Immigration agents and El Monte police broke up what one official described as a "brokerage for humans" Wednesday, taking into custody 86 illegal aliens from Mexico who had been locked in a small house and a van by smugglers.
Federal immigration officials said that some of the aliens had not eaten in at least two days but appeared to be in fair physical condition.
"They were tired and hungry and allegedly hadn't eaten in two days," said William J. Carroll, deputy director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Los Angeles district. "They're lucky we arrived when we did."
Locked in Bedrooms
Harold Ezell, INS western regional commissioner, said that the immigrants were temporarily locked in a van and three bedrooms of the house by smugglers who intended to dispatch them to employers in the Los Angeles area.
Ezell said that while INS agents were interrogating the aliens, several employers telephoned the El Monte house to place work orders, unaware they were talking to federal officials.
"People kept calling, placing orders," Ezell said. "It's a brokerage for humans."
INS officials said that in addition to the aliens, they also arrested three others who were apparently involved in the smuggling operations. Carroll said that two of those arrested, a man and a woman who gave the names of Alejandro Morales and Gloria Cardenas, would be charged with violating federal smuggling laws, which carry maximum penalties of five years imprisonment and a $2,000 fine for each count. A third unnamed man, believed to be the driver of the van, also faces unspecified charges.
Morales was slightly injured, Carroll said, when he tried to flee after being handcuffed. He dived through a window, breaking his nose and cutting his face and limbs. Morales was treated for the injuries, Carroll said.
Object of Stakeout
INS officials said that their agents had been staking out the bungalow, in the 11700 block of Lower Azusa Road, for several days, gathering evidence for a raid. But at about 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, El Monte police suddenly raided the house, acting on a neighbor's tip about "suspicious activity" in the bungalow.
Henry Kuntz, a retiree who lives next door to the house, said he first noticed trucks unloading people at the house a month ago. "I called (El Monte) police a week ago Monday and they told me to call immigration," he said. "I called, and all I got was a recording, so I said the hell with it."
But another neighbor called police Wednesday morning, telling them that a truck was unloading more people, Ezell said. An El Monte police spokesman declined comment.
Federal officials described the smuggling activity at the drop-off house as a "large-scale operation," in which 70 to 80 illegal aliens were unloaded each night after being driven into the area from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sold to Employers
Once immigrants were brought to the house, officials said, they were then sold to employers in the Los Angeles area, for fees ranging from $200 to $400 per person.
The 86 immigrants, men except for three women and three children, were taken to the INS detention facility at El Centro. They will be offered the choice of returning voluntarily to Mexico or having an immigration hearing in Los Angeles, Carroll said.