Human-smuggling cases cropping up where I-70 runs through Colorado |

Human-smuggling cases cropping up where I-70 runs through Colorado

Ashley Dickson
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO colorado

SUMMIT COUNTY ” Interstate 70, Colorado’s main east-west thoroughfare through the mountains, is apparently a busy route for those in the business of smuggling people into the United States illegally, if recent arrests are any indication.

Authorities in Glenwood Springs recently filed human-smuggling charges against a driver for the first time, after a van loaded with people crashed on I-70, while Eagle County has already reported three such cases in 2008, and is moving ahead with prosecution in two of them. Summit County has yet to see its first prosecuted case of human smuggling.

According to the Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center, human smuggling is defined as the facilitation, transportation, attempted transportation or illegal entry of a person across an international border. As opposed to trafficking, human smuggling is generally done with the consent of the person being smuggled; these individuals may pay large sums of money for the transport.

“Human smuggling has always been a problem but now we’re more aware of it,” said Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey on Colorado’s Front Range. “Many smugglers are coming in through New Mexico and Arizona and are using the I-70 corridor to travel east.”

Jefferson County has six reported cases of human smuggling, and District Attorney Mark Hurlbert in Summit County acknowledges it could be a problem in his district, as well.

“We’ve been seeing cases in Eagle and Clear Creek counties, and I don’t think smugglers are going down a rabbit hole, so it’s a definite possibility we will be seeing them here in Summit,” Hurlbert said.

Human smuggling has become a hot-button issue in Colorado, and in 2006, the state Legislature passed a bill making human smuggling a Class 3 felony.

In addition to boosting the penalty for those convicted of human smuggling, the Legislature also provided funding for a special unit within the Colorado State Patrol that works directly with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to investigate specific human-smuggling cases.

According to Ron Watkins of the Colorado State Patrol, 22 officers went through four-and-a-half weeks of ICE training, which allows them to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

“In the past, our only resource when dealing with human-smuggling cases was to wait for ICE to arrive and do an investigation,” Watkins said. “Now the new unit cuts down response time and, because of this, there has been an increase in prosecutions and convictions.”

The officers who went through training learned to pick up on indicators that point to human smuggling. Normally, smugglers drive large, unmarked vans that can hold up to seven people or more, and will be carrying foreign documents or maps that indicate a specific destination.

“I can’t tell you the number of times we’ve come across a vanload of illegals, so this is nothing new to us,” Watkins said. “Now that it has become such a politically charged issue, the state and federal governments are addressing it more.”

Prosecuting human-smuggling cases is oftentimes difficult because those being smuggled are usually deported, leaving no witnesses to testify against the drivers.

According to Jefferson County’s Storey, human smuggling will most likely continue to be a problem in Colorado because the compensation smugglers receive usually outweighs the risk involved with transporting illegals across the state.

“It’s a cost/benefit thing, and as long as the amount of money they receive outweighs the sentence they could be facing, it will continue,” Storey said.