Forged papers, long route: Rush of FIRs reveal tip of immigration racket iceberg
Two people, who were among a web of at least 50 travel agents and touts based in India, were arrested by CID of the state police.
When Indravadan Patel first heard of a plane full of Indians being detained at an airport in France over human trafficking fears, he called a travel agency he had been in touch with to take his son to the US. The travel agents had charted a similar plan for his son’s entry into the country — Dubai first, then a brief stop in Europe, before the US — and they had taken ₹25 lakh as advance. Now, the phone went unanswered, and the Ahmedabad office Patel had visited was shut.
Patel is one of hundreds of people who transacted with a syndicate that helped Indians enter the US and Canada illegally and on forged documentation, Gujarat police officers told HT, confirming at least 17 FIRs had been filed across the state since the December 22 grounding of an Airbus A340 in Vatry, France blew the lid off such operations.
The ring charged each person between ₹70 lakh and ₹80 lakh, investigators said, sharing the first details of what is yet another “donkey route” immigration racket.
Two people, who were among a web of at least 50 travel agents and touts based in India, were arrested by the Crime Investigation Department (CID) of the state police.
“The two men arrested on Wednesday were part of a vast operation involving people across multiple cities, towns and villages,” a CID official said on condition of anonymity, identifying the suspects as Kunal Vriya and Sahil. “They used to forge bank statements and other documents to help people secure visas and obtain passports,” this person added.
Last week, the Airbus jet operated by Legend Airways was allowed to return with the Indian passengers after French authorities questioned them for four days. Among the 303 originally on board, 276 returned, with the rest having sought asylum in France and a handful of others being detained over what French police say is a human trafficking investigation.
While Patel’s son was not on the plane, he was in the batch that was due to leave by the end of the month, he told police in his complaint, which is the basis of one of 17 FIRs filed across Ahmedabad, Anand, Mehsana, Gandhinagar, and Patan.
“When Patel heard about the illegal immigration network and the plane’s grounding in France, he tried to contact his agent but his number was switched off. He went to the travel agent’s office and found them absconding,” this person added.
Patel told police he paid ₹5 lakh through bank transfer and the rest in cash.
To be sure, the FIRs did not directly reference the Nicaragua-bound flight that was stopped in France but officials aware of the matter said they pertained to the same syndicate. One of the 17 FIRs names 47-year-old Dineshbhai Baldaniya, owner of Lakshmi Overseas Consultancy in Ahmedabad, accusing him of forging documents like SSC marksheets, appointment letter, promotion letter and work experience certificate in the name of Gordhara Infotech to get visas.
The FIR is based on a complaint by an officer of the CID, who stated that the department received information about the illegal operations and raided Baldaniya’s offices, from where it found a file titled ‘Recent Canada Visa 2023’, seven laptops, three mobile phones, five hard drives, two computers and essential documents, including the passports of eight people.
The police showed the documents to Gordhara Infotech, which said it did not know of the people referred to in them, the complaint added.
The FIR also states the accused has a network, naming the others as Bindesh Rameshbhai Sharma, Ganeshkumar Pravinbhai, Leena Ramanbhai Arya, and Manojbhai Karangiri Goswami.
HT has seen a copy of the FIR. Patel did not respond to requests by HT to share more details about his interaction.
A web spread over many cities
During police questioning, the two suspects shared details of how the network worked — it penetrated deep into villages, where touts would seek out people interested in sending family members to the US and Canada. “The touts would convince these people to take loans from banks or private agents. Once the people were convinced and had the money, the touts put them in touch with “sub-agents” in Ahmedabad, who would in turn be connected to the scams four kingpins,” said the official, citing the disclosures by Vriya and Sahil.
The official said the touts made up the first level, followed by the second with what they described as “sub-agents” in Ahmedabad, who are estimated to be 10 in number. “The third level are the kingpins who are located in US and Canada themselves. They also have agents in Dubai, who arrange the flights from Ahmedabad to one of the European cities, from where they hop onto at least one more location.”
The modus operandi after departure is not novel, having been deployed for long in what is known as the “donkey route”. The term is devised from the Punjabi word “dunki”, which means to hop from place to place. It refers to an illegal method in which people cross a country’s borders through a back-door route with multiple stops in other countries — with the last leg often being a treacherous land or sea crossing.
The official said the syndicate charges each person between ₹70 and ₹80 lakh to reach US including air tickets, their stay in between, and cash. Of that amount, the local agents get between ₹1.5 lakh and ₹2 lakh, sub agents get between ₹5 and ₹6 lakh, and ₹3 lakhs is spent on documentation, tickets and other expenses. “What remains, which is a large chunk, all goes to the four at the top of the syndicate. They have all been identified,” added this person.
One of these men is from Punjab and the police have found social media accounts linked to him explaining the process and the route to illegal immigration.
The state police have appointed five investigating officials from CID who are questioning the suspects, families and victims who have paid the touts and the agents.
CID officials probing the case said the suspects used SIM boxes for their communications, making tracking difficult. A SIM box diverts international calls to a mobile device through the internet and back, helping treat cross-country calls as local calls and making traceability difficult.
The syndicate’s bosses also used a virtual private network (VPN) to further keep their tracks covered when they logged into their social media accounts.
A few families HT spoke to in Gujarat said the agents had convinced them that if their son or daughter is caught, they have lawyers on their team to fight their cases. “Till the investigation is carried out, they also help them work for hourly basis and are paid $6 after guarantee by their sponsors. Police said this is a complete network starting from India to US. Some of the victims are not even ready to complain and many often turn hostile in court after settlement with agents,” said another senior official, asking not to be named.
The touts and private travel agents are absconding and teams have been formed for their arrests, said police.
A total of 96,917 Indians attempted to enter the US illegally in 2022-23, signalling a 51.6% jump from the previous year, according to data made available by the US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). At least 41,770 of those Indians attempted to enter the US via the Mexican land border, CBP data shows.
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