Human trafficking’s profits spur horrors

The following Post is a bit long, but informative as to the scope and depth of the human smuggling rings. This underscores the need not only for enhanced border security efforts, but also the need for far more dedicated to law enforcement.     

Vicious organizations move thousands of immigrants through Valley every day  

In the world of human smuggling, metro Phoenix has emerged as an enormous staging area where illegal immigrants are held hostage in apartments, motel rooms or rental homes until relatives pay their fees.

State investigators say it is a $2 billion-a-year, black-market business that drives illegal immigration, spreading corruption and violence through the Valley. On any given day in the Valley, agents say, thousands of undocumented immigrants are stuffed into drophouses as “coyotes” collect the cash, arrange for transportation and fend off other smugglers who would steal migrant clients for ransom.

There are so many coyotes, estimated at more than 1,000, so many immigrants secreted in drop- houses, that money-transfer stores handle hundreds of millions of dollars a year in smuggling transactions. Friends or family already established in other states wire the payments to Phoenix.

During a federal court hearing last year, Special Agent Angel Rascon-Rubio of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement described metro Phoenix as “the hub” of immigrant smuggling. “I would say that 90 percent of the transactions dealing with the sale of human cargo, those smuggled across the (Arizona) border, occur right here.”

The city is ideal for drop- houses because it’s close to the Mexican line yet far enough so there is virtually no Border Patrol enforcement. Valley freeways provide nationwide access. And large Hispanic neighborhoods offer cover for immigrants and smugglers.

“We are supporting an army of coyotes – an army of greedy, amoral, young, Mexican males,” said Cameron “Kip” Holmes, chief counsel with the Arizona Attorney General’s Financial Remedies Section. “They’ve become a subculture unto themselves: extremely violent, extremely dangerous, all manner of bad behavior.”

Even immigrant rights advocates despise coyotes as pariahs who victimize countrymen and infect Latino neighborhoods with violence and graft.

“They are the most vicious criminal element; corruption at its lowest level,” said Eliaz Bermudez, chief executive with Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras (Immigrants without Borders). “We in the Hispanic communities suffer the brunt of all these activities.”

The border is so dangerous and heavily patrolled that using smugglers seems like a necessary evil for those trying to bring loved ones into the United States, Bermudez said. But “paying the coyotes is like paying a drug dealer for your kids.”

The Arizona funnel

Until the past decade, crossing the border was so easy that smugglers were hardly necessary. Fellow immigrants helped one another through the gauntlet for, at most, a few hundred bucks.

Then federal authorities began cracking down: first in California and Texas, funneling illegal migration to Arizona. In the late 1990s, enforcement shifted here.

Hard-core criminals entered the business as prices climbed and smuggling became more lucrative. Smuggling rings started using sophisticated surveillance and communications. A Library of Congress report on Criminal and Terrorist Activity in Mexico says smugglers carry on “a technological arms race” with the Border Patrol and ICE. As a result, fees have doubled in just a few years.

The typical pollo, or chicken, as the immigrants are called, now pays $1,200 to $2,500 to be guided across the border, driven to Phoenix and shipped to a destination in the United States.

Mom-and-pop operations were scared off or eliminated.

“They’ve been killed,” Holmes said. “That’s largely what’s been found (as corpses) in the desert: old-style coyotes. … This industry is still relatively new and in the formative stages. That’s why we see more violence, and the more ruthless ones come to the top.”

Immigrants often are quoted one price by smuggling recruiters at the border, only to have the amount doubled by the time they reach Phoenix, said Rascon-Rubio, the ICE agent. Their only option is to pay, he added: “They owe a bill. That’s what this machine … is all about, achieving payday.”

The multimillion-dollar industry supports an array of small-time smuggling rings and sophisticated organizations with scores of members.

Tim Mason, an Arizona Department of Public Safety detective who has worked more than 200 coyote investigations, estimates that 1,000-plus coyotes work in Phoenix today, supported by untold legions of shady business associates. Virtually all of the smugglers are Mexican nationals without legal residency, rather than U.S. citizens or immigrants with visas.

Each ring member takes on specific duties. There are recruiters, guides, drivers, drophouse managers, cooks, guards, document specialists and money collectors. The coyotes typically operate in family networks, directed by a boss south of the border, which is where most of the money goes.

In short, Mason says, they are organized-crime syndicates: “It’s an illegal enterprise, a scheme. … It’s not your poor immigrant being smuggled by another poor immigrant. It’s an organization with significant structure and assets.”

Many smugglers treat their clients decently to encourage referrals, but there is no pity for those who can’t come up with fee money.

“They are beaten,” Rascon-Rubio said. “The women are assaulted. Children are separated from their parents. And, at times, the ultimate price is paid.”

Even the gentler smugglers are routinely armed with assault rifles, shotguns or pistols. Firepower serves to intimidate clients who might try to escape. It also defends against so-called bajadores, bandits who kidnap immigrants to collect the ransom for themselves. Kidnap 20 pollos, collect a $1,600 smuggling fee for each one, and you get $32,000.

Money trail

Last year, ICE estimated that 1 million illegal immigrants came through Arizona, with most of them stopping off at Valley stash houses. State prosecutors put the number at 3,000 to 4,000 daily, with nearly all relying on coyotes.

The entire operation hinges on a payment system, a way to get smuggling fees to the coyotes from pollos‘ relatives or friends.

Since early 2001, Western Union and MoneyGram stores have been required to provide the state Attorney General’s Office with transaction data on money senders and receivers. Investigators were stunned to discover Arizona had become a magnet for cash wired from popular destinations for illegal immigrants.

In 2005, for example, customers in Delaware sent 60 times as much money to Arizona than vice versa. South Carolina wired 38 times as much cash this way. New Jersey clients sent 31 times as much as they received.

In January of this year, wire transfers to Arizona from a dozen key states totaled $50.2 million, compared with $1.5 million sent from Arizona to those states. Holmes said the lion’s share of that money is for smuggling fees.

Agents use data analysis to identify smuggling organizations and block suspicious fund transfers. During a one-year period ending in March, they froze 12,417 transactions, seizing $23 million. The Attorney General’s Office also seized a dozen wire-transfer businesses for criminal complicity.

Western Union alone has 1,230 outlets in Arizona. The company has rigid standards and a team of specialists in Arizona who do nothing but train, monitor and review compliance by agents, said Sherry Johnson, media relations manager.

“Western Union has made it very clear that it will not tolerate illicit use of our services,” she said.

Nevertheless, the Attorney General’s Office says 95 percent of coyote business is done in wire-transfer stores. A DPS audit last year of the busiest Western Unions showed more than half of the cash recipients in personal transactions used fraudulent Social Security cards as IDs.

Mason refers to the money-sending aspect of smuggling as “the head of the monster.”

“If nobody gets paid,” he asks, “is anybody going to smuggle a UDA (undocumented alien)?”

Ripple effect

The new big business of human smuggling, with millions of dollars at stake and law enforcement circling, sets up more corruption.

Landlords charge double or triple the normal rent to human smugglers, accepting false IDs and keeping records off the books.

Department of Motor Vehicle workers supply fraudulent IDs.

Businesses launder cash.

Auto dealers and travel agents help with transportation.

Border inspectors are paid to look away.

Money-transfer clerks are supposed to verify IDs and follow financial disclosure laws. But under-the-table payoffs are commonplace. During one investigation, investigators set up a phony wire-transfer shop and had coyotes streaming in to collect their illicit fees. In another probe, undercover operatives acting as smugglers paid clerks to violate financial reporting laws.

“When we were doing Western Union stings, we never had a bribe turned down,” Holmes said. “The employees told us, ‘We pay our rent and car loans out of bribes. The wages are spending money.’ So, in effect, they’re working for coyotes.”

Bribery, known in Mexico as la mordida (the bite), is decaying business and government ethics, Holmes said.

“Arizona is on the brink,” he said. “We are in a very perilous situation because of the importation of bribery tolerance from everywhere south of our line. … Bribery is rampant. It’s a cultural thing.”

In one probe, travel agents were taking extra cash to supply airline tickets for pollos flying out of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, where the Border Patrol has had no presence.

But most immigrants are hauled to Phoenix and across the country in cars, trucks and vans. The “load vehicles” represent another side industry. Holmes said monthly sales for a single auto dealership jumped almost $450,000 soon after the owner began selling vans to smugglers.

“It’s unbelievable the amount of money you can make if you get popular with coyotes,” he said.

The Collazzo gang

Consider the Collazzo Alien Smuggling Organization, about 70 members strong.

Authorities say the ring took in more than $18 million in smuggling fees during a six-month wiretap investigation that also uncovered drug trafficking, counterfeiting and fraudulent schemes.

Investigators learned about the gang from an informer who discovered a profitable scam involving used-car dealers along Van Buren Street in Phoenix.

Investigators began buying vehicles as part of a sting, posing as smugglers. Dealerships would charge premium prices, collecting full cash payment, and not declare the income. They filed fraudulent titles indicating that purchases were made on credit, with the dealer holding liens. If Border Patrol agents intercepted a van full of pollos, the dealer could claim ownership to prevent a government seizure. The van would be retrieved and returned to the smugglers.

Sellers also built secret compartments into vehicles for transporting cash or drugs, and they allowed coyotes to store the vans on their sales lots.

In the Collazo case of 2004, authorities seized 11 used-car lots and 359 vehicles. Gang members raked in such huge profits that they wanted to set up phony businesses to launder cash.

According to court records, Ruben Garcia-Boldo, a loan officer, helped undercover operatives obtain false driver’s licenses, immigration cards, Social Security numbers and student IDs so they could establish bank accounts, create businesses and buy homes.

Garcia-Boldo, 45, also developed plans for a company known as ABC Towing Masters, which would launder $80,000 per month. He proposed to get a 20 percent share. He even offered to set up a marriage to a legal resident for the informer, who pretended to be undocumented.

Garcia-Boldo, of Mexico City, admitted his role in the operation and pleaded guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy.

Shootouts

Along with corruption, the coyotes specialize in violence.

A few years ago, Valley detectives began noticing corpses of smugglers dumped along roads and in the desert.

Phoenix police blamed a 45 percent rise in homicides during 2003, as well as a 41 percent increase in home invasions, on coyotes and bajadores.

Criminal gangs got into a public shootout on Interstate 10 in 2003, leaving four dead and five wounded. Another bloodletting occurred in the rural community of Red Rock, north of Tucson. According to an ICE intelligence report, smugglers and their pollos were ambushed by bajadores and held hostage at a nearby livestock pond. The coyotes retaliated with bullets, killing two men.

In response, federal authorities launched Operation ICE Storm in October 2003, doubling the number of Valley agents and teaming them with local police. In 18 months, task force members made 374 arrests, captured 8,200 immigrants and confiscated hundreds of guns and vehicles along with $7.4 million in cash.

The campaign was touted nationally. Phoenix police said murders declined 30 percent during the operation, which resulted in 162 indictments.

‘Policia!’

But the smuggling remains so prolific that law enforcement isn’t able to keep up. On any given day, Mason says, coyotes can be spotted entering money-transfer shops all over the Valley.

On June 16 at 11 a.m., the DPS detective proves the point.

After parking outside a Food City store and MoneyGram outlet at Broadway Road and Country Club Drive in Mesa, Mason does a radio check to make sure the stakeout team is in place, then waits for smugglers to buy supplies from the market, or to collect smuggling fees at the wire-transfer shop.

Within minutes, two young Hispanic men enter Food City and load up on groceries. Mason says the tortillas, eggs and sodas are likely supplies for a house full of pollos.

The van heads down Broadway and pulls into the backyard at a tract-style home near Stapley Drive. Windows are covered; garbage cans overflow. More telltale signs. Mason sings a chorus line from the Cops reality show on TV: “Bad boys, bad boys. Whatcha gonna do?”

Two agents knock on the door, calling out policia, while others cover front and back. Blinds rustle. Eyes appear at windows. Suddenly, doors fly open and people tear out, jumping fences, cutting in front of cars.

All but five or six are captured. They sit in the front yard in scruffy clothes and plastic handcuffs, eyes down. A woman cries, clinging to her friend. Detectives frisk migrants and interview suspected coyotes.

In the house, there is no furniture. More than 20 bags of garbage are stacked in the pantry, oozing stench. Candles form a shrine on the kitchen counter beside hand-scrawled lists of names and misspelled destinations: “Marilu – New Yerse (Jersey).” “Humberto – Milguoquy (Milwaukee).”

As pollos are loaded aboard ICE vans, a call comes in: Detectives at the MoneyGram followed another target to an apartment just off Main Street. Four suspected smugglers surrendered quietly. Five immigrants locked themselves in a bathroom and had to be coaxed out. They sit on the floor while agents search the place, finding guns and cocaine.

In just a few hours, two drop- houses have been busted.

Mason drives off, mentioning that a Western Union in the next block is particularly popular with smugglers. As he slows in front of the business, a well-groomed Hispanic man leads several haggard immigrants into the store, fumbling with their paperwork.

“Would you look at that,” Mason says, shaking his head.

**This was a production of The Coalition Against Illegal Immigration (CAII). If you would like to participate, please go to the above link to learn more. Afterwards, email the coalition and let me know at what level you would like to participate.

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    Human trafficking’s profits spur horrors

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