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Saturday, June 19, 2004

Eloy growing into migrant smuggling hub

Eloy growing into migrant smuggling hub
Eloy growing into migrant smuggling hub
Daniel González
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 19, 2004 12:00 AM


ELOY - Detective Frank Nolasco pulled his unmarked police cruiser off Arizona 84 and drove straight into the desert.

It was here that one of his fellow officers from the Eloy Police Department pursued a speeding van one Friday night last month and 30 possible undocumented immigrants piled out and escaped into the darkness.

All, that is, but one.



Eloy at a glance

Population in 2000: 10,375.

Latino: 7,717, or 74 percent.

African American: 552, or 5.3 percent.

Native American: 465, or 4.5 percent.

Anglo: 1,649, or 15.8 percent.

Median household income: $26,518.

Median age: 27.5 years.

High school graduates: 24 percent.

Bachelor's degrees: 2.7 percent.

Families living below poverty level: 27.9 percent.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000

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The dead man's body, clad only in socks and underwear, was found two days later floating down the Central Arizona Project Canal, which supplies irrigation water to the sprawling cotton fields that surround this dusty, windswept farming community halfway between Phoenix and Tucson.

Easing his cruiser off the highway, Nolasco still could see the van's tire tracks in the sand. At the foot of a steep, 15-foot berm, the tracks ended, and Nolasco climbed out of his car.

"One group ran that way into the desert," Nolasco said, pointing west. "The other group ran straight up the berm."

Hidden from view on the other side was the canal. In their haste to get away, the fleeing migrants most likely didn't know the canal was there when they stumbled up and over the berm. The officer didn't chase them. There were too many. Instead of a rescue crew, he called for a tow truck, unaware that at least one of the migrants had fallen into the deep fast-moving water.

"Look here," Nolasco said, after driving around the berm and pulling up alongside the canal. "You can see where he tried clawing his way out of the canal."

Sure enough, long marks still were visible in the brown algae where the migrant had tried to climb the slippery concrete sides before drowning.


Smuggling is up
Such migrant-related incidents are becoming more commonplace in Eloy, which is growing quickly into a key way station for smuggling organizations transporting undocumented immigrants from the U.S.-Mexican border into the interior of the United States, police and federal immigration officials say.

On Wednesday, U.S. Border Patrol agents rescued 14 undocumented immigrants, one of whom later died, in a remote desert area about 15 miles west of Eloy near Arizona City. Border Patrol agents believe the group had walked 60 miles after crossing the border illegally and their smuggling guide was probably trying to get them to a highway to meet another smuggler with transportation.

"We see them out here a lot," said Albert Ruiz, 17, who lives near where the migrants were found. "A lot of them say, 'Where's Eloy? Where's Phoenix'?' " To be sure, undocumented immigrants for years have been part of the fabric of this largely Hispanic farming community, providing much of the labor that picks cotton.

Lately, police say, they have seen a sharp increase in smuggling activity, which they attribute to tighter enforcement at the border and in Phoenix. The crackdown has forced smuggling organizations to seek new routes for transporting undocumented immigrants through Arizona, the nation's main gateway for illegal immigration, they say.

"It's here. There is no doubt about it. It's a concern," said Nolasco, 51, a native of Eloy and a 13-year police veteran.

Located near the crossroads of Interstates 10 and 8 about 65 miles south of Phoenix, "Eloy is one of the first landing points for commodities coming across the border," including narcotics and undocumented immigrants, said Roger Applegate, an agent based in Sells with the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He oversees immigration enforcement in the Eloy area.


Operation ICE Storm
A crackdown during the past nine months in Phoenix under Operation ICE Storm has created a "bottleneck," Applegate said, forcing smuggling organizations to hold undocumented immigrants for longer periods of time in other parts of the state.

Operation ICE Storm is the federal government's collaborative effort to dismantle smuggling organizations and smuggling-related violence.

Compared with Florence and Casa Grande, two neighboring communities to the north, "Eloy is kind of unique because it's a little bit isolated," Applegate added.

He pointed out that the Border Patrol has a substation in Casa Grande and a large presence in Florence, home to a large federally run detention center for undocumented immigrants waiting to be deported.


Drop houses found
Cruising through the city's streets one morning last week, Nolasco pointed out more than half a dozen buildings where police have called in the Border Patrol during the past several months after discovering groups of undocumented immigrants being warehoused by smugglers waiting for the right moment to move them north.

For instance:

• On Second Place, Nolasco slowed his cruiser outside a housing project where police in April found 30 undocumented immigrants.

• On Mojave Circle, Nolasco pulled up in front of a blue two-room trailer where police recently found 60 more migrants.

• On Phoenix Avenue, Nolasco stopped in front of a house that police are monitoring and believe still is being used by smugglers to harbor migrants. A year ago, a neighbor called to report suspicious activity and police found a van pulling out loaded with undocumented immigrants, Nolasco said.

• On Ninth Street, Nolasco turned into an alley and drove behind a house with a wooden fence and double gates. Two months ago, police acting on a tip found 12 migrants hidden in a sunken room behind the house, Nolasco said.

• On March 24, police also found a body in a park right across from the police station that turned out to be that of an undocumented immigrant, Nolasco said. The dead man was hanging by the neck, his head twisted through the metal bars of a gazebo. Police believe he crossed the border a few days earlier: His arms and legs were covered with scratches from walking through mesquite bushes in the desert, Nolasco said. Some residents believe the man was killed, perhaps by smugglers, but police are calling the death a suicide.

"There is no indication to show he was a victim of a homicide," Nolasco said.


Image tarnished
Byron Jackson, who was sworn in as Eloy's mayor on June 7 after serving eight years on the City Council, finds the increase in smuggling activity troubling.

With speculators buying up farmland and new houses going up on the edge of the city, the economically depressed community is poised to undergo a boom. Still, Jackson worries the increase in smuggling activity could tarnish the city's image.

"I definitely don't want Eloy looked upon this way," said Jackson, who owns a landscaping maintenance business.

The city's Police Department is relatively powerless to combat the growing smuggling trade, Jackson said, because immigration enforcement is the federal government's responsibility, "plus we are a small town with limited resources."


Disappear easily
Of the city's 10,375 residents, 74 percent are Hispanic, according to the 2000 census, with newly arrived immigrants often living side by side with U.S.-born Latinos. Which means, Jackson said, "You can disappear real easy here. You can blend in."

"Then there is the profiling issue. We definitely don't want to follow the likes of the city of Chandler," said Jackson, referring to the 1997 Chandler "roundup," in which, in an effort to arrest undocumented immigrants, police joined forces with U.S. Border Patrol agents and demanded that many native-born and naturalized Latinos produce proof of citizenship.

The five-day roundup sparked several protests and spawned two lawsuits against Chandler.

Other residents say Eloy has a long tradition of welcoming Mexican immigrants to work on farms, and many residents here sympathize with the migrants and resent being stopped by the Border Patrol.

"I've never met anyone who said, 'Oh, wow. It's about time the Border Patrol got here,' " said Manuel Alfonso Gallegos, 22, whose family owns a small general store on Main Street in downtown Eloy that caters to Mexican immigrants.

Like other residents, Gallegos said he has noticed an increase in Border Patrol agents in recent months. It bothers him to see them arresting undocumented immigrants who he says are doing work others won't do.

"I'm not going to go out there in the fields and pick that cotton," Gallegos said. "If they (the Border Patrol) take all those people away, then it's us that are going to have to be out there picking cotton and watermelons."

Meanwhile, the migrant who drowned in the canal still hadn't been identified as of Friday. His 5-foot-5, 142-pound body was taken to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Tucson.

Reach the reporter at (602) 444-8312

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