Last year, when investigators from the Illegal Immigration and Prevention and Apprehension Team raided seven drop houses throughout the Valley, just two of those homes used in human smuggling crimes were in the East Valley.

Investigators knew that number was low.

And although it was unusual for even that many drop houses to be in the East Valley at the time, it’s not so strange now as more leads have emerged in the last month alone, according to a supervisor of the 4-year-old multiagency task force, known as IIMPACT, which is overseen by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Not only are human smugglers, or coyotes, changing their routes from Interstate 8 and Interstate 10 to enter eastern Pinal County and evade law enforcement officers cracking down on illegal immigration activity, they now are trying their luck along Route 87 and beginning to make their first stops in their human smuggling operations in homes throughout south Chandler near Arizona Avenue, according to DPS Capt. Fred Zumbo, who oversees IIMPACT.

IIMPACT is following five active leads involving drop houses throughout homes in south Chandler, and it is hoped they will lead to uncovering bigger operations, Zumbo said.

“Our workload is going up,” Zumbo said. “These drop houses are all over the Valley now. A lot of people think they are in poor neighborhoods, and they are — but they’re also showing up in rich neighborhoods, too. They can be anywhere.”

On May 4, IIMPACT arrested four illegal immigrants from Mexico officers say were holding 10 people, including two teenage boys, against their will in an upscale home in the 8900 block of South Ithica Street, in a newer neighborhood east of Arizona Avenue and north of Chandler Heights Boulevard. Among the four arrested were Claudio Rey Amaro-Lopez, 22; Luis Enrique Parea-Chavez, 26; Eric Osorio-Lopez, 27; and a 17-year-old boy.

Two of the men had histories with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and had been deported numerous times in recent years, according to agency spokesman Vincent Picard.

Parea-Chavez voluntarily returned to Mexico seven times from 2005-09 for various offenses and in 2009 was excluded from re-entering the United States until 2014, according to ICE records.

He was also convicted of improper entry by an alien, a misdemeanor offense, as recently as June 2010.

Amaro-Lopez voluntarily returned to Mexico nine times for offenses committed between 2005 and 2008, including an expedited removal that included a five-year ban in 2009 on re-entering the United States until 2014.

The four suspects are being held in a Maricopa County jail without bond and have been charged with human smuggling and kidnapping offenses. Officers say they were holding a group of Guatemalans who badly wanted to come into the United States and acquire jobs, but the situation that allowed them to be snuck across the border was becoming more violent as they planned to sell the women into the sex slave trade.

The three men and the 17-year-old boy are scheduled to appear in Maricopa County Superior Court on Monday for a preliminary hearing.

Zumbo said in many cases, human smuggling is at the point where coyotes don’t have to use much force.

“People don’t have to be lured here,” Zumbo said. “They’re beating the doors down to get here, and it’s not only Mexicans, we’re seeing that it’s more and more central Americans. The need for cheap labor is fueling the illegal immigration problem.”

In the ongoing investigation involving the Chandler property, officers are looking into the background of the owners of the home to see what they knew and when, and to see how the human smuggling ring was directed to that home, Zumbo said.

Under provisions in Senate Bill 1225, a new law recently signed by Gov. Jan Brewer, penalties will be increased for landlords or homeowners who knowingly use their homes for smuggling operations. The law is set to go into effect July 20.

The homeowners of the Ithica Street property are listed as Gabriel and Martha Padilla of Livermore, Calif., who paid $260,000 for the home in April 2005, according to records at the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office. The home’s appraisal value as of January was listed at $122,100.

The Padillas could not be reached for comment.

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