Image: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right, with Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, announce at a news conference that a Maricopa County Sheriff's deputy and two detention officers have been arrested.
Ross D. Franklin  /  AP
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right, with Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, announce at a news conference that a Maricopa County Sheriff's deputy and two detention officers have been arrested in drug and human smuggling cases, Tuesday.
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updated 5/25/2011 4:38:44 AM ET 2011-05-25T08:38:44

Three employees of America's self-proclaimed toughest sheriff have been arrested in a drug and human trafficking case, authorities said Tuesday.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said a deputy and two female detention officers at the sheriff's largest jail facility were among 12 people taken into custody and accused of being in a Phoenix-based international drug smuggling ring.

One of the detention officers, Marcella Hernandez, told authorities that she is eight-months pregnant with the child of Francisco Arce-Torres, the alleged drug ring's leader who court documents say is also a member of the Mexican Sinaloa cartel.

Deputy Ruben Navarette, Hernandez, and detention officer Sylvia Najera face felony charges. Seven other sheriff's employees were being investigated for their possible involvement.

County Attorney Bill Montgomery said he believed none of the three had an attorney.

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Navarette admitted to passing information about the sheriff's crime-prevention operations to the group, Arpaio said.

The deputy also was accused of being part of a separate human trafficking ring that smuggled illegal immigrants from Arizona to California.

'Human nature'
Detectives searching Navarette's home found two illegal immigrants inside, Arpaio said. Navarette, who was once assigned to sheriff's human smuggling unit and was cross-trained as a federal immigration agent, regularly smuggled loads of illegal immigrants, Arpaio said.

"We have enough violence without having moles in my own organization that put my deputies in danger," Arpaio said.

"Every organization, you're going to find some people who do wrong," he added. "It's human nature."

Video: Wanted: 'America's toughest sheriff' (on this page)

Navarette was an active member of the alleged drug smuggling group, helping launder money, transport drugs and even adding security cameras to the ringleaders' home, according to court documents.

The operation produced heroin at a ranch in Mexico, and brought it to Phoenix in loads of 5 to 10 pounds each, authorities said.

As part of the investigation, officers on Tuesday seized 10 pounds of heroin, nearly $200,000 in cash, weapons, vehicles and stolen property.

Hernandez, 28, was found with $16,000 cash when she was arrested Tuesday after arriving for work, Arpaio said.

Video: Arpaio: Feds should thank me, not sue me (on this page)

She was held on $2 million cash bond on charges that include transporting drugs and money laundering.

Navarette was arrested as he arrived for work Tuesday morning. He appeared in court Tuesday on charges including human smuggling, money laundering, controlling an illegal enterprise and conspiracy, and was ordered held on $1 million cash bond.

Najera's bond amount wasn't immediately available, but she was booked on charges of money laundering and controlling a criminal enterprise. She refused to talk to investigators.

"No one is above the law, and apparently no one if beyond the reach of drug trafficking organizations in Mexico," Montgomery said.

"It's just one more illustration ... that the border is not secure. We have cross national transportation of drugs and illegal aliens that has now involved law enforcement officials here. And they've been able to do this and be ongoing in their efforts," he added.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Arpaio: Feds should thank me, not sue me

  1. Closed captioning of: Arpaio: Feds should thank me, not sue me

    >>> the federal government is suing controversial maricopa county , arizona , sheriff joe arpaio . they say they're fed up with his refusal to cooperate in an investigation of how they treat illegal immigrants . tensions over the investigation have led to scene likes this one, angry confrontations between deputies and protesters. that was the very end of july when the law first implemented. at a news conference yesterday, arpaio said he thought the lawyers were cooperating. he says the actions make it abundantly clear that arizona , including this sheriff, is washington's new whipping joy. sheriff, good to talk to you.

    >> yeah, thank you.

    >> the justice department says it's issued 51 different requests asking for documents and they say that your office has pretty much ignored them.

    >> well, you know, my lawyers have been dealing with the officials in washington, communicating recently. they have thousands and thousands of our documents. i thought this thing would be resolved but here comes another lawsuit. by the way, the third lawsuit in recent weeks against the people of arizona . on the 1070 law they sued. now here it is me and then the maricopa county school districts . what is this? war against arizona ? because we're enforcing the immigration laws .

    >> well, and again, the judge that barred part of arizona 's controversial immigration law from going into effect said that arizona was overstepping its boundaries trying to enforce federal laws . here's what the justice department says. the actions of the sheriff's office are unprecedented. it's unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities. they say that you're not giving them access to the jails, you are not giving them access to the employees. you are not giving them access to inmaits when they're trying to figure out how it is that you're enforcing this. are you doing so?

    >> they have access. we resolved that. but let me say this. a year and a half they have been investigating me and my office. a year and a half for alleged racial profile. they can't come up with anything. now they're going to sue over some documents? what is that all about?

    >> this is now the third lawsuit that's been filed by the justice department in connection with the way your state and not just you but the state in general, they sued the state over the immigration law , the community colleges over alleged illegal requirements on asking noncitizens for jobs.

    >> okay.

    >> and now sued you, as well. when i was out in arizona covering the confrontations between protesters and sheriffs, i have to tell you, sheriff, it seemed like one of the most con tribed confrontations ever. are you doing this for political reasons?

    >> what are you talking about?

    >> well, i'll give you an example.

    >> they want to be arrested.

    >> i think on both parts. i think on the one part protesters sitting in the middle of the streets and streets that the police could have blocked off. didn't seem like it was interfering with traffic and that the police could have said, you know what? you want to sit in the middle of the street? we'll keep the cars from you. on your side -- it did seem like the protesters wanted to be arrested but what i'm saying is, it gets a lot of attention, gets people fired up but in the end wouldn't be easier to say, federal government , this is your job. do your job.

    >> no. it is our job. we have state laws that i enforce. human smuggling and the -- going into businesses. they're state laws. the federal government should be thanking me and everybody else in arizona for doing their job, working with them instead of filing lawsuits that try to do everything they can to stop this illegal immigration law enforcement . but it's not going to work because i'll continue to enforce all the laws that i took an oath of office to do.

    >> but they're not suing you for enforcing the laws. they're suing you saying you're standing in the way of the investigation into how you enforce the laws.

    >> well, it took -- it's a year and a half they've been here. roaming around trying to find some type of racial profiling . they have -- they have hundreds of thousands of our documents. they have it. but they can't come up with anything --

    >> do they have everything they're asking for?

    >> no.

    >> why not?

    >> we're trying to negotiate with them. it's so broad, they want everything. so give us a reason why they want certain documents. that's all we ask.

    >> sheriff joe arpaio , i always appreciate when you come on. thank you.

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