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Join Date: Jan 2001
Location: Owyhee County, Idaho
Travel agents nabbed for Illegal smuggling
Major human smuggling operation broken up
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 29, 2007 06:04 PM
Fourteen Valley travel agency owners and employees are under indictment for selling airline tickets to fly undocumented immigrants across the country in what prosecutors say is "one of the largest human smuggling operations in the state's history."
According to the state Attorney General's Office, workers at six travel businesses were caught in a sting by undercover officers who posed as smugglers while buying $30,000 worth of airline tickets during the past year.
Investigators claim the agencies arranged air travel for 6,800 undocumented immigrants since August 2005, grossing nearly $2 million.
"This case underscores our increased commitment to investigate and prosecute human smuggling in Arizona," said Attorney General Terry Goddard.
The probe was initiated by a state Financial Crimes Task Force which has spent several years investigating smuggling organizations by tracking Western Union money shipments sent to Arizona drop houses for the payment of coyote fees, which now run about $2,000 per immigrant.
During raids at Phoenix drop houses, investigators repeatedly discovered airline tickets and itineraries supplied by a handful of local travel agencies. That information was used to launch the probe with help from several airlines and the Airlines Reporting Corporation, which monitors the industry's financial services and data products.
Phoenix police Lt. Vince Piano said targeted travel agencies appear to do most of their business with coyotes, and employees were brazen when approached by undercover detectives. He said investigators identified themselves as smugglers, saying, "I just brought 'em across the border. We walked through the mountains and then came to town. What do we need to do (for airline tickets)."
Piano said those indicted often gave detailed explanations on how to obtain phony identification, what the immigrants should wear and how they should behave at the airport.
Defendants face charges that include human smuggling, money laundering, conspiracy, racketeering and other felonies.
Piano said the state also is moving to seize at least some of the travel agencies under racketeering laws. Businesses identified in the indictment are: Acapulco Travel and Tour, Apricus Travel, Marina Tours, Mundo Travel and Planet Travel, all of Phoenix; and Toronto's Travel of Scottsdale.
Those indicted are: Nicholas Toronto, 44, Scottsdale; Antonio Verbera, 54, and Irma A. Palacios, 43, both of Mesa; Martina L. Wittmann, 45, Chandler; Edwin Castro, 42, Avondale; and Phoenix residents Matthew D. Landavazo, 45, Rosalba Pacheco, 39, Angelica Rivas, 30, Carmen Cortez, 38, Rafael C. Ramirez, 50, Angel S. Pavlevski, 34, Kostadin Kostadinov, 26, Zuli J. Ordonez Pena, 21, and Elizabeth Navarrette, 20.
Two other suspects were indicted for operating drop houses, but their names have not been released.
All of the airline tickets were for one-way air flights out of McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, which is described as a key departure location for undocumented immigrants because enforcement is "known to be less rigorous than Sky Harbor (International) Airport."
Virginia Kice, a regional spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said immigrant smugglers are constantly seeking to vulnerabilities in travel security. However, she added, McCarran is not being overlooked by federal authorities: "Border Patrol has done operations there. ICE has done operations there."
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