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Ex-local farmhand off to prison for human smuggling

Ex-local farmhand off to prison for human smuggling

The leader of a Phoenix-based human-smuggling organization was working on a dairy farm in Fonda when

The leader of a Phoenix-based human-smuggling organization was working on a dairy farm in Fonda when Homeland Security agents caught up with him.

Joel Mazariegos-Soto, 29, originally of Guatemala, was arrested near his Fonda residence last April. Now, after pleading guilty to money-laundering and human-smuggling charges, Mazariegos-Soto is headed to federal prison for the next five years.

Area law enforcement agencies had little to do with the case. According to State Division of Homeland Security spokesman Peter Cutler, the New York portion of the case was handled at the federal level. Information released by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona and court records paint Mazariegos-Soto as a rather prolific worker.

While in the Fonda area, Mazariegos-Soto worked at a dairy farm. Court records have him milking cows for more than 40 hours a week at $8.50 an hour — and all the while coordinating the smuggling of scores of people north across the United States border with Mexico and laundering the profits.

In the four months he was under investigation, Mazariegos-Soto reportedly laundered more than $70,000.

“Human smuggling is apparently very lucrative,” said Cosme Lopez, the spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona.

According to investigators, Mazariegos-Soto’s operation utilized a “funnel” account. Deposits of more than $1,000 made by people in the United States were funneled through his account to Phoenix-based smugglers in payment for bringing family members across the border.

Mazariegos-Soto handled the finances between shifts in a Fonda-area milking parlor using a Bank of America account under the name Joel Mariegos-Perez.

Meanwhile, in Pheonix, his men ran several stash houses. Over the course of the investigation, raids uncovered groups of 27 and 40 people illegally smuggled into the country. At one of the houses, investigators found financial ledgers bearing the name Joel Mariegos-Perez.

They traced the money north, all the way to Joel and his real last name.

One stash house operator, Walfre David Perez-Jovel, was arrested in West Palm Beach, Fla., just two months after Mazariegos-Soto was caught in Fonda. Perez-Jovel was seen housing large groups of people who were illegally in the country and busing them around in overloaded vans.

Both men pleaded guilty to human-smuggling and money-laundering charges late last year and were sentenced by a federal judge in Phoenix on March 17. Perez-Jovel is headed to federal prison for four years.

While most dairy farm laborers aren’t also human smugglers, N.Y. Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said Mazariegos-Soto’s case speaks to a larger problem facing farmers.

“This is the sort of thing that keeps farmers up at night,” he said.

They’re not worried about accidentally employing smugglers. Rather, they’re worried about employing those who were smuggled.

Ammerman said there are limitations to what a farmer can do to verify the identity of a potential hire. Lopez said Mazariegos-Soto was in the country illegally, but he had enough documentation to start a bank account in the name of his alias. Those documents, Ammerman said, would have been plenty to secure work.

“The onus isn’t on the farmer here,” he said. “He can’t do much more than trust the papers.”

Once a hire is made, Ammerman said, a farmer is left crossing his fingers — hoping documents weren’t forged and that immigration officials don’t show up and arrest his workforce.

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