Eleven used car lots in Phoenix were seized and 28 people indicted over the past month in what authorities said was a scheme to provide vehicles to smugglers of illegal immigrants.
Police agencies unwittingly played a role by returning vehicles seized in smuggling operations back to the car lots, which held fake liens on the vehicles, officials said at a news conference Monday.
"If the vehicle ended up getting caught coming across the border, because of the lien it would go back to the car lot — towed right back to where it started from, and the same coyote organization would put it back into use," said state Attorney General Terry Goddard.
Goddard was joined by Dennis Garrett, director of the Arizona Department of Public Safety; Mike Turner, the chief of the Bureau of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Phoenix; and Paul Charlton, U.S. Attorney in Arizona. The yearlong, multiagency investigation began when a tow truck driver who recovered some of the vehicles for the car lots became suspicious, officials said.
Undercover agents posing as coyote smugglers were welcomed by car dealers, who offered vehicles outfitted for smuggling with removed seats or compartments for drugs or money, Goddard said.
John Bottoms, a DPS financial crimes specialist, said more than 10,000 telephone conversations were recorded in wiretap operations. Some of those conversations led to seven people being identified as smugglers of illegal immigrants, officials said. The seven were charged by federal indictment with conspiracy to transport more than 25 illegal aliens; four of them also face several state charges.
One of those suspects, Jose Juan Collazo-Ibbara, 30, ran the smuggling organization that used the vehicles, and one or two others facing federal charges were his top lieutenants, Turner said.
The remaining 21 people were charged with state crimes of money laundering, fraud, conspiracy and participating in a criminal syndicate; four of those were also charged with possession of cocaine for sale. Many are Mexican nationals, officials said.
Ten car lot owners were among the indicted, including Scottsdale resident Brent Perry, who authorities said owns La Caliente Auto Sales in Phoenix. Perry did not return a call Monday.
The businesses were closed as of Monday. Legitimate customers who bought on credit from the lots must make their payments to the state Attorney General’s office until a private intermediary is hired, said the office’s spokeswoman, Andrea Esquer.