol, Interpol, and other U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, no crime-fighting force is better posi tioned to lead and enable global criminal investigations. In 2019, ARSO-I teams responded to more than 30,000 requests for investigative assistance from U.S. and international interagency federal law enforcement partners. Additional highlights include: The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, France, collaborated with CBP and HSI to identify a group of visa applicants associated with an Islamist extremist group, which led to seven arrests. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Singapore, investigated a U.S. citizen’s illegal travel to North Korea. The team’s advanced investigative techniques and collaboration with the FBI led to the subject’s arrest by the FBI’s New York field office.

The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, revitalized a 2011 joint DSS-DHS illicit immigration investigation. Working closely with the DSS team at the interagency Document and Benefit Fraud Task Force in Los Angeles, the investigation resulted in two arrests for the facilitation of illegal immigration of more than 125 South Koreans to the United States. The ARSO-I teams at the U.S. Embassy in London, United Kingdom, and U.S. Consulate in Lagos, Nigeria, in conjunction with multiple federal law enforcement agencies, coordinated the interception of counterfeit documents produced in Nigeria and other Western African nations. To date, Operation Trap Door has intercepted over 4,000 counterfeit travel documents, and ARSO-I program referrals to HSI have netted six arrests.

The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, collaborated with the FBI to investigate a human trafficking and intercountry adoption fraud case involving an Ohio-based adoption firm. While investigation and prosecution is ongoing, a key defendant has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy and visa fraud. The ARSO-I team at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, provided investigative assistance to HSI that resulted in the arrest of eight Armenians in the United States. These individuals are accused of using 331 fraudulently altered Armenian passports to attempt to steal more than $1.5 million from a U.S.-based investment bank and financial services company.

A BRIGHTER TOMORROW: FUTURE ARSO-I PROGRAM EXPANSION

The future for the ARSO-I program is bright. Assistant Secretary for Diplomatic Security Michael Evanoff hailed the ARSO-I program as “the jewel in the DSS investigative crown” and committed to long-term investment in ARSO-I program resources and policy initiatives. Future expansion will continue to pay dividends to DSS’ unwavering commitment to the department’s broader foreign policy objectives and the country’s national security.

U.S. Department of State

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