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417 Immigrants Found in 3 Big Rigs Crossing Desert

Border: Agents say smugglers are moving operations east and using more 'desperate measures.'

January 31, 1998|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Border Patrol last weekend seized three semitrucks loaded with a total of 417 illegal immigrants in the Imperial County desert, providing evidence that the agency's strategy to curb illegal immigration in the San Diego sector is working, Border Patrol officials said Friday.

The trucks were stopped Jan. 23, 24 and 25 north of El Centro. A Border Patrol spokesman said it was the first time that agents had seen 18-wheelers used to smuggle large numbers of people at one time in the sector along the California-Mexico border.

"We've seen smugglers use [rental] trucks carrying 25 to 30 people, but these cases have decreased dramatically," said Agent Randy Clark, spokesman for the Border Patrol in El Centro. "When tractor-trailers were used in the past, the smugglers usually carried one or two in the sleeper area or 15 in the back. Until last week, we had never seen an 18-wheeler with 100 or more aliens in the back."

Johnny Williams, acting Immigration and Naturalization Service regional director, says the Border Patrol's effectiveness at curbing illegal immigration in San Diego and east San Diego County has forced smugglers to resort to "desperate measures" such as using the bigger trucks to smuggle large numbers of people at one time and moving their operation into the desert.

Another sign of the agency's effectiveness at cutting the flow of illegal immigration along the traditional route is the rising fee that immigrants must pay smugglers, Williams said. Officials said the immigrants in the 18-wheelers told agents they paid $800 to $1,000 for the trip to Los Angeles. Two years ago the fee was about $200, Williams added.

Roberto Martinez, head of a San Diego-based immigrant rights group, said, "Williams is half right."

"It is getting harder for immigrants to cross, but [riding in tractor-trailers] also shows their desperation in wanting to come here," said Martinez. "It also raises the stakes and possibility of large numbers of deaths if a traffic accident should happen, say in a Border Patrol chase.

"But despite what the Border Patrol says, the only people benefiting from their strategy are the smugglers, whose fees have more than doubled," Martinez said.

In the first incident, Henry Mendoza, 71, was stopped at the checkpoint on California 86, about 70 miles north of El Centro on the western side of the Salton Sea at 12:30 a.m. Jan. 23. Mendoza, a U.S. citizen and Calexico resident, owned the truck he was driving, but not the trailer, Clark said.

Agents became suspicious when they spotted "a large vent" at the top of the trailer and received Mendoza's permission to look inside, Clark said. The agents found 107 immigrants hiding in the trailer, he added.

On Jan. 24, an 18-wheeler driven by James Lopez Santiago, 59, was stopped by agents at the California 111 checkpoint about 70 miles north of El Centro on the eastern side of the Salton Sea at 8 p.m. Lopez, a U.S. citizen and Los Angeles resident, acted nervous and the agents became suspicious, Clark said. When agents opened the back of the trailer, they found 133 immigrants inside, he said.

In the third case, Alberto Espinoza Ruiz, 39, was stopped at 10 p.m. by Border Patrol agents and Imperial County sheriff's deputies Jan. 25 on Interstate 8, about 10 miles west of El Centro. Clark said Espinoza, whom he described as an illegal immigrant from Mexicali, was driving drunk.

"When the agents opened the trailer, they discovered 177 people inside," Clark said.

The drivers were charged with smuggling undocumented immigrants, officials said.

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