The leader of a group of immigrant smugglers who held people for ransom in San Fernando Valley houses while brutalizing and raping some of them was sentenced Monday to life in federal prison.
According to trial testimony, Mario Arenas-Morales, 34, ordered his men, five of whom have been convicted so far, to rape two female immigrants, beat and torture two men and abandon them without shoes in deserted areas in 1999.
U.S. District Judge George H. King in Los Angeles said Arenas-Morales deserved to spend the rest of his life in a federal prison for his leadership role and for the brutality of the crimes.
Another smuggler, Manuel Gonzalez-Garcia, 25, was sentenced Monday to 12 years and seven months in prison.
Immigrant Angel Garcia testified at the trial that as many as 20 men raped and sodomized his aunt and girlfriend while the three were held hostage by smugglers in a Canoga Park apartment.
A friend of Garcia, Francisco Rodriguez Acuna, was beaten with a wrench and kicked repeatedly by someone wearing steel-tipped boots, according to testimony.
The smugglers brutalized immigrants whose families could not immediately pay the ransom, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Peter Hernandez. Mexican immigrants typically pay more than $1,000; immigrants from Central America often pay more than $5,000, according to officials of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.
"This is the way they ran their business--through horrific and gruesome means," Hernandez said. "If you couldn't come up with the money you'd be raped or beaten." Garcia, Acuna and the two women subsequently were left in two deserted areas--the men in a field near Moorpark and the women near Brawley in Imperial County, authorities said.
Arenas-Morales' attorney said his client will appeal the sentence. Edmundo Espinoza said that Arenas-Morales was a smuggler, but that he was not the leader of the ring and played no role in the rapes and beatings.
"These guys weren't that organized. They did a lot of things on their own and things got out of hand," Espinoza said. "Everyone is offended by the crimes, but what my client did does not measure up to life in prison."
The smuggling ring seemed to have roots near the Mexican city of Puebla, Hernandez said. The ring was undone partly by authorities finding Garcia and Acuna and by a young smuggler having regrets about the rapes, the prosecutor said.
Shortly after the attacks, one of the suspects, Leonel Estudillo-Martinez, 21, called one of the women to ask for forgiveness.
Estudillo-Martinez later cooperated with INS agents to identify Arenas-Morales as the leader of the operation, authorities said.
When agents arrived at a house in Pacoima to arrest Arenas-Morales, he tried to speed off in a car and rammed into an INS vehicle. Agents arrested him and four other smugglers, authorities said.
Agents found three immigrants who were in the process of being dropped off at a deserted location, prosecutors said.
Last month, 14 men died trying to cross the scorching desert from Mexico and southwestern Arizona after being abandoned miles away from civilization by smugglers. A week later, 74 illegal immigrants being held for ransom were found in a south Los Angeles home.