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California and the West

4 Indicted in Deaths of Smuggled Immigrants

Border: Mexican nationals are accused of abandoning two migrants who were found frozen near San Diego after a snowstorm.

April 15, 1999|KEN ELLINGWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Four men who allegedly led undocumented Mexican nationals on a fatal trek through snowy San Diego County mountains two weeks ago were indicted Wednesday on federal immigrant smuggling charges.

The indictments allege that the immigrants died en route, charges that could bring maximum life sentences in federal prison.

The grand jury indictments stem from an April 2 tragedy in which eight migrants froze to death and dozens of others were rescued after being caught in a sudden overnight snowstorm.

Three suspects are accused of smuggling a group of five across the U.S. border into a rugged swath of Cleveland National Forest. One of those migrants, Sebastian Diaz Avila, 28, died. The other suspect is accused in the death of Jose Rene Benitez Tadillo, thought to be between 15 and 17, who died in the cold. Both of the victims were found in Nelson Canyon, about 40 miles east of San Diego.

All four suspects are charged with immigrant smuggling resulting in death, plus a charge of immigrant smuggling for financial gain, which carries a possible 10-year maximum term.

Those charged, all Mexican nationals, were: Jesus Rodriguez Cruz, 36; Carlos Javier Gutierrez Sanchez, 28; Luis Alberto Meza Rosario, 28; and Eliseo Herrera Barrera, 29.

Assistant U.S. Atty. John Parmley, based in San Diego, said it is unlikely that anyone else will be charged. "Our investigation identified these people and it's pretty limited to these people," Parmley said.

Eight migrants, some dressed only in T-shirts and flimsy sneakers, were found dead in two canyons just south of Interstate 8 near Descanso after the freak April storm that dropped more than a foot of snow and sent temperatures into the 20s.

The discovery of a group of migrants suffering from the cold set off a broad air and ground search by the U.S. Border Patrol and San Diego County Sheriff's Department. More than 50 survivors were rescued near Descanso and farther south near the town of Campo.

The tragedy renewed debate over the rising death toll of immigrants crossing the border illegally into California. So far this year, 36 Mexican migrants have died, according to the Mexican Consulate in San Diego. More than 140 died last year. Five years previously, when far more migrants were illegally crossing into San Diego, 44 deaths were reported at the border statewide.

Critics of the U.S. border crackdown, called Operation Gatekeeper, say heightened enforcement near San Diego during the last five years has driven immigrants into risky routes through mountains and desert to the east.

As the indictments were announced, two rights groups were asking the United Nations' Human Rights Commission to look into whether the strategy violates international human rights standards by placing migrants in harm's way.

Claudia Smith of the Oceanside-based California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation was to appear before the commission in Geneva today to seek the appointment of a special rights investigator.

"I don't think anyone supports the work of smugglers. They should be condemned," said Jordan Budd, managing attorney with the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial counties, which co-sponsored the petition. "But that doesn't absolve the U.S. government of its shared responsibility for having created the circumstances that permit these smugglers to do their terrible work."

U.S. immigration officials blame smugglers for leading poorly prepared migrants into desolate, often dangerous corridors, and sometimes abandoning them. Some of the survivors pulled from the snow said they were left behind by their smugglers.

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