TIJUANA — The Peralta smuggling clan assembled the 68 illegal immigrants from Central America and Egypt at a ranch in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato that houses hundreds of non-Mexican clients--the Peraltas' lucrative specialty, authorities say.
The smugglers then allegedly bused the immigrants to Tijuana, crammed the valuable human cargo into three vans and set off on their best clandestine route across the border: a lane at the San Ysidro port of entry manned by U.S. Customs Inspector Guy Henry Kmett.
But the odyssey ended just short of Kmett's inspection booth when fellow inspectors roving through the steel river of cars glanced into one of the vans. Authorities arrested the eight-year Customs veteran after learning that Border Patrol agents working on a separate investigation had seen the vans at his house days earlier.
The unfolding case offers rare insight into the booming, sophisticated industry that smuggles immigrants into the United States. Smugglers are gaining new clients and experimenting with new tactics and routes as strengthened U.S. border defenses make it harder for illegal immigrants to cross on their own. And the arrest of Kmett late last year demonstrates that smugglers are enlisting U.S. and Mexican law enforcement officials as brazen partners in crime, officials said.
"The more difficult the crossing, the better the business for the smugglers," said Miguel Vallina, assistant chief of the Border Patrol in San Diego.
Compared to Mexico's swaggering drug barons, the smuggling bosses keep a low profile. Veteran investigators struggle to understand the dimensions and inner workings of the shadowy enterprises that traffic in immigrants.
"The hardest thing is to know how many smuggling rings there are," said Louie Cross, a Border Patrol investigator. "The long-term groups stay constant, but the people change."
Tijuana kingpins such as the three Peralta brothers and Manuel Garcia Ramirez, alias "the Prophet," have accumulated wealth and influence. Their operations extend into California, Central America and overseas. In one month the Peraltas earn a million dollars and move a thousand immigrants, authorities say.
For years, though, law enforcement's interest in the smuggling underworld has been tepid. Judicial indifference usually ensures sentences of two years or less. Unlike drug cases, prosecutors cannot use racketeering statutes to go after assets. Despite the hype about new resources accompanying the Border Patrol's Operation Gatekeeper crackdown, anti-smuggling units remain half their authorized size, according to Vallina.
U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin is leading an effort to prosecute immigrant smuggling more aggressively. In an unprecedented step, the FBI will target selected cases. The agency is investigating the corruption aspect of the Kmett case, described as a textbook example of smuggling as organized crime.
"We are trying to take a new approach," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Michael G. Wheat. "Basically, alien smuggling is modern-day slavery. The whole idea behind slavery was moving humans to perform labor. The way the aliens are moved, the way they are treated, this is just a sophisticated form of slavery."
Not all smugglers belong to ruthless organized gangs. Numerous free-lancers and "weekend guides" take pride in their services and assist friends and relatives for nominal fees.
Smuggling illegal immigrants in and out of Mexico is against the law in that nation. But Mexican law enforcement officers, particularly from the federal judicial police and immigration service, are part of the far-flung network moving immigrants north, according to officials in both nations.
At the Tijuana bus station, a hub of the Mexican diaspora, raucous recruiters troll for clients among crowds of wary migrants. The recruiters work for kingpins, who pay authorities for rights to the turf, according to law enforcement sources and the recruiters.
Mexican police also take bribes--as much as $40,000 a month--to permit operation of Tijuana safehouses where migrants are staged before making the journey north, sources said. Police have helped transport groups of Chinese, Central Americans and others using Mexico as a corridor to California, sources added.
"They drive transport, guarantee safety and get people out of jail sometimes," said a U.S. agent, who asked not to be named. "There is active corruption. . . . The smugglers who get arrested are the ones who don't have protection from the police."
A veteran Mexican immigration official echoed that assertion, although he said authorities have gotten tougher on corruption since the change in Mexican presidential administrations in December.