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Travel agency workers in Arizona arrested in immigrant smuggling sting

March 30, 2007|From the Associated Press

PHOENIX — Fourteen travel agency owners or employees were indicted on human smuggling and other charges, accused of selling airline tickets they thought would be used by illegal immigrants, officials said Thursday.

The charges were connected only to the sale of tickets to undercover officers, but authorities said a records analysis showed that six travel agencies had sold tickets to an estimated 6,800 illegal immigrants since mid-2005.

The travel agency employees were working independently of one another when they sold the tickets, said Bart Graves, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

The undercover officers made it clear they were arranging travel for illegal immigrants and paid cash for dozens of one-way tickets across the nation, authorities said.

The travel agencies offered advice on being discreet at airports, they said.

"They were so blatant about it because they hadn't been touched," Phoenix police Lt. Vince Piano said. "They would say, 'OK, you need to dress them like this. You need to walk them in through this. Does he have an ID?' "

The travel agency workers were charged under state human smuggling laws because they were facilitating the human trafficking, authorities said. Some faced charges of money laundering, conspiracy, racketeering and participating in fraudulent schemes.

All 14 have been arrested, Graves said. It was unclear Thursday evening whether any remained in custody.

"I am speechless," said Carmen Cortez, 38, of Phoenix, who is charged with human smuggling and illegally conducting an enterprise. "That's all I have to say."

The tip that led to the investigation came from a money laundering case that tracked the wire transfers of suspected immigrant smuggling proceeds, state Atty. Gen. Terry Goddard said. The tip led police to a site where they found 30 illegal immigrants, plane tickets and itineraries.

Investigators found the names of travel agencies there, Goddard said.

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