Saturday, November 13, 2010

AZ: Big human smuggling ring busted

The largest human-smuggling operation ever uncovered by state task-force investigators has been closed down in a joint effort by local and federal authorities because of a routine police check in Goodyear.

The smuggling ring, operating out of four sites in the West Valley as well as locations in southern Arizona and on the Mexican side of the border, transported thousands of undocumented immigrants into the country over the past two years. The huge operation, which brought immigrants into Arizona from Central and South America as well as Mexico, was dismantled Wednesday when investigators arrested and charged six men. They also seized 62 vehicles in the Valley, most of which were used to move illegal border-crossers around the state, officials said.

Investigators with the state's anti-smuggling task force, which is examining bank records to grasp the size of the operation, say a decrease in drophouse busts in the Valley has given them a chance to spend more time going after smuggling organizations.

The investigation began more than a year ago when Goodyear police Officer Sean Clarke, conducting a routine patrol check of a U-Haul rental-storage facility, noticed a number of trucks and vans with tinted windows that appeared to have reinforced shock absorbers. Both are telltale signs of vehicles being used for smuggling.

As Goodyear police began checking the vehicles, they were struck by something odd about the license plates: None was reported stolen. Investigators discovered that the plates were registered to fictitious owners at false addresses. "We were scratching our heads for a little bit," Goodyear police Cmdr. Ralph McLaughlin said. Suspecting they had stumbled onto a smuggling ring, Goodyear police shared the information with IIMPACT, the state's anti-smuggling task force.

Seasoned investigators stood in awe Wednesday as an employee at the Goodyear storage facility drilled padlocks off 18 storage units and opened the doors to reveal a van in each unit.

Some of the vans advertised locksmiths, flower shops and carpet-cleaning companies in an attempt to keep authorities from recognizing their real purpose: transporting illegal immigrants.

Investigators believe the storage yard on West McDowell Road was the end point for each vehicle on a circular route that took them from the Valley to the border.

Capt. Fred Zumbo of the Arizona Department of Public Safety said the smugglers would drive the vans and trucks to the U.S. side of the border, where they would pick up immigrants who had crossed on foot.

The organization's drivers were fearless, investigators believe, choosing to engage in chases with police when they were discovered. Members of the smuggling crew have been linked to at least three such incidents, including a 2009 rollover wreck near Sonoita that claimed 11 lives, officials said. "These are pursuits waiting to happen," Zumbo said as he surveyed a yard full of vans and trucks in Glendale. "You know darn well these drivers are driving these things loaded down, and they're running from the cops."

Once across the border, the immigrants would be taken in the vans to designated drophouses in Arizona, officials said. As pressure on smugglers increased near the border, the group consolidated operations in Phoenix, said Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of Homeland Security investigations for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona.

"They are highly adaptable, and they change as a result of law-enforcement activities," Allen said. "Many of this organization's resources were in the southern part of the state. But when it got too hot for them in southern Arizona, they relocated a lot of their resources to the Phoenix area."

When the vehicles were done unloading, drivers would return them to the Goodyear storage yard where they were tucked into the containers so tight that drivers had to exit the trucks and vans through the rear of the vehicles.

Despite the measures smugglers took to cover their tracks, their activity did raise some suspicion. The rental spaces were always paid in cash, typically $2,400 to $2,500 a month, always in $50 and $100 bills, said Derek Roller, manager at the storage unit. Vans and trucks were also picked up and dropped off at 3 a.m., frequently on tow trucks, Roller said.

Investigators believe that Marco Rodriguez-Banks, 29, made the cash payments for the storage units.

Of the six people authorities charged in connection with the ring, Banks is the only one investigators have identified. Banks and five others were booked on suspicion of human smuggling, operating a criminal syndicate, fraud and fraudulent schemes, and identity theft.

Two homes raided Wednesday morning are owned by out-of-state residents, whose roles in the organization remain unclear. But police are certain that Banks was not working alone. "This is clearly a transportation cell that is part of larger organizations," Allen said. "Where we go from here is further up that food chain in the criminal organization."


Australian Govt ponders new laws on asylum seekers

The federal government is considering introducing new laws to circumvent a High Court ruling that's undermined the effectiveness of its offshore processing regime for asylum-seekers who arrive by boat.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard says Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is weighing up Labor's options after the court ruled that asylum-seekers whose claims are rejected offshore still have a right to judicial review. "He'll work through (the decision) and make some recommendations about need for legislative change," Ms Gillard told reporters in Seoul where she's attending a G20 meeting.

Ms Gillard also rejected claims - most notably from prominent human rights lawyer Julian Burnside - that Thursday's ruling could mean asylum-seekers processed in third countries were entitled to access Australia's courts. "There's a suggestion that somehow this High Court decision affects my plans for a regional protection framework and regional processing centre," Ms Gillard said. "It does not."

Mr Bowen backed the prime minister, saying the ruling could only affect processing in other countries if it was conducted by Australian officials. "The advice to me is that there are no implications for offshore processing where it would not be run by Australian officials," he told ABC Radio on Friday.

But that doesn't mean the coalition's plan to reopen a detention centre in Nauru would be in the clear, Mr Bowen said. "I've noticed a number of eminent jurists saying that the so-called Nauru Solution could be challenged under this regime because it would be run by Australian officials as opposed to being run by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) officials or (other) international officials," he said.

Mr Bowen insisted that offshore processing remained a key plank in Labor's border-protection policy despite the High Court ruling. "I think there's a case for offshore detention continuing ... that would be my intention," he said. "Offshore detention and the excision of islands (are) appropriate."

The immigration minister said the government's options in terms of a legislative response "are open" and that he has sought advice from both the solicitor-general and his own department. "(But) I'm not going to stick into the game of `start ruling in, start ruling out' legislative responses or other responses," he said.

The opposition is refusing to back any such legislative response. Coalition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said Labor should instead reintroduce temporary protection visas and shift processing to Nauru. "Labor can't propose piecemeal changes that will simply paper over their High Court problem while doing nothing to address this growing crisis," Mr Morrison said in a statement. "If Labor is serious about cleaning up their mess they will restore the coalition's immigration and border-protection policy regime that stopped the boats."


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