US police arrested 47 people and broke up a human smuggling network that used rogue shuttle companies to ferry thousands of illegal immigrants from the Arizona-Mexico border across the US, authorities said on Thursday.
The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) said those arrested included the owners and employees of five Arizona commercial shuttle companies, following a year-long operation involving US and Mexican police.
“Forty-seven people have been arrested today ... five shuttle companies have been shut down, and multiple smuggling routes have been stopped in their tracks,” ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton told a news conference in Phoenix.
Arizona straddles a heavily trafficked corridor for both human and drug smugglers from Mexico.
Last year, US Border Patrol agents made more than 241,000 arrests in the sector south of Tucson, Arizona, and seized more than 60 tonnes of marijuana.
Morton said the shuttle companies targeted in the operation moved illegal immigrants north from the border city of Nogales, Arizona, to Tucson and Phoenix, using fake bus receipts in a bid to make the shuttle trips appear legitimate.
The network then moved the migrants, most of them from Mexico and Central America, and some from as far away as China, to cities across the US, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
Criminal indictments handed down in the case charged defendants with federal crimes including money laundering, alien smuggling and conspiracy charges.
A conviction for conspiracy to transport illegal aliens carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Dennis Burke, US attorney for the District of Arizona, said cooperation between nine federal, state and local police agencies involved, as well as Mexican police, was “unprecedented.”
“There is ... a chain from [the] Arizona-Mexico border through Nogales to Phoenix and then branching out through the United States, today ... that chain is broken,” Burke said. “It will be extremely difficult to repair that chain, it is a missing link that greatly disrupts the infrastructure of human smuggling organizations.”
The US government is under pressure to crack down on cross-border crime in the desert state after a prominent rancher was shot dead by a suspected smuggler in southern Arizona late last month. The Arizona legislature in Phoenix voted through a measure this week giving local police the authority to determine whether people are in the country legally. The bill, widely seen as one of the toughest measures yet taken by a US state to crack down on illegal immigration, requires the signature of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to become law.