A sophisticated human smuggling ring that was running as many as 40 illegal immigrants per day from the Mexican border near Naco to safe houses in Phoenix was broken up after a seven-month investigation by a multiagency task force, according to a 232-count indictment announced Thursday.
In all, 48 people were charged with a variety of crimes that include conspiracy, money laundering, fraud and human smuggling. Ten of those named in the indictment were in custody Thursday.
Investigators were able to penetrate the smuggling ring so thoroughly that they were able to list the prices paid at each step of the operation, said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, whose agency is part of the task force, which also included the Phoenix Police Department, Arizona Department of Public Safety and the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service.
Those fees ranged from $1,000 per week paid to crooked Mexican police to look the other way to $50 per day paid to people who cooked meals at the drop houses in Phoenix where the illegal immigrants were housed, said Phoenix police Lt. Vince Piano.
The smuggling ring was run by a pair of Cuban immigrants, Jose Luis Suarez-Lemus, 41, of Peoria and Roel Ayala Fernandez, 35, of Phoenix, according to the indictment. Both face a possible sentence of up to 35 years in prison if convicted on all counts, according to Goddard's office. Both are in the country legally.
Illegal immigrants were charged about $2,500 each to be smuggled into the U.S. by "border organizers," according to the charges. After crossing the border, they were led by guides through the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation area in southern Arizona to meet drivers who took them to Phoenix.
The smugglers hooked up with what Goddard dubbed the "Suarez-Fernandez organization" once the immigrants were inside the United States. The organization handled the transportation to the Valley and made arrangements for the houses where the immigrants were kept until they could be moved to other cities throughout the United States, according to the charges.
Along the way, different “subcontractors” were used, according to Piano. They include:
• Drivers who were paid $100 per carload to drive the immigrants to the Valley.
• Scout drivers, who were paid $350 per carload to drive separate vehicles to provide protection and distract law enforcement and border officers.
• Drop house cooks who were paid $50 per day to feed the immigrants while they waited to be moved to other locations.
Maria Jesus Cervantes, a spokeswoman for the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix, said she could not comment on the allegations that Mexican police were taking bribes.
The organization transported two to four groups per day ranging in size from six to 10 people, primarily using rental cars, according to the indictment. The organization often generated about $130,000 in cash per week, according to the investigation.