Federal officials arrested the owners and employees of five shuttle operations Thursday that they charge were knowingly ferrying illegal immigrants from Tucson to the Phoenix area.
John Morton, an assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the shuttles were key parts of major human smuggling organizations. He said the busts on the services — which he described as the most public part of the operations — enabled law enforcement to actually make arrests “up and down the line,” including getting Mexican officials to arrest Claudio Ramirez-Morales who is described as the Mexican-based manager of a smuggling organization.
Morton described Thursday’s busts as a major shift in how ICE and other federal agencies will deal with illegal immigration.
“We are not seeking to prosecute a given smuggler, a given shuttle company, a given driver,” he said.
“We are seeking to take down an entire human smuggling industry, networks that are operating from Mexico through Arizona to the rest of the United States. And we are doing it at once, statewide.”
A total of 47 people were arrested, with more than 30 search warrants executed. Morton said these shuttle services had helped smuggle thousands of people into the state.
He made a special effort to dissuade any suggestion that federal officials were going after “mom and pop organizations.”
“They were paid by the smugglers, they gave out fake receipts for $30, and they counseled their passengers on what to do if they were stopped by law enforcement,” Morton explained.
Similarly, he said the people arrested were not part of some humanitarian effort.
“The smugglers care about one thing, and one thing only: This is about making money,” Morton said. “They aren’t concerned about the people they smuggle, they’re not concerned about the laws they violate and they’re not concerned about the harm they cause.”
He also pointed out that agents found weapons when they made the arrests.
“Does a benign operation need an AK-47 or a shotgun in your home?” Morton said.
Thursday’s arrests are similar to a set of arrests of shuttle operators in the Houston area two months ago. And Morton said more are likely.
“Cases like this are here to stay,” he said. “The veil has been lifted over these shuttle companies. We’re going to go after them wherever they are and we’re going to expose them for what they are, and that is fronts for criminal networks.”
Dennis Burke, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, said the timing of the operation is unrelated to the push at the Arizona Legislature to pass new laws to crack down on illegal immigration.
“The decision when to take it down was made a long time ago,” he said.
Morton said the operation began with individuals being smuggled across the border and being escorted to Tucson, usually in private vehicles and sometimes walking around the checkpoint on Interstate 19. It was in Tucson, he said, they were passed off to the shuttle companies “who are in cahoots with the smugglers, know that the people are coming, staging vans, staging trips.”
The smugglers then paid the shuttle companies a fee, typically $100 or more, Morton said, with the immigrants getting fake receipts “to give the appearance of legitimacy.”
In Phoenix they were take to drop houses before moving on elsewhere to the rest of the country.
Search locations included Saguaro Roadrunner Shuttles, America’s Shuttles, Sonoran Shuttles and Nogales Express Shuttles in Tucson; and Sergio’s Shuttle in Phoenix.
But the list of those arrested include drivers and owners of various other shuttle services.
Morton said they also seized about $10 million worth of assets, including more than 40 vehicles.