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Nogales man pleads guilty in human-smuggling probe

Gallegos admits to helping 'well over' 100 people cross border illegally

A 24-year-old man pleaded guilty Friday for his role in coordinating smuggling efforts in Nogales, Ariz., part of a years-long investigation launched by federal officials to clamp down on the movement of people across the Arizona-Mexico border.

In a federal court in Tucson, Nogales resident Benjamin Gallegos said that he conspired to transport and harbor people who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. Gallegos told U.S. Magistrate Judge Bruce G. Macdonald that he helped to manage and organize others to guide people through the desert and transport them to stash houses in Southern Arizona.

Over a few years, he helped coordinate smuggling efforts that moved "well over" 100 people across the border illegally.

Gallegos faces up to 10 years in prison, and a maximum fine of $250,000, or both, said Esther Winne, a spokeswoman for the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona.

Gallegos was set to go on trial in March, however, last month he agreed to plead guilty to the charges. In his plea agreement, Gallegos admitted that by May 12, 2021, he "managed, organized, and coordinated drivers, foot guides, and stash house operators on behalf of an alien smuggling organization operating in Nogales, Arizona area."

"I committed the offenses by hiring co-conspirators and coordinating smuggling events through phone calls, social media platforms, and in-person meetings," Gallegos said, according to court records. "During the course of the conspiracy, I managed and coordinated smuggling operations for well over 100" people, he said.

Gallegos was the target of an investigation led by Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that began in 2018.

In Nov. 2018, an undercover agent with HSI posed as smuggler, and began communicating with Gallegos, according to court records. Gallegos, the agent wrote, offered to pay  $200 per person if they were successfully to Tucson. The HSI agent wrote that Gallegos wrote that several people were awaiting transportation from a spot north of the checkpoint on Interstate 19. 

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The agent did not pick up that group, but instead communicated with Gallegos the next day, and Gallegos replied, asking if the agent was "ready to come to Nogi."

Gallegos gave the agent a location in Nogales, Ariz., and the agent went to the spot where he picked up two people — later identified in court records as Emilio Arevalo-Aguilar and Teodoro Milan-Martinez, both Mexican nationals. The undercover agent took the men to a spot in Rio Rico and dropped them off, per the instructions he was given by Gallegos.

After the agent dropped off the two men, HSI agents asked for help from U.S. Border Patrol agents, who went to the spot, and arrested the two men while they were hiding in the bushes near an intersection, according to court records. 

After that incident, HSI officials waited until May 12, 2021, to arrest Gallegos, taking him into custody so that he could face trial.

Last June, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland launched Joint Task Force Alpha, or JTFA, to "marshal the investigative and prosecutorial resources" of the Justice Department, and the Department of Homeland Security to target the "most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups" that operate in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, wrote Winne.

The task force, which includes U.S. Attorney’s Offices in Arizona, California, and Texas, will move to "disrupt and dismantle" smuggling and trafficking networks along the southwestern United States, targeting networks that "abuse, exploit, or endanger migrants" as part of larger criminal organizations, Winne wrote. This includes agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the FBI, and the DEA.

Harboring prosecutions declined during pandemic

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., immigration-related prosecutions have declined precipitously, owing to the pandemic's shift in migration, but also the Trump administration's use of Title 42—an order that allows CBP officials to immediately expel people if they've traveled through a country with significant COVID-19 cases—and the implementation of "Remain In Mexico," a policy that required migrants to stay in Mexico while their asylum cases move through the courts.

While both polices dramatically ramped up "encounters" between migrants and Border Patrol agents, this wasn't matched by increasing prosecutions under either administration.

As the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse—a non-partisan projected based at Syracuse University—found the number of immigration-related prosecutions "remains remarkably low." The number of migrants prosecuted for unlawful entry totaled just 267 cases from Oct 2020 to Sept. 2021—"far lower than any year going back to 1986 when comparable tracking began," said researchers at TRAC.

However, the "number of prosecutions each month for unlawful reentry bounced back slightly after the start of the pandemic but have also remained at consistently low levels," TRAC said, adding that harboring prosecutions "returned fairly quickly to numbers seen prior to the pandemic."

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"The data show few differences between the Trump and Biden administrations in terms of the number of these prosecutions," TRAC noted.

Under the Trump administration in March 2020, there were just 407 charges for harboring, which declined to just 92 cases the follow month. By September 2020, prosecutions rose to 395 cases, and climbed through April 2021 to 559 prosecutions—"well above the average of 510 prosecutions per month in the year prior to the start of the pandemic," TRAC said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A boy runs from Border Patrol agents in Nogales, Arizona in January 2017.

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