Skip to main content

An official website of the United States government

"Operation In Plain Sight" - Targeting Arizona Smuggling Organizations


In 2009 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) initiated an investigation targeting transportation companies involved in the illicit movement of recently smuggled noncitizens in the Phoenix and Tucson Arizona area. Dubbed "Operation In Plain Sight" because of the brazen nature of the transportation companies' activities, this investigation marks the most comprehensive human smuggling investigation in ICE history.

The enforcement action, involving more than 800 agents and officers from nine federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, was the culmination of a comprehensive year-long investigation that expanded beyond its initial focus on several Tucson-based shuttle companies. The bi-national investigation, which included unprecedented cooperation with Mexico's Secretaria Securidad Publica (SSP), ultimately implicated high-level members of human smuggling organizations in Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales and northern Mexico that were serviced by the shuttle businesses.

What the Investigation Revealed

  • Smuggled noncitizens were transported from the border to the various shuttle companies or drop houses in Tucson. Noncitizens were then staged at the shuttle businesses or at the drop houses, before being taken by the shuttle vans to various locations in Phoenix.
  • Noncitizens paid their smuggling fees, typically using wire transmitters like MoneyGram or Western Union, prior to departing Tucson or, in some cases, after arriving in Phoenix.
  • While most of the smuggled noncitizens identified during the investigation were from Mexico and Central America, others came from as far away as China.
  • The noncitizens' transportation beyond Tucson was handled by smuggling organizations in the Phoenix area. Besides operating drop houses, those services included arranging transportation for the noncitizens to their final destinations in the interior of the country.

The Results

  • The 47 suspects taken into custody during the operation include most of the 44 persons named in four separate criminal indictments handed down in the case. The indictments charge the defendants with a variety of federal violations, including money laundering, noncitizen smuggling and conspiracy.
  • Another seven individuals were arrested criminally based upon probable cause.
  • In addition to the criminal arrests, the indictments include a criminal forfeiture allegation valued at $10 million. ICE and the U.S. Attorney's office are seeking to seize assets - including real estate, vehicles and other property - that were derived from the criminal conspiracy.
  • During the operation, agents seized a total of seven weapons, including an AK-47 assault rifle, and more than 40 vehicles.

Latest Information (May 2012)

  • Surveillance operations from this investigation led to the identification of 137 drop houses.
  • HSI executed 32 federal search warrants throughout Arizona.
  • This investigation resulted in the criminal arrests of 62 subjects for noncitizen smuggling or associated crimes.
  • ICE made 531 administrative arrests; Law enforcement seized 15 weapons, 94 vehicles and more than $79,000 in U.S. currency.
  • To date, 50 defendants have pleaded guilty or have agreed to plead guilty in relation to their roles in this noncitizen smuggling scheme.
Updated: 09/17/2021