by JJ Hensley - May. 25, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Three Maricopa County sheriff's employees, including a deputy in the human-smuggling unit, were arrested Tuesday by authorities who say they were involved in a drug- and human-trafficking ring and used Sheriff's Office intelligence to guide smugglers through the Valley.
Deputy Alfredo Navarrette, 37, has worked with the Sheriff's Office for nearly a decade, serving in a special unit designed to target human smugglers moving through Maricopa County. But investigators believe Navarrette was himself involved in human smuggling. Investigators found two undocumented immigrants in Navarrette's home when he was arrested early Tuesday morning in a sweep that concluded a yearlong investigation.
"The fight against drugs, illegal immigration and human trafficking is important not only to me but the citizens of Arizona," Sheriff Joe Arpaio said. "That a deputy sheriff would provide information and associate with these drug and human traffickers is despicable."
Investigators from a multijurisdiction drug task force also arrested two sheriff's detention officers, Sylvia Najera, 25, and Marcella Hernandez, 28. They are accused of laundering money and moving drugs for a Valley-based drug-trafficking organization with ties to Mexico.
Arpaio said Hernandez is eight months' pregnant with the child of another suspect arrested Tuesday, Francisco "Lorenzo" Arce-Torres, who is described in court records as a member of the Sinaloa drug cartel and the leader of the Phoenix-based drug-trafficking organization at the heart of the probe.
Court records indicate Hernandez had $20,000 cash on her when she and Najera were arrested Tuesday morning on their way to work at the Lower Buckeye Jail.
12 suspects held
The sheriff's employees were among 12 suspects arrested Tuesday during a series of early-morning raids at 16 locations throughout the Valley where investigators had targeted members of the organization.
The group mostly moved heroin, according to investigators, and officials suspect each of the arrested sheriff's employees played a crucial role in moving the drugs and hiding the illicit profits. Authorities say the ring moved about $56,000 worth of heroin a week through the Valley.
Arce-Torres, who authorities say was the ringleader, arranged for heroin to be brought into the Valley after his brothers produced the drug on the family's ranch in Mexico, according to Superior Court and Justice Court documents filed Tuesday.
Once the drugs arrived in Arizona, they were shipped to two houses in the West Valley, where the heroin was diluted to create more product, investigators said in the court documents.
Hernandez's brother, Duran Joseph Alcantar, who was also among those arrested, is suspected of operating one of the stash houses, and investigators believe Hernandez coordinated the pickup and delivery of heroin from the drug houses.
Investigators say they believe Navarrette helped the ring by fortifying Arce-Torres' home with surveillance cameras, registering drug-courier vehicles in his name and laundering money.
Navarrette and Najera, the other arrested detention officer, helped set up a shell corporation called West Utilities Group Inc., which was used earlier this month to launder nearly $50,000 in drug proceeds, according to court documents.
Najera's name appears on West Utilities Group's corporation filings in Arizona, along with that of a Phoenix construction company owner who was arrested on suspicion of laundering money for the organization.
Investigators believe that, in addition to laundering money and doing other chores for the ring, Navarrette himself was smuggling humans.
"Navarrette assists this (human smuggling) organization by operating a drophouse and on at least five occasions transported illegal aliens from Arizona to California for the organization," records state.
A tip about the ring came into the sheriff's special-investigations unit almost a year ago, and the investigation moved slowly at the outset, according to sheriff's officials.
Navarrette remained on patrol duty until he was moved to the sheriff's training facility a couple of months ago for a violation of office policy that was unrelated to his suspected role in the trafficking ring.
Sheriff's officials said the probe was unique and had to be handled delicately because of the serious criminal allegations against law-enforcement employees. That meant that transferring one of the suspects to another role within the office, or even pulling personnel files, could have been enough to tip off friends that something was afoot and risk spoiling the investigation.
Navarrette had the most opportunity to gather information and influence investigations because of his work on the streets. Even he could not be moved out of his role in the human-smuggling unit, however, until supervisors found a violation of office policy that gave them reason to move him without compromising the probe.
"There was not enough to take any action against him, either, until very recently," said Deputy Chief Brian Sands, who oversees the human-smuggling group.
Navarrette has been with the Sheriff's Office since 2001 and worked in a variety of roles, including patrol and court services, in addition to his role with the human-smuggling unit.
Rosters for the unit indicate that Navarrette was a member from the earliest days of the sheriff's controversial "crime-suppression operations," when deputies and posse members flood a region of the Valley looking for minor traffic violations and potential immigration offenses.
Arpaio said he believed Navarrette used information from those operations and his position in law enforcement to help coordinate the movement of contraband through the Valley.
"He repeatedly supplied details about the illegal-immigration crime-suppression operation to leaders of the drug-trafficking organization," Arpaio said. "This action placed numerous deputies, reserves and posse volunteers in harm's way while they were volunteering and conducting operations."
Arpaio could not say when Navarrette last worked on a crime-suppression operation with the human-smuggling unit.
The investigation went public when search warrants were served and a series of arrests were made Tuesday. But officials say the probe could last for months and target other suspects.
A few additional sheriff's employees were being interviewed Tuesday night, Arpaio said, to determine what they may know of the suspects' activities in the Sheriff's Office. "Doesn't mean they're guilty of anything," Arpaio added.
Investigators are also trying to determine the extent of the ties between the suspects and members of multinational drug-trafficking organizations operating in Arizona.
Navarrette was booked into the Fourth Avenue Jail on suspicion of 19 violations including conspiracy, money laundering and human smuggling. He was being held on a $1 million cash bond.
Hernandez, booked on suspicion of committing 11 violations, including conspiracy, drug crimes and money laundering, was placed under a $2 million cash bond at a Tuesday court appearance. The reasoning for the $1 million bond disparity was laid out in court documents for Hernandez, who just returned from a trip to San Luis, Mexico, with Arce-Torres, suspected of being the ringleader.
"Hernandez has said that she, Torres and co-conspirator Navarrette have talked about leaving the U.S. and living on one of Torres' ranches in Mexico," the documents state.
Najera was in custody Tuesday and faced money-laundering and other charges.