A man is taken into custody during a raid led by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that targeted several south-side shuttle companies. BENJIE SANDERS / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Immigration agents raided four shuttle companies on Tucson's south side Thursday morning as part of a major binational operation targeting an illegal-immigrant smuggling network.

Officials mobilized more than 800 federal, state and local law enforcement officers to arrest 68 total people in Tucson, Phoenix, Rio Rico, Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said.

The arrests marked the culmination of a yearlong investigation named "Operation in Plain Sight" that ICE officials called the largest illegal-immigrant smuggling investigation in the agency's seven-year history.

Fifty-one of the people arrested were owners and employees of four Tucson shuttle companies, and a fifth from Phoenix, that ran a smuggling ring that transported thousands of illegal immigrants from the border to Tucson and Phoenix, officials said. Mexican officials arrested Claudio Ramirez-Morales who was described as the Mexican-based manager of a smuggling organization.

The other 17 arrested were illegal immigrants agents encountered as they served search warrants in Phoenix and Tucson.

Thursday's busts were a major shift in how ICE and other federal agencies deal with illegal immigration, said John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

"We are not seeking to prosecute a given smuggler, a given shuttle company, a given driver,'' he said. "We are seeking to take down an entire human-smuggling industry."

But while ICE championed the busts, many of Tucson's south-side residents and immigrant advocates questioned the show of force and hordes of media invited to watch.

"This is an intimidating tactic," said Carmen Sanchez, who lives nearby and came to watch. "This is putting fear into the Hispanic community."

Several arrested, vans seized

The raids brought traffic on South Sixth Avenue to a near standstill Thursday morning as immigration agents raided shuttle companies in front of a throng of cameras and reporters the agency had invited to watch, dozens of curious residents, immigrant advocates and Mexican Consulate officials looking on from across the street.

At Sahuaro Roadrunner Shuttle, 4207 S. Sixth Ave., two Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents escorted a handcuffed man from inside into an unmarked white Tahoe. They seized five vans from that location.

At the next door Sonora Shuttle, 4201 S. Sixth Ave., passengers from a van that had just arrived from Nogales were asked to get out of the van and agents checked the identifications of several. An ICE official said this particular van was not involved in the investigation.

Agents seized Andrew Provencio's shuttle, which he runs out of the Sahuaro Roadrunner location. Agents told him the shuttle was being used for people smuggling. But Provencio and his son, Ricardo Gomez, said they aren't involved in any smuggling. Gomez, who drives the shuttle to and from Nogales and was in the van at the time of the seizure, was questioned by ICE agents but was not arrested.

Provencio, who was visibly upset, said he bought the 2007 van last year and was just starting to pay off a loan on the $22,000 vehicle. Without making daily trips, he won't be able to make his $400 monthly payment.

"You are not even involved in what's going on and they seize everything," Provencio said. "We are clean. We are not that stupid to be bringing people."

Gomez said he and other shuttle drivers are prohibited from asking passengers about their immigration status. The owner of Sahuaro Shuttle, Vidal Ramirez, agreed.

"I don't have the right to ask for papers," Ramirez said. "I sell the ticket and that's it."

His company, which runs trips from Tucson to Douglas, Phoenix and Nogales, was not raided or visited by immigration agents. He said he wasn't scared when he saw the immigration agents but was alarmed at the size of the media and law enforcement presence.

"It's a big, big circus," Ramirez said.

He wasn't alone in his assessment of the raids.

Ushering the man out of Sahuaro Roadrunner in front of the cameras was a "disgusting perp walk," said Kat Rodriguez of Coalición de Derechos Humanos.

"I hope they are ashamed of themselves," she said.

The massive show of force terrorized Tucson's south-side community and destroyed trust in the community, she said. She received calls all day from people worried about going to work or taking their children to school.

Border Action Network director Jennifer Allen said her organization supports action to curtail smugglers that exploit illegal immigrants but questioned the way the raids were conducted.

"It was such a heavy show of force," Allen said.

Rick Crocker, ICE deputy special agent in charge in Tucson, said Tucson police were there to provide officer and public safety. And he said that even though they were targeting the criminal leaders of the smuggling ring, they couldn't turn their back when they encountered illegal immigrants.

How it works

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, here how's the smuggling operation usually worked:

People were smuggled across the border and escorted to Tucson in private vehicles or in some cases, by waling around the checkpoint on Interstate 19.

In Tucson, they were passed off to shuttle companies "who are in cahoots with the smugglers," Morton said. They were housed at shuttle companies or drop houses.

Illegal immigrants would pay the shuttle companies a fee of $100 or more and be given fake fare receipts in the amount of $30 to make shuttle trips to Phoenix appear legitimate.

In Phoenix, they were taken to drop houses where other smuggling organizations took over, getting the illegal immigrants to their final destinations throughout the country.

Most of the smuggled illegal border crossers were from Mexico and Central America, but some came from as far away as China.

Those arrested are facing several federal violations, including money laundering, illegal-immigrant smuggling and conspiracy. Those arrested in Arizona are expected to make their initial appearances in federal courts in Phoenix and Tucson today.

ICE seized about $10 million worth of assets, including more than 50 vehicles. During the arrests, agents found several weapons including an AK-47, Morton said.

The criminal heads of smuggling organizations are bad people, Crocker said.

"These are not good people. These are the people that hold them hostage," Crocker said. "The people that we arrested are not the people that come north looking for work."

Two months, ICE made a similar set of arrests of shuttle operators in the Houston area. More are likely, Morton said.

"The veil has been lifted over these shuttle companies,'' Morton said. "We're going to go after them wherever they are and we're going to expose them for what they are, and that is fronts for criminal networks.''

On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/databases to track deportations by country or year.

Raided shuttle companies

Tucson

• Sahuaro Roadrunner Shuttles

• America's Shuttles

• Sonoran Shuttles

• Nogales Express Shuttles

Phoenix

• Sergio's Shuttle

68 total arrests

Tucson

• 21 criminal suspects, most of whom are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

• 7 illegal immigrants arrested.

Nogales/Rio Rico

• 5 criminal suspects, most of whom are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

Phoenix

• 23 criminal suspects, most of whom are U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents.

• 10 illegal immigrants arrested.

Nogales, Sonora

• 2 criminal arrests

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com. The Associated Press and Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.