Arizona goes after the property managers behind drophouses and stashhouses, often surprising the property owners who are largely out of state.
Listen to the story here.
Dennis Lambert: Border states are the first stop for drug trafficking organizations moving their products — both drugs and migrants — north. Law enforcement is trying to stop them. Their latest target: leasing agents who provide houses to cartels and their workers. From the Fronteras Desk, Devin Browne reports.
Devin: In 2007, Phoenix’s real estate market started to collapse. This was a stressful time for property owners, but it was a very convenient time for traffickers who suddenly had a lot more options of where to do business — no longer just in the barrios, but in fancy neighborhoods too. Last month, Captain Fred Zumbo with Arizona’s Department of Public Safety, busted a drop house in the beautiful and affluent Chandler Heights.
Fred Zumbo: It’s a very manicured subdivision, it had a beautiful fountain in it. I pulled in there and I’m looking and I’m all — am I in the right place?
Devin: He was. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirms 482 drop houses in the Phoenix metro area since 2008. These houses, like stash houses, have proliferated in this era of foreclosures and short sales. Terry Goddard, former Arizona Attorney General notes:
Terry Goddard: They took advantage of the bad real estate market and they found that many owners were anxious to lease their property for anybody who would pay.
Devin: The trafficking organizations had help: leasing agents who were also willing to take advantage of the bad real estate market. Again, Fred Zumbo.
Fred: Certainly, the leasing agent can make a lot of money, because the drug trafficking and the human smuggling, they’re full of cash. And we’ve heard of corrupt leasing agents who have gone down to the county, steps of county courthouse, when they’re having auctions for houses and an investor comes in to buy a house — the leasing agent will approach this person and say I’m so and so. I have renters standing in line to rent your house.
Devin: And not just any renters, Zumbo adds, ideal renters: traffickers who are full of cash, will always pay the rent, and never complain about leaky faucets or broken appliances.
Fred: Of course, these folks think its a great deal to enter into agreement with these folks. The next thing they know, their income property is being used as a stash house for dope or a drop house for illegals. And they won’t find out till he hit them with a notice: Your property has been used as a drop house.
Except sometimes, Zumbo admits, these notices never actually made it it property owners.
[Sound of telephone ringing]
Paul Obinyan: Hello?
Devin: Hi is Paul there?
Paul: This is Paul.
Devin: Take Paul Obinyan for example. When I called him to ask about his property, busted as a drophouse in 2008, this was his reply:
Paul: We’ve never been told of this. This is the first time I’ve heard of this.
Devin: This is not an uncommon response. Obinyan lives in Northern California, so far from Arizona that he didn’t know what a drophouse was.
Paul: It’s a struggle. We use a property manager who speaks Spanish, because we don’t speak Spanish so I’m somewhat shocked to hear that this is a drophouse. I didn’t even know what a drophouse is until you just told me. This is news to me, this whole thing is like a bombshell…
Terry Goddard: You gotta figure that the person who is leasing the house is well connected with the rest of the conspiracy.
Again, Terry Goddard — not talking so much about property owners like Obinyan but property managers.
Terry Goddard: He knows when and where the human traffic is coming. He knows who is conducting it. He’s been contacted by someone running money for the cartels.
To Goddard, this leasing agent then could be a perfect access point into the cryptic world of the cartels. This is why he supported a new Arizona law which makes it a class 3 felony to knowingly rent to trafficking organizations. Last month, this bill was signed into law.
Terry Goddard: So, what I believe can be accomplished in this statute, and frankly we don’t have cases yet, because it was just signed, is the ability to sit down with the leasing agent and say: Tell us what you know, tell us who you’ve been dealing with. How did you contact them? How did they contact you?
Obinyan’s leasing agent did not return phone calls for comment. Captain Zumbo says that now with this new law, his task force will be sure to contact every property owner and manager in the future. In fact, three property management companies are already under active investigation.