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Feds expose dangerous driver-swap practices of some local trucking companies

Operation Safe Roads

NOGALES, Ariz. - On an average drive you may share the road with dozens of heavy trucks. But do those drivers hold the licenses that help show they are well trained and safe?

KGUN9's Operation Safe Roads is dedicated to keeping us safe. Now KGUN9 has a close-up look at a Federal investigation that touches on truck safety, commerce and crime.

Early Thursday, 20 Federal agents gathered behind a Nogales motel. Most are agents from HSI, Homeland Security Investigations. They are planning a bust.

“Obviously we're going to be vested up," one of the agents leading the briefing says. "If you want to go with a long gun it's your decision."

They're about to move in and act on a search warrant.

"Approach team just fall in on me," the agent said. "Just make sure you're covering any open windows, anything like that."

And while they don't expect trouble, they plan for it.

"If you do take fire and you are wounded, if you can self-evacuate, get yourself out of there," the agent said. "If not, we'll have a team of two or three come up and get you out of there."

They're moving in on a yard full of trucks and trailers.

Nogales is full of trucks, a key to the city's life as a center for cargos that come in from Mexico.

In this raid, the agents are focused on the Customs part of Homeland Security. They are after trucking operations that break the laws that apply to when and where foreign truckers can move cargoes inside the U.S.

It's only legal for Mexican truckers to drive a few miles into the U.S., then drop their loads in a warehouse. From there an American trucker is supposed to deliver the cargo into American markets.

Scott Brown is Special Agent in Charge for HSI in Arizona.

"A lot of these companies created a very simple and brazen scheme to be able to continue to violate the law where they're having U.S. truckers, often times the trucking company owners or family members drive the trucks through the checkpoint," he said. "Once they get past the Border Patrol checkpoint the drive is being swapped out for a Mexican driver often times within a matter of a couple miles of the checkpoint then they'll continue on to the end destination."

While the raid goes on in Nogales, another part of this investigation is happening miles away in Los Angeles, the destination for a lot of these cargoes.

Investigators say this is a serious crime. The motivation is money. Mexican drivers work cheaper--and lower costs help dishonest produce shippers undercut competitors.

Agents say illegal driver swaps raise the risk to any driver sharing the road.

“Certainly having truckers regularly operating on U.S. roads that don't go through commercial drivers license testing requirements, health requirements that come through the commercial driver's license is a public safety concern," HSI Special Agent in Charge for Arizona Scott Brown says.

Agents say Mexican truckers driving illegally will lose their visas and be deported and company owners behind the driver swap schemes could face stiff fines and prison time.

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