U.S. Attorney Speaks Out About Territory’s Porous Borders

U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert outside the Ron de Lugo Federal Building on St. Thomas.

If there’s one thing the Trump Administration has made clear, it’s that securing U.S. borders is one of its highest priorities.

As the top federal law-enforcement official in the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. Attorney Gretchen Shappert takes that mandate seriously, but she knows that in the islands, “A wall will not stop the problem.”

Shappert works long hours in her quest to combat the flow in and out of the territory of illegal migrants, guns, drugs, terrorists, bulk cash (indicating money laundering,) and human trafficking. A quick look at her office’s website shows their recent successes.

Securing the borders in the USVI is not an easy task, especially as the nearest foreign territory— the British Virgin Islands– is only about two miles away from St. John. With one recent change in the BVI’s immigration policy (and others under consideration,) the challenge becomes even greater.

Until 2018, the BVI required visas for everyone entering the country. Exceptions were made for those holding passports from Great Britain, the United States, and Canada; they have been allowed to enter the BVI and remain for six months without a visa. However, as of last June, Chinese nationals are no longer required to have a visa.

The change is intended to capitalize on the growth of “one of the largest tourism markets on the planet – China” whose citizens are “said to have had 120 million trips overseas [and] spent $215 billion on holidays abroad in 2016.”

More than two decades ago, illegal immigration of Chinese nationals was a serious problem in the USVI. Chinese immigrants used to flock to the V.I. by the hundreds: 136 were arrested in 2001; 375 were arrested in 2002, and 228 were arrested in 2003. However, in 2004, only 26 Chinese immigrants were arrested in the V.I., and that number has continued to drop. The decrease has been attributed to stepped-up border protection.

Though the BVI has not yet seen an influx of tourists from China, the change in policy has led one legislator in the BVI to propose that nationals from other Caribbean nations be allowed to enter the BVI without obtaining visas.

Shappert is careful not to comment on the immigration policies of other sovereign nations, stating, “Every country gets to do it their way, but this enhances our concerns.”

Shappert’s office has successfully prosecuted cases involving illegal entry of citizens of the Dominican Republic within the past several months, and many others involving nationals from St. Lucia, Argentina, Venezuela, and even India. Many of them have used Tortola as a jumping-off point for entry into the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Federal law enforcement agencies have apprehended illegal migrants on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, Shappert said, but because of its proximity to the BVI, “St. John is the most vulnerable.” Once illegal migrants are in the territory, it’s fairly easy for them to obtain counterfeit identification. “Once you’re in here, you’re in the U.S.,” she said.

Shappert cited several recent arrests in waters near St. John’s north shore involving U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) Air and Marine Operations (AMO.)  In recent incidents, officers apprehended vessels running without lights at night near Haulover Bay, directly across the channel from Tortola. Upon questioning, the suspects admitted that they had left from Tortola.

Exactly how these vessels are spotted is not a subject that Shappert is willing to discuss, but she would say, “We have lots of secret gee-whiz things.” In addition to CPB AMO, her office works closely with Homeland Security Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“We do a lot of information and intelligence sharing within our law enforcement community and with our colleagues in the British Virgin Islands. We don’t want any ‘blue-on-blue’ incidents where two undercover operations are working [unbeknownst to each other] on the same problem,” Shappert said. “We have many elaborate databases. We rely on ships, air patrols, and people on the island inform us.”

She has particular regard for Virgin Island National Park rangers, who are based on St. John and respond quickly when suspicious activity is reported. “Chief Ranger Rick Gupman and his team do a phenomenal job. We’re lucky to have the caliber of NPS officers we have here.  We work closely with them.”

Shappert said her office is particularly concerned with cases involving human trafficking in the territory. Illegal migrants are vulnerable, particularly children and women. “Some are held in houses of prostitution; their ID’s are taken away from them. If you’re here illegally, it’s not like you can go to law enforcement and ask for help.”

She said hopes that the public will assist in identifying victims of traffickers by reporting suspicious activity: for example, the same crew working at a restaurant 24/7, or a woman who never leaves the premises. “We don’t want John Q. Public to intervene, but we do want to be informed,” Shappert said.

“We recognize that immigrants contribute greatly, but we want them to come in legally,” Shappert said. Nationally, 40 percent of foreigners who are in the country illegally have overstayed their visas. “Overstaying a visa is a civil offense,” she said, but “half of the 9/11 terrorists were visa over-stayers who had entered the country legally.”

Violent crime continues to be a major problem in the territory, according to Shappert, who cited a PBS NewsHour report that the U.S. Virgin Islands had the seventh highest death rate due to firearms globally in 2016.  Shappert and her team of 14 prosecutors have been doing their best to change this.

In January, Paul “Bogus” Girard and ten others were indicted by a federal grand jury on St. Thomas under the Racketeering and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act. The charges included “murder and attempted murder in aid of racketeering, kidnapping, carjacking, controlled substance conspiracy, armed robbery, attempt bank robbery, money laundering, violent crimes in aid of RICO, and several firearms violations to include brandishing, discharging and use of a firearm resulting in death.”

Shappert said she cannot discuss the Girard case or any ongoing cases. ”We can’t talk about anything until it’s over; we do our best speaking in our courtrooms.” She clarified, however, that although the death penalty is outlawed in the Virgin Islands, eight of the 11 individuals arrested could face the death penalty under federal charges.

The recent spate of crimes involving guns in the British Virgin Islands is also a concern, and though Shappert again declined to comment on the transport of guns between the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, she did point out that “America is a culture of guns, unlike England.” Shappert describes herself as “a firm believer in the Second Amendment, but my concern is people who should not have guns.”

Much of Shappert’s work involves the prosecution of drug cases, especially cocaine. On March 6, four Guyanese men were sentenced on St. Croix for attempting to import 3,769 kilograms of cocaine with a street value of $71 million.

The trafficking of opioids, heroin, and fentanyl are less of a problem in the territory, but marijuana is still a concern. In spite of the recent legislation to legalize medical marijuana in the territory, “It doesn’t change federal law, and we will review every potential prosecution for marijuana individually,” she said.

Shappert is proud of the record of her office which received an award from the Department of Justice in February for leadership and service following the hurricanes in 2017. Although the Virgin Islands is the smallest of the 94 federal judicial districts, “We punch above our weight,” said Shappert. “We’re V.I. proud and V.I. strong.”

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions picked Shappert to head up the territory’s office on December 22, 2017, and she arrived on island two weeks later. The absence of cable TV following the hurricanes was not a problem for her as she doesn’t even own a TV set, preferring instead to read biographies of historical figures.

According to her biography posted on her office’s website, “Shappert has served as the Assistant Director for the Indian, Violent and Cyber Crime Staff in the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys (EOUSA), since 2010. Prior to joining EOUSA, Shappert served as the United States Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina from 2004-2009 and as an Assistant United States Attorney (AUSA) from 1990-2004.”

Shappert has a background in prosecuting motorcycle gangs and violent drug organizations, and a visitor to her office can see her display of memorabilia from her days combating the Outlaws, a motorcycle gang. These include a huge tankard for beer with the gang’s insignia, and a Christmas card with a drawing of a hand tattooed with a Nazi symbol making an obscene gesture.

She’s proud of having put 21 members of the Outlaws behind bars. “Gang activity erodes a community,” she said, “and I’m all about making the community safer.”