PHOENIX (Reuters) - Three employees of a tough Arizona sheriff were arrested on Tuesday on charges that they helped a drug and human smuggling organization from Mexico, authorities said.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said one deputy and two county detention officers were among 16 people arrested on Tuesday on charges including assisting in a criminal syndicate, illegal control of an enterprise, human smuggling, drug trafficking and money laundering.
Arpaio, who styles himself as “America’s toughest sheriff” and is known for operations cracking down on illegal immigrants across the Phoenix valley, said the arrests followed a tip received a year ago.
A subsequent investigation carried out with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office led detectives to search homes and businesses throughout the Phoenix valley on Tuesday.
The operation netted more than $200,000 in cash, seven weapons, 10 pounds of heroin and seven vehicles.
“Today’s arrests hit closer to home,” Arpaio said in a prepared statement.
“The fight against drugs, illegal immigration and human trafficking is important not only to me but to the citizens of Arizona. That a deputy Sheriff would provide information to and collude with these drug and human traffickers is despicable.”
The sheriff’s office named the arrested deputy as Alfredo Navarette, who had worked with the office since September 2000. Also arrested were Sylvia Najera and Marcella Hernandez, who worked at the county jail.
Hernandez, employed since April 2001, admitted to being eight months pregnant by Lorenzo Arce-Torres, who the office said was a lieutenant in Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel.
When taken into custody, Sheriff’s deputies found Hernandez to be carrying over $16,000 cash in her purse.
Arizona straddles a major smuggling corridor from human and drug smugglers from Mexico.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Jerry Norton