The recent string of Mesa drop house raids might suggest that police are on the hunt for illegal immigrants. They’re not.
Law enforcement officials said Wednesday they’re investigating another crime often tied to illegal immigration: Money laundering.
A three-week investigation by the Arizona Financial Crimes Task Force has led to the apprehension of more than 150 illegal immigrants in Mesa since Friday, along with a handful of human smugglers. And investigators said they will raid more drop houses in Phoenix and the West Valley in the coming weeks.
But that wasn’t the original goal of the task force, said Phoenix police Sgt. Clark Simmons. The task force was simply doing surveillance on some suspected money launderers in Mesa when they “bumped into” stashes of illegal immigrants traveling with human smugglers, known as “coyotes.”
“It’s not that we’re targeting undocumented aliens or drop houses,” Arizona Department of Public Safety spokesman Frank Valenzuela said. “But we aren’t turning a blind eye to it, either.”
Historically, money laundering investigations have led police to narcotics and fraud schemes. But lately, the crime is leading police to coyotes and the people they smuggle, Simmons said.
DPS Sgt. Ernie Renfro said an illegal immigrant typically pays a smuggler $1,500 to $1,800 to be taken into the United States.
When dozens of immigrants come to the United States together, the coyotes end up with large amounts of cash that they cannot deposit or spend without drawing suspicion from financial regulators. So they must launder the money.
Authorities declined to say what techniques the smugglers use, but a Tribune investigation last year revealed that many coyotes move cash around through Western Union money transfer stores. This process helps obscure the link between the cash and illegal immigration.
“If we find out someone is laundering money, and we find out they are smuggling aliens, then we do the best we can to get leads of where the stash house is,” Renfro said. “Because these people are left there without food and water.”
After the illegal immigrants are discovered, local authorities call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to transport the people, Simpson said. But federal authorities don’t always show up.
Simpson said about 60 percent of the time, ICE retrieves the immigrants. But the rest of the time police must let them walk away.
“I don’t know what to say except that historically we have to prioritize calls in the order of importance,” ICE spokesman Russell Ahr said. “There are occasions where there are actually lives in danger, so we have to go with that first.”
On Friday in west Mesa, the task force arrested five suspected human smugglers and handed over 61 undocumented immigrants to federal agents. The following night, investigators arrested four suspected human smugglers and found 13 illegal immigrants in an east Mesa hotel. Monday night’s surveillance led police to discover 81 undocumented immigrants crammed inside two condominiums.
“The more the money is interrupted through investigations,” Simmons said, then “the more people we’re getting in houses because (the smugglers) don’t have the money to ship them off anywhere.”
Task force officials would not comment on items confiscated during the raids — such as cash and weapons — because of pending investigations.
The task force includes investigators from the Phoenix Police Department, DPS and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office.