U.S. immigration authorities arrested 55 people Thursday and smashed what officials described as the largest illegal alien-smuggling ring ever found to be operating out of Lindbergh Field.
The ring, authorities said, was purchasing tickets on commercial airliners to move as many as 1,200 aliens per month from San Diego northward, mostly to Los Angeles. Aliens paid $250-300 each to the ring, which had been operating for at least four months, officials said.
"It was a very sophisticated, very well-organized ring," said Dale W. Cozart, chief agent of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego, which made the arrests after investigating the ring for several months.
More Arrests Possible
The investigation is continuing, and more arrests are possible, Cozart said at a news conference announcing the arrests.
Cozart said the smugglers made use of "safe houses" to hold the aliens and trained spotters who would watch the airports to determine whether immigration agents were present. The aliens used various commercial airliners, but Cozart stressed that the airlines cooperated in the investigation.
Airports in border cities are favored points of departure for aliens seeking to find work in the U.S. interior. Traveling by air instead of road averts the peril of immigration checkpoints that are stationed at all major roads leading from the U.S.-Mexican border. Once in cities such as Los Angeles or Chicago, cautious aliens face less of a chance of apprehension.
Immigration agents maintain a strong presence, both uniformed and in plainclothes, at airports in San Diego and elsewhere along the border. Smugglers who use the airport to move aliens are skilled at spotting plainclothes immigration officers.
In Thursday's action, Border Patrol agents arrested nine illegal aliens who were at Lindbergh preparing to board a commercial airliner bound for Los Angeles. Other airport arrests followed. Simultaneously, Cozart said, officers served search warrants on eight San Diego residences linked to the ring. Almost 50 officers participated in the operation.
In all, Cozart said, 55 people were arrested, most of them illegal aliens from Mexico. Among those arrested were 11 people--10 illegal aliens from Mexico and one Mexican-born legal U.S. resident--who are believed to be ring members; each faces a charge of alien smuggling. They could face 5-year jail terms and $2,000 fines for each person allegedly smuggled.
The names of those arrested were not immediately available. They are scheduled to be arraigned today in U.S. District Court in San Diego.
Among the others arrested, 16 illegal aliens from Mexico are being held as material witnesses. The rest were returned to Mexico.
Authorities also confiscated $8,458 in cash, several weapons, including a 9-millimeter Uzi rifle, and about half a pound of marijuana at the residences, Cozart said.