PHOENIX (Reuters) - U.S. police arrested 47 people and broke up a human smuggling network that used rogue shuttle firms to ferry thousands of illegal immigrants from the Arizona-Mexico border across the United States, authorities said on Thursday.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, said those arrested included the owners and employees of five Arizona commercial shuttle companies, following a year-long operation involving U.S. and Mexican police.
"Forty-seven people have been arrested today ... five shuttle companies have been shut down, and multiple smuggling routes have been stopped in their tracks," ICE Assistant Secretary John Morton told a news conference in Phoenix.
"Today we are not seeking to prosecute a given smuggler, a given shuttle company ... we are seeking to take down an entire alien smuggling industry," he added.
Arizona straddles a heavily trafficked corridor for both human and drug smugglers from Mexico.
Last year, U.S. Border Patrol agents made more than 241,000 arrests in the sector south of Tucson, Arizona, and seized more than 60 tonnes of marijuana.
Morton said the shuttle companies targeted in the operation moved illegal immigrants north from the border city of Nogales to Tucson and Phoenix, using fake bus receipts in a bid to make the shuttle trips appear legitimate.
The network then moved the migrants, most of them from Mexico and Central America, although some from as far away as China, to cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
Criminal indictments handed down in the case charged defendants with federal crimes including money laundering, alien smuggling and conspiracy charges.
A conviction for conspiracy to transport illegal aliens carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.
Dennis K. Burke, U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, said cooperation between nine federal, state and local police agencies involved, as well as Mexican police, was "unprecedented."
"There is ... a chain from Arizona-Mexico border through Nogales to Phoenix and then branching out through the United States, today ... that chain is broken," Burke said.
"It will be extremely difficult to repair that chain, it is a missing link that greatly disrupts the infrastructure of human smuggling organizations."
Reporting by Tim Gaynor, Editing by Sandra Maler