An AK-47-toting man smuggling illegal immigrants opened fire on ICE agents in Phoenix last week, sparking a shootout that left another member of his smuggling gang dead, according to court documents detailing the latest episode in what authorities say is growing violence in the illegal immigrant economy.
The incident has drawn scant national attention, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and federal prosecutors have been tight with details, saying the April 11 shootout is still under investigation.
But the picture that emerges from the court documents is of an abusive immigration-smuggling gang running a stash house on an Indian reservation that spans the border, preying off the misery of migrants whom they kidnapped and extorted for money before delivering to their destinations.
Authorities were tipped to the gang when one of the migrants, who’d wasn’t a client but whom the gang kidnapped just after he snuck across the border, managed to escape through a window and flagged down a police officer.
As agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations worked to roll up the smuggling ring, they encountered some of its members apparently making a run to California carrying two illegal immigrant customers.
When agents tried to make a traffic stop on the gang’s Chevrolet Trailblazer the SUV sped off, plowing through other cars and smashing one ICE vehicle into a wall, according to the court documents.
Eventually the SUV spun out of control and agents closed in, which is when they say Warren Jose, one of the smugglers, grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle and began spraying the HSI agents’ vehicles with gunfire.
The agents returned fire and the SUV’s driver was slain, agents said.
Four agents were taken to the hospital for medical evaluation. An ICE spokeswoman said Wednesday the four were treated for non-life threatening injuries and released.
“It’s a violent game right now because there’s a lot of money wrapped up in this,” said former acting ICE Director Tom Homan. “I think we’ll see an escalation in the violence.”
He said the mix of the surge of illegal immigrants, the involvement of the Mexican cartels and the large sums paid — or able to be extorted — for smuggling have fueled the violence.
Mexicans regularly pay fees of $10,000 to be smuggled across, while those from Central America can pay more. Brazilians can pay $20,000, while Chinese migrants are known to pay $70,000 or more to be smuggled over to Mexico and across the border.
The surge of cash and the cat-and-mouse game between U.S. authorities and the smugglers has in some ways cheapened the value of life.
Other border incidents this month alone include a minivan that tried to elude Border Patrol agents in New Mexico on April 6, swerved to miss a tire deflation device and lost control, ejecting two of the 10 migrants being smuggled. Both of them died.
A day earlier in Texas agents tried to stop a GMC pickup, again using a tire deflation device. That truck was brought to a stop and most of the migrants bailed, but agents found one person unresponsive. He later died at a local hospital.
Earlier this week agents startled a smuggler making a pickup of migrants in California. The vehicle sped off, dragging one of the migrants for more than 30 feet.
Stash house operators and drivers who carry illegal immigrants through border checkpoints stand to make some serious cash for their efforts.
Fees of $1,000 per illegal immigrant are common for drivers, so someone willing to pile five people into a car’s trunk and back seat can walk away with $5,000 for several hours’ work. And prosecution decisions are uneven at best, meaning some perpetrators are given a pass their first or even second time they’re caught.
In the Arizona smuggling ring from last week’s shootout, authorities have lodged smuggling charges against four people: Johnson Ortiz, Regina Ramon, Valentina Valenzuela and Mr. Jose, the man accused of doing the shooting. As of Wednesday morning, no charges stemming from the shooting had been filed.
Mr. Morales, the illegal immigrant whose story unraveled the smuggling ring, said he climbed the border fence the night of March 17 and was pointed north by his foot guide, who told him to walk until he got to Sells, a town XX miles north of the border, where he should turn himself in to authorities.
That’s become a popular move for many migrants who sneak into the U.S. then find Border Patrol agents and demand asylum, counting on the lengthy legal delays to give them a chance to disappear into the shadows as illegal immigrants.
In Mr. Morales’s case, he had the misfortune to be spotted by Mr. Jose, who was driving along the same route on Highway 86. Mr. Jose offered to take the illegal immigrant to the hospital, but once he was inside the car Mr. Jose took him to the stash house instead, according to court documents.
At the stash house, Mr. Morales says he was threatened at knife-point, relieved of his phone and wallet and told he would be held for ransom until someone was willing to pay for his release. He was told he would be killed if he tried to flee.
On March 20 the illegal immigrant managed to climb out a window and abscond, flagging down a tribal police officer and finally getting to a hospital to be treated for dehydration and his blistered feet.
HSI agents then worked to wrap up the gang, finding five adult illegal immigrants and one Unaccompanied Alien Child (UAC) still at the stash house. Agents on March 21 charged Mr. Ortiz and Ms. Ramon with running operating the stash house, then last week charged Mr. Jose with smuggling Mr. Morales.
Two days later, on April 11, agents spotted Mr. Jose in the Trailblazer SUV driving near Phoenix. They tried to pull the SUV over, sparking the attempted getaway and shootout.
ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said Phoenix police are conducting a homicide and attempted investigation, while federal authorities are conducting a human smuggling investigation.
Phoenix police this week revealed the identity of 29-year-old Theresa Medina Thomas, the driver of the SUV who was slain.
Thomas had her own long history with smuggling and drug offenses, including being busted by Border Patrol agents just after Christmas in 2017 for smuggling two illegal immigrants on the Tohono O’odham reservation.
She pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March 2018 to five months in prison and three years’ probation for that crime.