In 2005, in response to a major increase in violence along the Southwest Border with Mexico, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security Investigations created the Border Enforcement Security Task force (BEST).
One of the 35 BEST teams that formed is here in Hampton Roads. It relies on partnerships with local law enforcement agencies.
The local team is crucial to security, given the area's international ties including the business done through the Port of Virginia. The port is a huge hub that sees millions of cargo containers from around the world moving through it. The port's existence has translated into more than $60 billion for the Virginia economy.
The port also serves as a prime spot for illegal things.
“Drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, intellectual property rights, money laundering and a variety of other disciplines,” Mike Lamonea with Homeland Security Investigations said, offering examples.
That’s where the BEST steps in.
“We’re looking for any criminal activity related to the border and anything that has a transnational nexus to it,” explained Lamonea.
13News Now was there as agents searched dozens of cargo containers coming out of the port. The big concern is that anything coming in through the port illegally, like weapons or drugs, trickles directly into the neighborhoods in Hampton Roads.
The team also focuses on local cases including that of Jason Mickle. Mickle and several others were caught running a multi-million-dollar spice ring.
BEST and other organizations were responsible for the downfall of the ring. Mickle is serving a 17-year prison sentence.
If you’ve ever seen the cruise ships docked at Nauticus in Norfolk, there’s a good change BEST agents were there, too. Whenever a ship comes in from international waters, the team checks the ship and passengers' luggage for signs of illegal activity.
“Everything we do here, and everything the BEST team does in general, is aimed at public safety and national security,” said Lamonea.
They often are considered some of the most heinous crimes, targeting some of the most innocent victims.
“They are the lowest of the low,” said Mike Lamonea with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).
Child pornography and child exploitation are at the top of the priority list for HSI.
It’ may not be widely known, but the agency, which often only is associated with immigration, investigates those crimes that target children.
The U.S. Customs Service used to investigate child porn that was being sent through the mail or coming in through the ports. Once HSI was created in 2003, it took over that responsibility.
“The Internet has no borders. Anything that’s being transferred across the Internet relative to child exploitation, we’re going to investigate,” Lamonea told 13News Now.
Local HSI agents have taken many child predators off the streets, but that is not their only goal in those kinds of cases. They also help victims recover from some of the crimes.
Erin Portnoy is the director of the Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters (CHKD) Child Abuse Center.
“We’re this one-stop shop because police know this is where they’re going to get the best care,” said Portnoy.
Staff members at the center work hand in hand with HSI and other agencies to make sure the victims get the assistance they need.
“We will be coming. They will get arrested. They will get prosecuted, and they will be doing a lot of time behind bars,” said Lamonea.
In 2016, HSI agents arrested more than 2,600 online child predators and identified nearly 1,000 victims.
Sex trafficking is another big priority for Homeland Security Investigations.
In January, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced the creation of a human trafficking task force in Hampton Roads.
“Since February, we’ve had over 34 cases,” said a victim's advocate with the Samaritan House whose identity we are protecting because of the nature of her work.
Since the creation of the task force, HSI and other agencies like the Norfolk Police Department have been working to get traffickers off the street.
13News Now was there as HSI and the Norfolk Police Department conducted an undercover operation.
Many of them start with undercover officers investigating prostitution.Often, those investigations lead them to victims.
“I think people don’t realize just how bad it can be. These victims are given quotas where they have to meet with buyers of sex up to 15 times a night. You’re looking at thousands of rapes that happen for profit over the course of a year,” said the victim advocate.
The task force isn’t fully operational yet, but those involved believe once it is, they’ll uncover even more victims.
“Once more operations start to happen, I anticipate seeing far more victims coming in to receive services from the Samaritan House,” the victim advocate told us.
Since the task force’s inception, HSI has been involved in several cases that ended with traffickers behind bars and pleading guilty.