In December 2004, Noel Exinia told associates in wiretapped and consensually recorded conversations that the men were "gente de Osama" -- Osama's guys -- and that they were "really bad people," who were armed and made the smugglers working with them afraid, according to papers filed last week by the U.S. Justice Department with the federal court in Brownsville, Texas.
In the papers, prosecutors say that Exinia was asked to move the men in by his boss in the notorious Gulf Cartel, a Mexican drug smuggling and organized crime network.
Investigators moved immediately at the suggestion of a terrorist nexus. "We jumped on that right away," a federal law enforcement official from one of the agencies involved told United Press International.
But the investigation "did not develop that way," the official said.
"The goods were not as advertised."
Nonetheless, the official said, "We were ready. That's the good news. If it had been the real deal, we had all the visibility we needed. We could have stopped it."
Exinia's plans never came to fruition. He was arrested the following month, and pleaded guilty late last year to drug importation charges.
According to the Brownsville Herald, which first reported the story, his defense lawyers had successfully fought to keep any reference to terrorism out of the trial.
Nonetheless, the case is the latest in a string that have highlighted the security risks posed by human trafficking and weak points in the country's immigration and border security.
A naturalized citizen faces charges in Michigan as the head of a ring that smuggled 200 mainly Iraqi illegal immigrants into the United States since 2001.
Iraqi-born Neeran Hakim Zaia was indicted in October 2004 along with her husband and three others following an undercover investigation spanning three continents that lasted more that three years and cost millions of dollars, U.S. officials familiar with the case told UPI last year.
And other federal officials tell UPI that Zaia is just one of a handful of so-called Tier One human trafficking targets in the sights of federal investigators and U.S. intelligence agencies concerned about their links to "special interest" countries -- those where global Islamic terrorists are thought to have a foothold.
The cases are stoking concern that human trafficking routes, including those across the porous southern border, are increasingly being used to smuggle special interest aliens into the United States.
The 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act gave legislative form to the U.S. Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center. It aims to co-ordinate the work of federal government agencies and their foreign and international partners against "the separate but related issues of alien smuggling, trafficking in persons, and smuggler support of clandestine terrorist travel," according to the State Department.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of the Department of Homeland Security currently holds the directorship of the center, which its web site describes as "an interagency joint intelligence fusion center," conjoining other parts of homeland security, the Departments of State and Justice and "members of the intelligence community."
Exinia will be sentenced in March, according to court records, and could face life in prison.
His lawyer said that there was no evidence of any real terrorist involvement. "They were terrorists only in his mind," John Blaylock told United Press International in a telephone interview from Harlingen, Texas.
Blaylock said his client had been asked about getting people over the border, but the idea that they were Iraqi terrorists "was an invention of Noel Exinia's."
He said the reference had none the less "got the attention" of federal authorities. "He got himself in a world of trouble."
Blaylock added prosecutors were introducing the terrorism conversations as "relevant conduct," to argue for a longer sentence even though "They know there were no real terrorists involved." He accused them of "piling on."
"It is unseemly," he said.
According to the pre-sentence review filing by federal prosecutors, the wiretapped and consensually recorded conversations about the "gente de Osama" took place largely with a pilot who had volunteered to help with his drug importation business and who later become a federal informant.
The pilot was husband to a "curandera," a traditional Mexican spiritualist, and met Exinia after the smuggler and his brother Carlos had asked for her help in silencing someone they believed to be an informant, and in blocking a police investigation after Carlos was arrested.
The curandera made "A doll with certain characteristics," that the brothers believed would "help in controlling" the informant and in "closing the mouth" of the policeman leading the investigation.