A state crime task force arrested owners and employees of six travel agencies, including ones in Mesa and Scottsdale, whose main source of business was booking flights for human smugglers and illegal immigrants, authorities said Thursday.
Lt. Vince Piano of the Phoenix Police Department said the yearlong investigation included undercover officers posing as human smugglers who purchased one-way airline tickets for fictitious illegal immigrants.
The officers told the travel agents the tickets were for smuggled illegal immigrants, and the agents even offered advice on how to avoid detection, Piano said.
“These travel agents wanted to capitalize on it because there was money to be made,” Piano said. “They were so blatant about it because they hadn’t been touched.”
Sixteen people were charged with various counts of human smuggling, fraud and conspiracy.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said the investigation was a spinoff from efforts by the Arizona Financial Crimes Task Force to seize money transferred through Western Union for human smuggling payments.
The investigation began in February 2006 when police raided a drop house in Phoenix filled with 30 illegal immigrants carrying airline tickets and travel itineraries.
Investigators found smugglers could walk into an agency, provide a list of names and then buy tickets and false identifications.
The agencies also would provide tickets to match names on ID cards brought in by the smugglers, investigators said.
They generally sold one-way tickets for cash for flights to Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport.
Authorities said they used Las Vegas because Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is too well policed against human smuggling.
Piano said agency employees and owners knew of each other and competed for the business.
Travel agencies allegedly involved in human smuggling:
• Marina Tours, 535 E. Southern Ave., Mesa, and 7035 S. Central Ave. Phoenix
• Toronto’s Travel, 7579 E. Main St., Scottsdale
• Acapulco Travel and Tour, 4344 W. Indian School Road, Phoenix
• Apricus Travel, 4041 E. Thomas Road, Phoenix
• Mundo Travel, 3620 E. Thomas Road, Phoenix
• Planet Travel, 5233 S. Central Ave., Phoenix