Something unexpected happened as a state strike force investigated groups producing and selling false documents for immigrants without papers: The trail led to drug and gun traffickers, and mobile bordellos run by human traffickers holding women in modern slavery.
Ken Wallentine, chief of law enforcement for the Utah Attorney General’s Office, told legislators of the unplanned findings as he made an annual report Wednesday on the attorney general’s Statewide Enforcement of Crimes by Undocumented Residents (SECURE) Task Force.
“Those who have been involved in years past in document fraud, manufacturing and distribution are also spin-off criminals. They tend to be involved in distribution of illegal drugs, weapons and to some degree human trafficking,” Wallentine told the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee.
He said the human trafficking was something unexpected the task force stumbled into. But Wallentine said the task force found that it could not probe “the high level of organized distribution of fraudulent documents without walking into the field of trafficking. They go hand in hand.”
He explained that human traffickers cannot easily bring people into an area without fraudulent documents, so following document mills leads to that and other major crimes.
His written report noted that in November, for example, the strike force found several undocumented minors in modern slavery acting as prostitutes in a string of massage parlors. The ring leader, Luis Daniel Arano Hernandez, was convicted of aggravated human trafficking and sentenced to five years to life in prison — and will be deported to Mexico when he is paroled.
The report said several others traffickers also were arrested, entered guilty pleas to human trafficking and were deported. The strike force continues to investigate other human trafficking operations related to prostitution in the state.
Committee House Chairman Curt Oda, R-Clearfield, said many of the crimes are tied to “the Mexican mafia,” which he said has secured a foothold in Utah.
House Democratic Leader Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City, raised the concern that women rescued from human trafficking operations often have nothing but the clothes they are wearing, and no resources to help them.
Wallentine said that’s true. “The last time we had an issue like this, it turned into a pass your hat at our shop” to come up with money to help.
Wallentine said victims advocates recently held a golf tournament that raised $10,000 to help such victims. But he said it remains a problem because government social service agencies have not budgeted money to address it.
The strike force last year operated for the first time without federal money after its startup grant ended, but Wallentine said the Legislature stepped up to fund most of its previous budget of about $720,000.
Among the operation’s major successes are finding and closing down some big fraudulent document mills — which Wallentine called “the best way to tackle the criminal element in the undocumented community.”
Before the strike force was created in 2009, Wallentine said, “Utah was known as the place to go to get quality fraudulent documents.”
But it appears that is changing. Utah officials arrested no one coming into the state to buy such documents, Wallentine said.
Ron Mortensen, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said he disagrees with the strike force approach to target only fake ID makers and not bother with those who use or buy the documents; he has heard estimates of 50,000 or more Utah residents victimized by identity theft. He says the strike force is successful for its size, but its scope and impact are “fairly limited.”