- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010

PHOENIX (AP) | Federal agents on Thursday targeted more than 50 shuttle operators and smugglers accused of using the vans to transport thousands of illegal immigrants from spots near the Mexican border to Phoenix.

Investigators, who billed the raid as the largest human smuggling case in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s seven-year history, said the operators of four shuttle services in Tucson and a fifth in Phoenix created their businesses solely to help immigrant smugglers move their customers to Phoenix under a veil of legitimacy. The shuttle operators are accused of giving illegal immigrants fraudulent receipts and coaching them on what to say if the vans were pulled over by police.

“They are in knee-deep. They know exactly what’s going on,” said John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

Arrests were made in Phoenix, Tucson and two other Arizona towns along the border, Nogales and Rio Rico. Investigators also made arrests in Tennessee, and Mexican authorities detained people south of the border. More than 800 agents from nine law enforcement agencies were involved, authorities said. The number of arrests hasn’t yet been released.

In Phoenix, dozens of agents, some wearing black hoods over their faces, swarmed two shuttle business early Thursday in a strip mall in a heavily Latino neighborhood, just west of the state Capitol. They seized at least a dozen vans from shuttle companies, including new full-size vans emblazoned with the name of Sergio’s Shuttle and older full-sized and minivans from other companies.

Sergio’s Shuttle advertises van shuttle services from northern Mexico to cities in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

A phone call to the business was not answered Thursday morning.

In Nogales, a southern Arizona border town, witnesses told the Nogales International they saw helicopters and federal agents swarming sites downtown. They converged around 8 a.m. on the Union Transportes de Nogales, which houses several shuttle companies and a money-changing house.

Nearby, agents surrounded a duplex with a shuttle van parked in front.

The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson reported that agents raided three sites in the southern Arizona city, making two arrests and seizing seven vans.

Mr. Morton said investigators gathered evidence that will show the shuttle operators knew they were moving illegal immigrants, despite the claims of many in the past that they were performing a legitimate service.

Investigators say smugglers would guide immigrants from the Mexican border 65 miles north to Tucson so that they could walk around Border Patrol checkpoints. Once in Tucson, the immigrants would get into shuttle vans would take them to Phoenix via Interstate 10, a route that is patrolled by police but doesn’t have checkpoints.

Immigration agents said the five shuttle businesses didn’t perform legitimate transportation services, such as bringing customers to airports.

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