Drop Houses

More from this show

Find out about a project to arrest illegal aliens in drop houses. Lt. Robert Smart of the Arizona Department of Public Safety will talk about the effort.

Ted Simons: Fewer drop houses are being found in the valley. Local law enforcement busted 144 drop houses so far in a fiscal year that ends this month. That compares to 186 at the same time last year. Those are the latest reports. And instead of finding up to 60 illegal aliens crammed into a drop house, only 15 to 20 are now being found by authorities. "Project Impact" is the name of a special team developed to bust drop houses. "Impact" stands for illegal immigration prevention and apprehension co-op team. It is headed by the Arizona Department of Public Safety and includes officers from the Phoenix Police Department, immigration and customs enforcement and the Arizona Fraudulent Identification Taskforce. Here to talk about drop houses is Lieutenant Robert Smart, commander of "Project Impact." Good to have you on the program.

Lt. Robert Smart: Nice to be here. Thanks.

Ted Simons: I talked a little bit about what impact is, Flesh that out a little further for us.

Lt. Robert Smart: You did leave out Phoenix P.D., they are a vital component, as are the other two agenices. IIMPACT is comprised of DPS, ICE agents, and Phoenix P.D. detectives. And was formed as a request from the governor, then Napolitano governor, back in 2006. Which revitalized get 'em, Our gang intelligence team enforcement mission into the gang immigration enforcement mission. The project was placed under get 'em and we were to provide a mechanism to fight it in the greater Phoenix area.

Ted Simons: Phoenix Police Department included, but I'm not hearing other cities included in there. Why not?

Lt. Robert Smart: The original design was to target where the investigations were most prominent and that was in the city of Phoenix and we wanted the federal component in ICE to assist us with the investigative techniques and bringing their federal expertise to the table.

Ted Simons: What's different about the way it goes about its business as opposed to other law enforcement agencies and other units and programs?

Lt. Robert Smart: We have a specific mission. And that is to apply innovative and strategic investigative methods to deter, disrupt, and dismantle violent criminal organizations involved in human smuggling--for IIMPACT to get involved we only target the worst of the worst and there has to be a violent nexus. What I mean by that, some drop houses, people go and they're treated fairly and fed. They're not abused or assaulted and then they go to different locations throughout the nation. We target the ones that are being extorted and kidnapped and assaulted, and other crimes against them, being held against their will. We have to have the violence mechanism and the human smuggling for impact to get involved.

Ted Simons: I can hear critics -- those are drop houses, that's illegal activity there, why not target them as well?

Lt. Robert Smart: We have a mechanism. Immigrations, customs and enforcement, they're the primary for those investigations in Phoenix and as they partner with us, it's the best of both worlds. When it doesn't meet our criteria, it will go to ICE and they'll investigate and some local agencies will also investigate it.

Ted Simons: How were drop houses dealt with before project impact?

Lt. Robert Smart: Each city that had a drop house or violence in a drop house would take on the responsibility of using their resources and investigative tools to do that. And as you know, ICE has been here for quite a while in Phoenix and ICE has been the predominant investigative source to investigate drop houses, violent or non-violent, prior to impact coming into play in late 2007.

Ted Simons: News reports say there are fewer drop houses being found out there, but it sounds as though your unit is pretty much on a par with last year. Compare and contrast with last year.

Lt. Robert Smart: Many different reporting sources but for impact, we're close to last year's statistics. 2008, which we'll say calendar year statistics, we investigated 49 and had 43 open investigations and arrested 168 felony suspects, which is outstanding work by all of the investigators. For this year, 2009 calendar year, we have 32 open investigation and has investigated 39 drop houses and contacted 514 people and arrested 140 felony suspects, so when you compare the numbers, we're really close to last year's. So we're not really seeing a significant decline in what we're doing. So other areas might show a decline, but IIMPACT is staying quite busy.

Ted Simons: 168 arrests, 140 arrests -- whatever the number might be -- how many prosecutions?

Lt. Robert Smart: I'm proud to say Impact holds 100% prosecution rate. We've never lost any case we've submitted to the county attorney and had excellent support from the Maricopa County attorney's office in prosecuting these cases. And you have to remembers these are involved cases and we're arresting people for kidnapping, extortion, aggravated assault, sexual assault. Many times some of the women have been raped during their stay and with the county attorney really taking an aggressive stance also toward illegal immigration, our partnership has shown incredible sentencing and 100% prosecution rate.

Ted Simons: There are stories -- we talked earlier before the program -- where you've got bad guys bringing in people and then having those people taken by other bad guys. Talk to us about this. It's crazy.

Lt. Robert Smart: It's crazy. Just recently we had one of these cases and there was a group out there that had been identified as Bajadores, a violent crew that travel around and their job is not only do they commit home invasions for narcotics and other things, but they also steal other Coyotes' immigrant loads, at gunpoint. IIMPACT investigated a case within the last three weeks in which they had come in earlier and stolen a whole load of undocumented immigrants and we ended up locating the residents, where they were taken, and we effected arrest and then one of the victims took us back to the house he was taken in at gunpoint just that morning and when we did a search warrant there were half eaten food bowls and burning candles. People left in a hurry. It's crazy out there and I think they're doing it because it's big money. And crime has a money nexus to it and there's profit in smuggling human beings. That's the plain truth.

Ted Simons: How do we keep hearing 20, 30, 40 people in a house? Found. Neighbors -- I had no idea it was going on. How can that be? How can there be 50 people in a house and the neighbors don't know what's going on?

Lt. Robert Smart: Phoenix, Arizona, in the summertime. 116 degrees. People aren't playing in their front yards and quite frankly, during our cases I'll canvas the neighbors and ask those questions and my response -- the responses I get are quite staggering. The reality is people don't care who is next to them. They don't pay attention, in most parts. You've got a lot of cohesive neighborhoods out there. I don't want to go against them. But a lot of these drop houses conduct business 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Garage door goes up, a van pulls in. Heads pop up and they bail out and they're taken at gunshot or on their own accord to staging areas in the house before they go. I think a lot of neighborhood groups are doing what they can. My advice to neighborhoods is get to know who is next to you, on either side. Who is across the street and down the street, and I think if we had more community support I think all law enforcement and the immigration fight would be fought a little more successfully within Phoenix.

Ted Simons: Last question. With your efforts, employer sanctions laws and with the economy the way it is, are we seeing fewer people coming through Phoenix illegally?

Lt. Robert Smart: I don't see that. Now, other numbers could show that. In fact, one of our cases recently we interviewed some of the victims and they said, quote, they're stacking up at the border to come over here. And they keep hearing about the amnesty bill, if we pass that, they want to be in the country when that happens, so they get to stay in the country. That's the mentality down in Mexico. The American dream is still alive in Mexico. They want to come here. And living in Mexico and dealing with their economy is much worse than ours, as much as it's declined. In Phoenix, it's still a good economy in their eyes.

Ted Simons: Thanks for joining us.

Lt. Robert Smart: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.

Lt. Robert Smart:Arizona Department of Public Safety;

Illustration of columns of a capitol building with text reading: Arizona PBS AZ Votes 2024

Arizona PBS presents candidate debates

An armed forces bugler playing the trumpet in front of the United States Capitol building.
airs May 26

National Memorial Day Concert 2024

Graphic for the AZPBS kids LEARN! Writing Contest with a child sitting in a chair writing on a table and text reading: The Ultimate Field Trip
May 26

Submit your entry for the 2024 Writing Contest

Rachel Khong
May 29

Join us for PBS Books Readers Club!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch
with azpbs.org!

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: