Immigrant smuggler toting AK-47 set off ICE shootout
An AK-47-toting man smuggling illegal immigrants opened fire on ICE agents in Phoenix this month, sparking a shootout that left a member of his smuggling gang dead, according to court documents detailing the latest episode in what authorities say is growing violence in the illegal immigrant economy.
The incident has drawn scant national attention, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and federal prosecutors have been tight with details, saying the April 11 shootout is under investigation.
But the picture that emerges from the court documents is of an abusive immigration smuggling gang running a stash house on an American Indian reservation that spans the southwestern border, preying off the misery of migrants whom they kidnapped and extorted for money before delivering them to their destinations.
Authorities were tipped to the gang when one of the migrants, who wasn’t a client but whom the gang kidnapped just after he sneaked across the border, managed to escape through a window and flag down a police officer.
As agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations worked to roll up the smuggling ring, they encountered some of its members apparently making a run to California carrying two illegal immigrant customers.
When agents tried to make a traffic stop on the gang’s Chevrolet Trailblazer, the SUV sped off, plowed through traffic and smashed one ICE vehicle into a wall, according to the court documents.
The SUV eventually spun out of control, and agents closed in. They say that was when Warren Jose, one of the smugglers, grabbed an AK-47 assault rifle and began spraying the Homeland Security Investigations agents’ vehicles with gunfire. The agents returned fire and the SUV’s driver was killed, agents said.
Four agents were taken to a hospital for medical evaluation. An ICE spokeswoman said Wednesday that the four were treated for non-life-threatening injuries and released.
“It’s a violent game right now because there’s a lot of money wrapped up in this,” said former acting ICE Director Tom Homan. “I think we’ll see an escalation in the violence.”
He said the mix of the surge of illegal immigrants, the involvement of the Mexican cartels and the large sums paid — or able to be extorted — for smuggling have fueled the violence.
Mexicans regularly pay fees of $10,000 to be smuggled across the border, but those from Central America can pay more. Brazilians can pay $20,000, and Chinese migrants are known to pay $70,000 or more to be smuggled to Mexico and across the border.
Other border incidents this month alone include a minivan that tried to elude Border Patrol agents in New Mexico on April 6, swerved to miss a tire deflation device and lost control, ejecting two of the 10 migrants being smuggled. Both of them died.
A day earlier in Texas, agents tried to stop a GMC pickup, again using a tire deflation device. That truck was brought to a stop and most of the migrants fled, but agents found one person unresponsive. He later died at a hospital.
Earlier last week, agents startled a smuggler making a pickup of migrants in California. The vehicle sped off and dragged one of the migrants more than 30 feet.
Stash house operators and drivers who carry illegal immigrants through border checkpoints stand to make serious cash for their efforts.
Fees of $1,000 per illegal immigrant are common for drivers, so someone willing to pile five people into a car’s trunk and back seat can walk away with $5,000 for several hours’ work. Prosecution decisions are uneven at best, meaning some perpetrators are given a pass the first or even second time they are caught.
In the Arizona smuggling ring from last week’s shootout, authorities have lodged smuggling charges against four people: Johnson Ortiz, Regina Ramon, Valentina Valenzuela, 23, and Mr. Jose, the 35-year-old man accused of doing the shooting. As of Wednesday morning, no charges stemming from the shooting had been filed.
Mr. Morales, the illegal immigrant whose story unraveled the smuggling ring, said he climbed the border fence the night of March 17 and was pointed north by his foot guide, who told him to walk until he got to Sells, a town about 30 miles north of the border, where he should turn himself in to authorities.
That has become a popular move for many migrants sneaking into the U.S. They find Border Patrol agents and demand asylum, counting on lengthy legal delays to give them a chance to disappear into the shadows as illegal immigrants.