Border Fence

According to intercepted calls and messages, the Southern Arizona smuggling operation relied on foot guides to lead migrants from the border through the Tohono O’Odham Nation.

The bust of a massive Southern Arizona smuggling ring provides a rare glimpse into how human smugglers work, as well as how they use the U.S. banking system to funnel more than $1 million into their pockets.

The operation run by Audias Sanchez Colin, 38, moved thousands of migrants from Mexico and Central America to the United States, and then to various destinations around the country. It also manipulated bank branches in 31 states to funnel money back to smugglers in Arizona and Georgia, according to U.S. District Court records.

Sanchez was one of 27 people accused of conspiring to transport and harbor people who were in the United States illegally and launder the proceeds of that conspiracy, according to a January 2018 federal grand jury indictment filed in Tucson.

On Friday, Sanchez pleaded guilty to running a human-smuggling conspiracy and crossing the border illegally. He faces eight to 10 years in federal prison, according to his plea agreement. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for June 12.

In his plea agreement, Sanchez, a Mexican citizen, said he was the leader of the organization in the United States and spoke directly with the Honduran coordinator, Maria Mendoza Mendoza, and the Mexican coordinator, Julio Cota Leyva, who were both named in the indictment.

The scope of the conspiracy is not well-defined in court records, but the Arizona Daily Star found two dozen sworn affidavits filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson that described $1,080,000 deposited into 22 bank accounts controlled by Sanchez.

The affidavits, filed by special agents with Homeland Security Investigations, said at least 80 accounts were used in the conspiracy. A sentencing memorandum for one of the defendants said the total was $1,986,000.

Tapped phones

The investigation of Sanchez and his alleged co-conspirators began in December 2016 and led to wiretaps; surveillance; searches of phones, vehicles and residences; as well as subpoenas of financial records at dozens of bank accounts.

Along the way, HSI special agents collected more than 4,000 calls and text messages sent from October 2017 to January 2018, according affidavits filed in Tucson.

The intercepted calls and messages laid out the business model used by Sanchez’s organization.

After foot guides smuggled migrants across the U.S.-Mexico border, they trekked through the Tohono O’odham Nation and stopped at stash houses in the Phoenix area. At that point, only a portion of the migrants’ smuggling fees, which came to thousands of dollars per person, would have been paid.

Once at the stash house, Sanchez would talk on the phone with the migrants’ family members or sponsors in Oregon, Virginia or elsewhere to arrange for the payment of the rest of the smuggling fee. The sponsors would deposit cash into bank branches and Sanchez or another smuggler would immediately withdraw it from the account at a branch in Arizona.

“This method of paying for alien smuggling fees is as convenient as making a trip to the illicit customer’s local bank branch,” a special agent wrote.

In November 2017, a New Jersey man called Sanchez to ask about his daughter, Griselda, who was being held at a stash house near Phoenix. The man already had deposited $4,000 for his daughter to be smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border to the stash house. Now, he owed the smugglers an additional $750 to drive her across the country.

But he ran into a problem. The bank account information Sanchez had sent him didn’t work. Within minutes, Sanchez texted him the information on another account, one of more than 80 he had used during the smuggling conspiracy.

In December 2017, a woman demanded to speak with a migrant, Juan, before she would deposit cash into a bank branch. After speaking with Juan, agents heard her say she was on her way to the bank to make the deposit. Sanchez said Juan would be set up for transportation later that day.

Also in December 2017, a man asked Sanchez to specify the exact day he expected two migrants to arrive at his house, so that he could take the day off work.

In January 2018, the family of Santiago was waiting in Chiapas, Mexico, for the account number so they could deposit $2,000 in a bank in Mexico.

In December 2017, Sanchez spoke with the sponsor of a migrant about payment, which lead HSI special agents to a motel in Phoenix, where they found two people who were in the country illegally.

One of the people arrested told agents that when smugglers learned he was from Honduras, they took him to a local bank and told him to open an account so they could use it to collect fees from migrants. Agents seized more than $5,000 from the account.

Smugglers relying on fast-cash transactions

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Using bank branches for fast cash transactions in smuggling conspiracies from across the country has grown in recent years, according to the Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCen.

The Mexican government limited deposits of U.S. dollars in Mexican banks in 2010, followed months later by restrictions on cash deposits at currency exchange houses and brokerages. In the years that followed, the use of funnel accounts for money laundering took off, according to a FinCen advisory.

Agents requested “damming warrants” to seize money in bank accounts, as well as any future deposits, because banks “cannot reasonably be relied upon” to abide by an order to not release the funds, special agents wrote in the affidavits.

The method of using funnel accounts may be less risky than trying to smuggle wads of cash hidden under your clothes at the border, but court records show it exposes smugglers to the same headaches faced by anyone who uses a bank.

Deposits were delayed and schedules thrown out of whack when Sanchez forgot Veterans’ Day was a bank holiday. In Louisiana, a man told Sanchez the nearest branch of the bank Sanchez told him to use was a three-hour drive away.

At one point, Sanchez was on the phone with customer service at a national bank because his account had been restricted. After waiting on hold, with special agents listening, Sanchez finally got through to a customer service representative and clarified that a $500 withdrawal at a gas station convenience store, quickly followed by another withdrawal at a different gas station, was legitimate.

The use of so many bank accounts presented another set of problems. On several occasions, Sanchez had to ask the migrant’s sponsors which bank account information he had sent to the sponsor.

In December 2017, a man called Sanchez and said he had been waiting at the bank for two hours and wanted to know if the deposit went through. Sanchez told the person to take photos of the deposit slips and send them to Sanchez via WhatsApp, the special agent wrote.

The use of bank accounts was made possible by people allowing Sanchez, for a fee, to use their bank accounts for smuggling payments. Several of them were charged in the indictment with money laundering.

In an April 2017 interview with HSI special agents, Rogelio Cedillo Cruz said he kept a funnel account in his name for the Sanchez organization. Over the course of eight months, more than $200,000 went through the account. Cedillo’s cut was $100 to $150 for every $5,000 in cash he withdrew from the account and delivered to Sanchez.

Other members of the smuggling ring were accused of driving migrants from Arizona to Georgia, Florida and elsewhere at a cost of $600 or $750 per migrant.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar