A raid by federal agents on a South-Central Los Angeles "drop house" led to the arrests of four principals in a major smuggling operation suspected of transporting hundreds of illegal aliens by air to New York, Chicago and Miami in recent weeks, immigration officials said Wednesday.
Describing the ring as "one of the nation's largest and most sophisticated alien smuggling operations," Immigration and Naturalization Service Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell said he expected that the Tuesday raid--which also netted 21 illegal aliens--would soon be followed by the arrests of other "key principals" of the group in New York.
INS officials said there was accumulating evidence that the ring broken up Tuesday had worked in concert with other transcontinental smuggling operations, suggesting that the methods employed by "coyotes" who shuttle illegal workers on commercial flights are more sophisticated than initially believed.
"Every smuggler we've picked up (in the last two weeks) had some connection with this organization," said INS Los Angeles District Director Ernest Gustafson.
Before Tuesday's raid, INS agents had arrested eight other suspected smugglers since the first widespread arrests of immigrants began in late February at Los Angeles International Airport and air terminals in Atlanta and New York.
Records seized during recent arrests and interviews with detained illegal aliens indicate that smugglers from several independent rings have been working together to link up with immigrant clients, Gustafson said. Documents found Tuesday showed that the South-Central smuggling ring brought in more than $500,000 in recent weeks.
"These groups are sharing referrals, money and specialties," Gustafson said.
Immigration officials estimated that before the recent wave of arrests, the smuggling ring had flown "several hundred" aliens to destinations on the East Coast and in the Midwest. Among them were large groups of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Brazil--countries that had not been previously considered major "sending areas" of undocumented aliens to the United States.
INS spokesman Ron Rogers said that the South-Central group was responsible for transporting "a majority" of the 79 illegal aliens who were arrested Feb. 27 at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport on their way to New York, the first of what has proven to be a series of large-scale arrests on airplanes and in drop houses.
Agents from the INS' so-called "Coyote Busters," a newly formed task force aimed at smugglers of undocumented workers, began surveillance three days ago on the one-story stucco drop house in the 500 block of West 85th Street after receiving information from several of the immigrants arrested in Atlanta that it had been used to temporarily house them, Rogers said.
Surrounded the House
At about 7 p.m. Tuesday night, INS agents surrounded the three-room house. In the kitchen, they found eight illegal aliens hemmed in around a stove, frying potatoes. The others were wedged into a tiny bedroom.
"You wouldn't leave an animal in those kind of unsanitary conditions," Ezell said.
The INS commissioner, who joined other immigration officials on the raid, said that one elderly immigrant told authorities she was held in the drop house for 10 days. The woman reported that after paying the smugglers, she rode buses north from Mexico City to Tijuana and then to the border. After being led with others across the crossing point, Ezell said, her group was driven north from San Diego to Los Angeles.
A fee schedule seized at the house listed the payments required from the immigrants for the services they required. The fees ranged from $950 to $6,000.
"It all depended on what you needed," Rogers said. "If they took care of everything, it could get pretty steep."
Use 'Redeye' Flights
Typically, Gustafson said, the smugglers would wait until the late night "redeye" flights to order their tickets because the prices were cheap and there were fewer security and airport administrative personnel to notice their large group of immigrant clients.
After the recent wave of arrests began, the smuggling operation tried to change its tactics. Several telephone numbers taken from arrested immigrants in New York tipped off the agency that the smugglers were planning to fly aliens from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and then on to New York--avoiding the closely watched Los Angeles-to-Atlanta-to-New York route.
The bolstered presence of INS agents at Los Angeles airports, Ezell said, has kept illegal aliens from leaving many of the 30 to 40 suspected drop houses in Southern California. INS officials added that in addition to the Tuesday arrests, they have begun surveillance at a dozen other drop houses in preparation for similar raids.
The four men arrested and held on suspicion of smuggling were identified as Hector Gomez-Miranda, 23, of Guatemala; Martin Garcia-Saldana, 18, of Mexico; Orlando Navarete-Leones, 23, of El Salvador and Dubon Serrano, 21, also from El Salvador. All were described as "middlemen" in the operation. The 21 illegal aliens will be allowed to return voluntarily to Mexico or face a deportation hearing.
INS officials also announced that four Mexican immigrants were arrested at Los Angeles International Airport Wednesday on their way to take a flight to Chicago. The arrests raised the total number of illegal aliens apprehended at Los Angeles-area airports to 439 since Feb. 28.