WICKENBURG - The road to a new life in the United States came to an abrupt end for three Mexican woman at the northern edge of Maricopa County one night in May.
A team of deputies on a roving patrol stopped the women and their driver in an older, red Chevrolet Lumina along U.S. 93, a two-lane road that’s frequently used by smugglers to shuttle illegal immigrants to California and Nevada.
In hushed conversations, the deputies interrogated the four motorists for an hour each and elicited admissions that they were all illegal immigrants.
The lawmen on the human smuggling unit were unable to build a case that any of them violated the state’s human smuggling law, which could have led to four years in jail. In order to be charged under the law, the immigrants must also admit that they paid a smuggler to transport them across the border.
Instead, deputies arrested them on federal charges of being in the country illegally, which usually leads to quick deportations across the international border to Nogales, Mexico.
The nuances of principles that are central to Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s illegal-immigration enforcement operation are played out in real and personal terms along the county’s back roads.
If the squad had enough manpower, deputies could stop at least one carload of illegal immigrants every hour of every night, all year long, said Lt. Joseph Sousa, who heads the human smuggling unit.
“We’ve never struck out. Especially the last few times we’ve been going out, we’ve been pulling over four or five vehicles at a time,” he said.
“The word 'epidemic’ is not out of the question. It is an epidemic.”
A lieutenant, two sergeants and about a dozen deputies took just about an hour to make their first stop on May 14.
They were hoping to make a big bust, perhaps apprehend a smuggler trying to move a dozen or more people deeper into the country. The deputies were nearing the end of their 40-hour pay period that Wednesday night, so they knew their first bust was likely going to be their last of the week, because they would need hours and hours to complete the interviews and paperwork generated by any arrest.
Overtime has been curtailed for the human smuggling deputies since October, when the county notified Arpaio his agency was already $1.3 million over budget for the fiscal year that had started just three months earlier.
The deputies swept into and through Wickenburg and quickly fanned out along U.S. 60 and U.S. 93, a pair of two-lane roads that bisect the town, then cut through the desert to California and Nevada. Other deputies doubled back and cruised through Wickenburg, a town of 6,200 residents, 11 percent of them Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Deputy Juan Silva, who was patrolling in town in an unmarked Chrysler 300, spotted Juan Angel Huerta-Bandala driving erratically and repeatedly checking his rearview mirror.
“He was probably going 55 mph in a 45,” Silva said. “Then he slowed down to about 15 mph in a 25 by the bridge. I said, 'Well, that’s kind of strange.’”
The driver checked his rearview mirror several more times, cast his eyes on Silva, then sped up to 45 mph in a 25 mph zone.
Silva flipped on the 300’s flashing red and blue lights and followed the Lumina to a curb by a park. He approached the car and, speaking in English, told the driver that he’d stopped him for speeding.
The 27-year-old man had stylish gold sunglasses and a Bluetooth wireless telephone hanging on his right ear. He wore a tan Ralph Lauren T-shirt and Bermuda shorts.
He was calm. He was Hispanic.
He gave the deputy a blank stare, so Silva started over in Spanish.
The deputy asked to see his license and the car’s registration. Huerta-Bandala offered a New Mexico license, and when he couldn’t find the registration, he explained that the car belonged to a friend. A moment later, he said it belonged to an uncle, Silva said.
The driver told the deputy that he and his passengers all worked together in Glendale, cleaning houses and offices, and that they were headed to Kingman for a few days to visit family.
Silva said he has heard similar accounts of family visits in Kingman, a city on the road to Las Vegas and Los Angeles, which are major distribution points for illegal immigrants trying to seep into the country.
The deputy asked Huerta-Bandala if he could look in the car’s trunk, and the driver consented. The trunk was empty.
As it turned out, Huerta-Bandala and his passengers didn’t have a single toothbrush or change of underwear among them for their supposed stay in Kingman.
Silva and Deputy Hector Martinez asked one of the women to step out of the car, and they spoke to her separately. The group’s cover story quickly fell apart.
The passenger, 25-year-old Rosa Emilia Hernandez, told deputies that she and her sister, Ana Elizabeth Hernandez-Castellano, worked for a bakery, not a cleaning service. Also, she said she wasn’t certain whose relatives they planned to visit.
“Sometimes, this comes down to nothing more than somebody in the car has got a warrant and they’re scared we’ll find out,” said Sgt. Manny Madrid, a supervisor who watched the interviews in the park.
“Other times, maybe it’s something a little bit more along our lines — it’s a smuggling vehicle — but we don’t know that and we’re trying to make that determination still,” he said.
The five-passenger car was smaller than most load vehicles, but smugglers sometimes transport women and children separately from men, so they might use a smaller car for three women, Sgt. Brett Palmer said.
A few minutes later, Hernandez admitted that she and her sister were in the country illegally and that Huerta-Bandala was driving them to California.
“We have conflicting stories and now we have a lie in the middle of the investigation,” Madrid said.
“Now, it’s about why did she lie to us? What’s really going on here?” he said. “So we’re still developing the investigation, but at this point, we have enough to keep pushing and interview the rest of the subjects individually and see what other stories we get out of them.”
But the women insisted they never paid Huerta-Bandala to take them to California. They said they were walking down a street somewhere in Phoenix or Glendale when Huerta-Bandala pulled up and offered them a free ride. The third woman, Cristabel de Jesus Cuatro, told the deputies that she was an illegal immigrant as well, and that Huerta-Bandala was driving the group to Kingman, again for free.
That was an important point.
“The problem is the evidence,” Palmer said. “If we don’t have their statements to collaborate the evidence that we’re seeing physically here, with the vehicle and with them and their conflicting stories, if they won’t give it up with an admission, we don’t have enough at this point to pursue state charges for smuggling.”
Instead, deputies detained them under federal law for being in the country illegally.
The lawman took the motorists first to MCSO’s substation in Surprise, to feed, fingerprint, re-interview and conduct background checks on the suspects.
It was a time-consuming process. For instance, Huerta-Bandala told deputies that he had been arrested once before, by the U.S. Border Patrol, in 2005.
A database maintained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency showed that he had been arrested three times by the Border Patrol since ’05.
Later, Huerta-Bandala, speaking in Spanish, told the Tribune that he is married and has lived and worked as a painter in the United States since 2000. Furthermore, he said he has crossed the border frequently during that eight-year period.
But with deputies listening in on the newspaper’s holding-cell interview, he declined to say why or how he has crossed so many times.
He repeated his claim that he and his passengers merely were driving to Kingman to visit family.
Nearing 1 a.m., which was more than seven hours after the team started the night’s patrol, the deputies took their suspects to ICE’s Phoenix complex, the next stop on their way back to Mexico.
“We got some of the peripheral stuff of what we were looking for,” Madrid said. “We weren’t able to continue on and find what we’re ultimately out there looking for — an active smuggling case.”