More than 800 law enforcement agents swooped down on a massive human smuggling ring in Arizona early Thursday morning, delivering a "stunning blow" to a criminal network that helped shuttled illegal immigrants all around the country.
Thursday's strike is the largest coordinated action ever led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which partnered with eight other federal, state and local agencies to arrest 47 suspects in Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales and Rio Rico, Arizona.
"Alien smugglers are a scourge," ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton said. "They violate our borders ... [and] profit at our expense by knowingly breaking our laws, day in and day out. Today we turned the tables on the smugglers."
ICE agents targeted shuttle van services they believe have ferried thousands of illegal immigrants from southern Arizona to Phoenix, providing passengers fake $30 ride receipts and even coaching them on how to answer law enforcement agents if the buses were stopped at immigration checkpoints along the highway. From there the illegal immigrants were left at drop-houses or brought to shuttle services that offer rides to destinations all over the West Coast.
ICE alleges that the businesses are part of a larger smuggling operation that carries illegal immigrants over the border from Mexico "to the far corners of the United States" — places as far-flung as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Morton said multiple rings had been "stopped in their tracks," touting what he called an "unprecedented level of cooperation" with Mexican federal police, which arrested a leading smuggler south of the U.S. border on Thursday.
Inside the U.S., the owners and operators of the Tucson-based Saguaro Roadrunner Shuttles, America's Shuttles, Guerro's Shuttles and Nogales Express Shuttles were all targeted in the raid, as were the operators of a fifth shuttle company in Phoenix, Sergio's Shuttle.
On the surface the vans appear like any other shared-ride shuttles, taking about a dozen passengers around southern Arizona. But ICE officials said the companies relied almost entirely on criminal activity.
ICE dubbed the investigation "Operation In Plain Sight" because of the "brazen" nature of the alleged smuggling scheme, which helped immigrants from Mexico, Central America and even China escape the watchful eye of border agents.
"The defendants wrongly believed they could operate with impunity by hiding behind the veil of legitimacy these businesses provided," said Morton, adding that ICE has "dismantled these transnational organizations and literally seized the engines that were driving the criminal enterprise."
U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke said the operation dealt a "stunning blow" to international smuggling, "a vast conspiracy unearthed and now dismantled."
ICE officials said the smugglers were not believed to be violent, but stressed the far-reaching implications of their alleged crimes.
"This isn't a mom and pop enterprise. It's major international crime operating across borders with profits literally into the billions," Morton said.
"The smugglers care about only one thing: money. They aren't concerned about the human cost or the toll smuggling takes on our quality of life, the integrity of our borders or our nation's security."
Law enforcement agents executed dozens of search and arrest warrants as far away as Tennessee on Thursday, the culmination of an investigation that has lasted more than two years.
Officials denied that the timing of the raids was tied to the murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, who was gunned down on his own property on March 27. Officials investigating the killing believe an illegal immigrant may have been responsible for the killing, which occurred near Arizona's border with Mexico.
The raids — long in the making — had been delayed multiple times, ICE officials said.
Thursday's actions involved agents from nine law enforcement agencies: ICE, FBI, DEA, ATF, Customs and Border Protection, Arizona's Department of Public Safety, Pima County Sheriff's Department, Tuscon Police Department and Phoenix Police Department.
ICE officials said they were not focusing on rounding up illegal immigrants but on bringing in the smugglers themselves, some of whom are citizens and legal residents of the U.S. The agency said it would take appropriate enforcement action if illegal immigrants were encountered during the raids.
Indictments were being issued against the owners and operators of the shuttle services on charges that include money laundering, alien smuggling and conspiracy. Suspects are due in court as early as Friday.
Officials said they seized $10 million in assets, including real estate, vehicles used for the smuggling and other property.
ICE officials predicted that the strike would put an immediate freeze on smuggling activity in Arizona, having "dismantled" the smuggling network and arrested key players in the international ring.
Though ICE predicted other groups would move in to take the place of the smugglers rounded up Thursday, the agency believes it will take a good deal of time for so sophisticated an operation to be put in place again.