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3 charged with transporting & harboring 86 migrants

Federal agents arrested three men during a pair of raids in Phoenix last week, charging them with conspiracy to transport and harbor at least 86 people in the country illegally, officials announced Wednesday. 

Jesus Gabriel Villela-Duran, 28, and Eleazar Soto-Diaz, 34, were allegedly caretakers for two residences where special agents found 79 people in the country without authorization, said Yvette Cantu, a Justice Department spokeswoman. Salvador Lopez-Vargas, 36, was arrested when agents pulled over the minivan he was driving and found he had seven passengers, all in the country without authorization, according to court records.

All three men hailed from Mexico, and allegedly transported and harbored dozens in the Phoenix area, including people from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. 

They face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000, Cantu said.

While the arrests were in Phoenix, all three men will face prosecution at the U.S. District Courthouse in Tucson.

On June 30, special agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, prepared to execute search warrants at two residences in Phoenix. As part of this, they targeted and pulled over a red Honda Odyssey minivan driven by Lopez-Vargas, which was "identified as vehicle used in the smuggling organization," according to court records.

Along with his seven passengers, agents also found Lopez-Vargas had a Ruger .380 handgun in the van.

HSI agents executed search warrants at two residences, including a house in 3600 Block of W. Melvin Street in Phoenix, and at the Sundowner apartment complex about 4 miles northeast, and found 79 people—including 49 people in the 1,100-square foot home, and another 30 at the apartment.

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Among the 86 people, five men agreed to become material witnesses against the trio, telling special agents that Lopez-Vargas drove them around while Soto-Diaz managed the house and Villela-Duran worked at the apartment complex. 

Villella-Duran later told HSI agents he helped pick up people from the apartment complex, and watched over them until they traveled into the interior of the U.S., according to court records.

One man, Hector Tellaz-Paz, helped Soto-Diaz pick up supplies. Just before the raid, HSI agents said they watched Soto-Diaz leave the house with Tellez-Paz in a silver Expedition for a grocery run at Food City. When the men returned, HSI agents spoke to Tellez-Paz, and he said Soto-Diaz was in charge of the house, and later added that Lopez-Vargas drove him to the home. 

Also at the home was Azeglio Alexander Chuc-Quibaja. Originally from Guatemala, Chuc-Quibaja told HSI agents he made arrangements to come into the U.S., and owed $50,000 Quetzales, or about $6,500 dollars. Chuc-Quibaja told agents Soto-Diaz had a roster that he used to track migrants who were leaving the home for "the interior of the United States," according to court records. 

Meanwhile, Juan Carlos Rodiles-Mendez was among the people taken into custody at the apartment building. He told agents he agreed to pay $10,000 to be smuggled into the U.S. near Cananea, Sonora, Mexico.

Similarly, Alex Estuaro Jalal-Cabrerr, a citizen of Guatemala, was at the apartment complex and confirmed Villela-Duran was the manager. He told agents he would pay $13,500 for a chance to enter the U.S.

Federal officials credited the arrests to the efforts of Joint Task Force Alpha, which was created by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in June 2021 to "marshal the investigative and prosecutorial resources" of the Justice Department in partnership with Homeland Security to "enhance U.S. enforcement efforts against the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras."

The group has been assigned with focusing on "disrupting and dismantling" smuggling and trafficking networks, including those that abuse, exploit, or endanger migrants, pose national security threats, and are involved in organized crime.

JTFA includes federal prosecutors and attorneys from U.S. Attorneys in California, Arizona and Texas, as well as law enforcement agents and analysts from ICE, U.S. Border Patrol, as well as the FBI and DEA.

HSI's offices in Douglas, Sells and Phoenix were tasked with the investigation, along with agents from ICE's Enforcement and Removal Operations in Phoenix, as well as Border Patrol agents at the Brian A. Terry station in Naco, and the Casa Grande station. The United States Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, Tucson, is handling the prosecution, Cantu said.

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