PHOENIX -- Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said newly forged cooperation between U.S. attorneys general and Mexican prosecutors will help authorities clamp down on international smuggling and money laundering operations.
Goddard, chairman of the Conference of Western Attorneys General (CWAG), told Legal Newsline that CWAG's meeting earlier this month among several state attorneys general, federal officials and prosecutors from Mexico was a watershed event.
He said U.S. authorities - state and federal - were all on the same page, willing to work in tandem, a dramatic transformation, he said, from when state and federal officials were working separately.
"I can't say enough about what a big step forward this was," Goddard said in a telephone interview Friday from his Phoenix office. "We've turned a page both in terms of state-federal relations on this side, but also in terms of bi-national cooperation across the border."
For the Arizona Department of Justice, its financial crimes section spends about 80 percent of its efforts pursuing border-related cases, Goddard said. He said as many as one million illegal immigrants annually pay about $2,500 to human smugglers, known as coyotes, to get brought into the United States.
"The cartels, we believe, are profiting immensely from the human smuggling activities," he said, adding that the smugglers ill-gotten gains are often used by the cartels to make "huge weapons purchases" they send back to Mexico.
Goddard, a Democrat, said improved cooperation between U.S. authorities and their counterparts in Mexico will help curb the smuggling of weapons, drugs and illegal immigrants, all of which has brought a wave of violence to both sides of the southern border.
"Transporting human beings is even profitable and less risky than transporting drugs," he said. "As a result, you have coyote gangs fighting over routes, cargo and storage spaces for the people they're smuggling."
The March 10-12 meetings between seven U.S. state attorneys general and more than a dozen of their Mexican counterparts followed a meeting that CWAG members attended in Cuernavaca, Mexico last year.
The latest conference led to "four areas of consensus," aimed at pursuing gun runners, drug smugglers and human traffickers.
"There are many of the same criminals involved in all of the various trafficking activities," Goddard said.
The three-day conference in Phoenix, he said, went far beyond perfunctory handshakes and offers of international cooperation to securing pledges to work together on joint investigations and share proven anti-smuggling tactics.
Goddard said his office will be sharing with Mexican prosecutors and authorities in other border states how Arizona used special warrants to go after wire transfers to coyotes and seized the money through forfeitures.
Arizona was able to intercept and seize $20 million in smuggling fees, he said, noting that five years ago about $600 million flowed into the Grand Canyon State through wire transfers, while today it's "virtually nothing."
"We had some temporary success in disrupting their way of payment, but that has been replaced by triangulation," where the family of a person being smuggled into the United States wires the coyotes' fee to somebody in Mexico and they then phone to tell the smuggler that the money has been received.
"We just added another step to the process," he said.
Goddard said the conference also led to a pledge by Mexican authorities to prosecute certain Mexican nationals who break the law in the United States as long as the crime committed in the United States is also a criminal offense in Mexico.
Under the informal accord, Mexican authorities said they will use Article IV of the Mexican constitution to prosecute criminals wanted by the United States, as in the case of a Mexican man wanted for killing two people in an immigrant smuggling drop-house in Phoenix.
"For our money, that is a breathtaking step forward," Goddard said of the so-called Article IV prosecutions. "It means that a much larger group of potential defendants comes into the target area, and part of this bi-national cooperation means we'll have simultaneous investigations on both sides of the border and we'll be sharing information back and forth."
Goddard said with improved bi-national cooperation the U.S.-Mexico border will "cease to be a refuge" for criminals who escape one way or another.
"This has implications for both countries that are very positive," he said.