Human smuggling arrests in Tampa Bay: What we know about recent spike

8 On Your Side

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — There has been an uptick in human smuggling arrests in Tampa Bay recently.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers say they aren’t looking for human smuggling, they’re looking for traffic violations. But in just one week, troopers discovered 15 people in the country illegally.

Troopers made the latest human smuggling arrest Thursday on Interstate 75 in Hernando County. The driver is accused of transporting five undocumented workers from Arizona to Tampa. According to the arrest report, the driver told troopers “he has a boss in Arizona who makes arrangements for the trip.”

In just one week on the same interstate, troopers took in three other suspects.

Driver Esvil Miguel Soto Perez, 23, of Phoenix, Arizona, reportedly drove without a license. He was arrested Nov. 4 and is charged with transporting four migrants.

Troopers also shared pictures of the vehicles involved in two separate incidents on Nov. 8 that happened just six minutes apart.

“Is it something that we’re seeing more of? Yes we are,” Florida Highway Patrol Sergeant Steve Gaskins.

8 On Your Side investigator Mahsa Saeidi asked Sgt. Gaskins if the FHP expected to be on the front lines.

“This is one issue of many that we deal with,” he responded.

In the recent cases, Sgt. Gaskins says troopers initially spot a traffic infraction like one vehicle closely following another, illegal window tinting or fraudulent tags. Once the stop is made, troopers find food wrappers, air fresheners – even a bottle of urine.

Throughout the course of the investigation, it’s discovered that the people inside are all strangers to one another and in the country illegally.

“All these things they build up and give a picture to our troopers that something is amiss,” Sgt. Gaskins explained.

Gaskins says troopers are trained to look for and find all types of illegal activity, including smuggling.

“When we’re seeing them, they’re typically on the tail end of their journey,” he said.

“So they’re looking to stay in Florida?” asked Saeidi.

“Most of the people are looking to find work, reside here, you know – for whatever reason, they want to be here,” Sgt. Gaskins said.

So where do they end up? The drivers go to the county jail, charged with human smuggling. The passengers are taken by the U.S. Border Patrol to be transported back to their home country.

The people involved in the recent incidents are from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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