Republic Tucson Bureau
May. 28, 2005 12:00 AM
A task force that targets human-smuggling organizations by analyzing wire transfers has netted about $4 million since March, hitting traffickers hard during a prime time for illegal border crossings and resulting in at least 55 arrests.
But critics say Arizona's latest anti-smuggling initiative, which uses computer analysis to periodically target all Western Union transactions over $750, also has snared innocent people sending money to family members.
On April 1, Luis Martinez, an engineer whose wife used to work for the Arizona Attorney General's Office, went to a Western Union office in Tucson to pick up $1,000. His wife wired the money from Saipan, where she now works as a prosecutor, so he could pay bills and buy their teenage son medication after dental surgery.
He was told the money was frozen and eventually tracked down a detective.
"They grilled me like I was a criminal," Martinez said. "I was shocked. They assume everybody is guilty and let the chips fall where they may. It's wrong."
Martinez said he got the run-around from Western Union officials and investigators. He called 1-800 number after 1-800 number, he said, and was told at one point that his money was stolen.
After Martinez's wife, Marie, involved contacts from when she worked in the Attorney General's Office, the money was freed. The couple received an apologetic e-mail from the Attorney General's Office that said the system "misfired" in their case, he added.
"If my wife hadn't been an attorney, what would we have done to get that money back?" he asked. "I really feel for people who haven't done anything wrong but may not have the money for a lawyer. I just wonder how many people fall through the cracks."