A special task force created a year ago has been successful in combating human smuggling rings and sending their leaders to prison, according to the commander of the multiagency unit.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety's Illegal Immigration Prevention Apprehension Co-op Team, known as IIMPACT, works with the Phoenix Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement service to nab human smugglers, especially from drop houses where violence has been reported, and bring charges against them.
DPS Lt. Bob Smart, commander of the unit since June, said IIMPACT's role differs from that of other immigration agencies in that it targets the worst offenders as part of a collaborative effort.
"We're doing something that separates us from what other agencies are doing in Arizona," Smart said. "We're trying to live up to our mission, which is to deter, disrupt and dismantle human smuggling organizations."
To that end, ICE spokesman Vincent Picard said that, beyond any arrests, there is a larger effort by the group to gather intelligence and flesh out organizations behind such criminal activity.
DPS previously handled human smuggling cases through its Gang and Immigration Intelligence Team Enforcement Mission, which followed leads that occasionally led to drop houses. A DPS spokesman said Gov. Janet Napolitano was instrumental in supporting the formation of IIMPACT.
According to Smart, the team this year has responded to 123 calls to date for service involving violence related to human smuggling. He said there were 131 felony arrests made during those calls, most for sexual assault, kidnapping and extortion. Two calls were linked to homicides, he said. Smart said the team identified at least three human smuggling organizations.
Since it began active operations in December - DPS formed the unit in September 2007 - IIMPACT has responded to more than 40 drop houses, according to Smart.
The unit's investigations also have led to 12 arrests of bajadores, Spanish slang for crews of bandits who steal human cargo to extort ransom from their families.
The average prison sentence for people charged in an IIMPACT case is seven years, according to Smart. The longest sentence, which Smart calls the unit's "poster case," was a 42-year prison term against Ricardo Moreno, who was convicted of holding more than 20 illegal immigrants at gunpoint in a Phoenix drop house last year. He was convicted on four counts of kidnapping, four counts of theft by extortion and one count of human smuggling, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
A spokesman for the county attorney's office said it doesn't have statistics on the number of cases received from IIMPACT, or the conviction rate of the unit. The reason is cases submitted for prosecution list the police agencies that brought the charges, not the specific unit or task force.
Sgt. Alex Ortiz of the Phoenix Police Department, who worked with IIMPACT for several months, thinks the unit has made major strides. He's surprised at the ease with which the three agencies have been able to do a difficult job of going after violent human smugglers.
"From the onset, I thought it would be pretty difficult," Ortiz said. "It's been easy. People aren't aware of the success we've had with drop houses. We don't respond to every drop house in Maricopa County. Where there is violence, we do and we're getting ring leaders. The links we've made have been incredible."
Despite its success, IIMPACT started and continues without the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office or any East Valley police departments on board. Smart said those agencies weren't purposely excluded and that IIMPACT will assist any departments in the East Valley that ask for help.
According to Mesa Police Chief George Gascón, his department went after human smuggling cases with the aid of the FBI, U.S. Marshal's Office in Phoenix and Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center - called the fusion center - before IIMPACT's formation.
"It's nothing new," Gascón said. "We said we need to look at the system being employed. We're looking at the worst of the worst."
Smart said IIMPACT is maxed out with three squads of six detectives each and one other squad that is being formed. He thinks it's doubtful that East Valley police departments or the MCSO will become part of the unit.
"What's being done immigration-wise is working," Smart said. "In the immigration world, people are avoiding Phoenix. The word is out."
Smart said that while Sheriff Joe Arpaio's illegal immigration sweeps aren't part of the IIMPACT program, they have merit.
"He has different methodology," Smart said. "It's good when combining what he's doing with what IIMPACT is doing. The combining of us all doing a little part completes the puzzle. The sheriff is very vocal and public about what he does. He gets the word out that he's going to do his part with illegal immigration."
Picard said while East Valley agencies aren't IIMPACT partners, his agency works with some of them to handle other problems, such as gangs or drugs.
"Every organization has to take a look at its own resources and make decisions on what's going to be effective," Picard said. "It's up to them what makes the most sense for their community. Some may have other concerns than violence associated with drops houses. We would welcome any participation from East Valley departments.
"ICE believes IIMPACT is a successful program because some of the problems in Arizona are too big for one agency to handle alone," Picard added.
"It gives others a go-to unit."