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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Human smugglers arrested in desert encounter

PHOENIX - Two suspected human smugglers are in custody following their arrest Thursday by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents assigned to the Illegal Immigration Prevention and Co-op Team (IIMPACT).

Agents developed information about smuggling activity in the Coyote Wash area near Tonopah, Ariz., and set up a surveillance program to identify suspicious activity. In the early afternoon, agents observed a red SUV exit the wash and proceed north on 355th Avenue. When the vehicle was stopped, nine people bailed out and fled into the surrounding desert. Moments later a green SUV approached the traffic stop location and attempted to make a U-turn. HSI agents were able to stop the vehicle and discovered 10 illegal aliens inside.

Due to extreme temperatures, agents quickly requested assistance from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) to locate the individuals who had fled into the desert. MCSO deployed a helicopter and additional deputies and successfully assisted IIMPACT with saving all of the aliens.

"The disruption of this human smuggling attempt highlights the success of cooperative law enforcement through programs like IIMPACT in Arizona," said Matt Allen, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Arizona. "When the enforcement action turned into a rescue operation, we appreciated the quick response from MCSO to ensure no lives were lost to the desert."

Two Mexican citizens, Carlos Perez-Lopez, 29, and Ricardo Mendoza-Gonzalez, 38, are both facing state human smuggling charges. A total of 17 illegal aliens from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico were turned over to ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations to be returned to their home countries.

IIMPACT is a multi-agency project designed to "deter, disrupt and dismantle violent criminal organizations profiting from human smuggling." In most IIMPACT cases, crimes of kidnapping, extortion, assault and human smuggling are prevalent. IIMPACT is comprised of investigators from the Phoenix Police Department, ICE HSI and the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS).