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Mexican woman sentenced to 21 months for role in Arizona human-smuggling ring

A Mexican woman was sentenced to 21 months in prison after she pleaded guilty in federal court to conspiring to transport and harbor at least 100 people in the country without authorization, authorities said.

Amalia Gonzalez-Lara, 43, of Oaxaca, Mexico, admitted to being part of a smuggling organization that transported people from Nogales, Ariz., to a home in the Phoenix area as part of a plea agreement in October. A month later, in November, she pleaded guilty to conspiracy and harboring during a hearing, and was sentenced in federal court in Tucson by U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins.

Gonzalez-Lara said she helped managed, supervise, and coordinate smuggling operations for a stash house located in Avondale, Ariz., along with Sergio Vazquez-Flores, 46, who worked as a caretaker at the home.

Gonzalez-Lara faces three months probation, said Esther Winne, a spokeswoman for the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona.

Agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement led the investigation agents. On Jan. 12, 2021, HSI agents based in Nogales began tracking a black Chevy Equinox they believed was linked to smuggling people into the U.S. illegally. Agents spotted the vehicle in Green Valley, and followed it to Tolleson, Ariz. where the driver parked at a Love's Truck Stop, according to court records.

As HSI agents watched, a gray Honda Pilot driven by Vazquez-Flores, parked next to the Equinox, and two men got out of the vehicle and jumped into the Pilot. Vasquez-Flores then drove away, heading toward a house in Avondale, Arizona. HSI agents followed the vehicle to the home.

The HSI agents closed in, and saw the two men in the vehicle, arresting both men. The agents also arrested Vazquez-Flores, and he later told them he was part of a smuggling organization that arranged to have people transported out of Arizona to destinations in California, Texas, New York, Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, and Washington.

The agents asked for, and were granted permission to search the home, according to court records, and they found 18 people inside—all in the country without authorization, and hailing from Mexico and Guatemala. The men told HSI agents that they paid $3,000 to $10,000 to be smuggled through Nogales. The migrants also told agents that once they arrived at the house Vazquez-Flores took possession of their phones.

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Along with bulk food and household items, the agents also found cash, ledgers, as well as dozens of cellphones.

According to court records, Vazquez-Flores told agents that he served as the caretaker of the stash-house for several months, and received around $600 week to manage the effort. The people inside also told agents that Vazquez-Flores took possession of their phones after they arrived.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection — Border Patrol's parent agency — said that border officials "encountered" more than 1.7 million people during the fiscal year of 2021, and that as many as 34 percent of those encounters involved people who had crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at least once before.

CBP said that Title 42—a public health order that allows agents to immediately expel people if they've traveled through a country with significant COVID-19 infections— contributed to this, noting that "since CBP began expelling non-citizens under the CDC’s Title 42 public health order to limit the spread of COVID-19, the repeat encounter rate jumped to more than one in three encounters, including almost half of single adult encounters."

In previous years, the repeat encounter rate was around 1 in 8.

"Thus, while total enforcement encounters increased 82 percent between 2019 (the last pre-pandemic year) and 2021, the number of unique individuals encountered at the border increased 30 percent," CBP said.

Both Gonzalez-Lara and Vazquez-Flores are originally from Mexico, and had been deported from the U.S. Gonzalez-Lara was deported in December 2012 through Nogales, while Vazquez-Flores was born was deported from the U.S. in September 2019 through Brownsville, Texas, according to court records.

Vazquez-Flores will be sentenced on March 15, 2022.

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.

The Task Force focuses on disrupting and dismantling smuggling and trafficking networks that abuse, exploit, or endanger migrants, pose national security threats, and are involved in organized crime. JTFA consists of federal prosecutors and attorneys from U.S. Attorney’s Offices along the Southwest Border (District of Arizona, Southern District of California, Southern District of Texas, and Western District of Texas), from the Criminal Division and the Civil Rights Division, along with law enforcement agents and analysts from DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection. The FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration are also part of the Task Force.

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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.

HSI's Nogales office, with assistance from United States Border Patrol, conducted the investigation in this case, Winne said. The United States Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, Tucson, handled the prosecution.

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."

"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

HSI agents during a raid at in Nogales, Ariz. in 2018.