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/ DEVELOPMENTS IN LOS ANGELES COUNTY

Illegal Immigrants Found Imprisoned in House

March 11, 1999

EL MONTE — Police this week discovered about 50 illegal immigrants from Mexico being held captive in a small home until they paid the smugglers who had transported them across the border, officials said.

An El Monte police officer spotted a group of about 12 men running away from the house on Durfee Avenue at 9:30 a.m., Lt. John Burkhart said. The officer stopped to see what had happened and found 38 more people crammed inside.

A security gate and barred windows kept them from moving from room to room and from escaping, though some of the men managed to remove the bars on one window, Burkhart said. He said they were packed tightly in the house, but in relatively good conditions.

"The people were well-fed," he said. "The plumbing worked. They had blankets. They weren't cold or filthy."

The police called the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which detained 42 of the immigrants after some escaped, officials said. The agency could not identify those responsible for keeping them in the house and it was unclear whether they may have been among those who escaped, said Jim Hayes, supervisor of the INS anti-smuggling unit.

He said the Mexican nationals had crossed the border near Calexico and were expected to pay from $1,200 to $1,300. Such high fees have become common since the INS border crackdown, dubbed Operation Gatekeeper, made it more difficult for illegal immigrants to cross, he said. Formerly, small operations did most of the smuggling, but now large organized crime rings have taken control, demanding higher fees for crossing isolated desert terrain.

The would-be immigrants, found Tuesday, were returned to Tijuana that night, Hayes said.

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