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INS Official, 3 Others Charged

Crime: The suspects allegedly smuggled illegal immigrants into the U.S. through LAX by exploiting loopholes in a federal program.

June 12, 2002|PATRICK J. McDONNELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal agents have arrested four people, including a senior Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector at Los Angeles International Airport, on charges of smuggling illegal immigrants from the Philippines into the United States through LAX, authorities said Tuesday.

The alleged scheme exploited loopholes in the INS' Transit Without Visa Program, in which arriving international passengers en route to a third country can stop briefly in the United States while connecting to other flights. The program has come under scrutiny since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks focused attention on the weaknesses of controls at U.S. airports, borders and seaports.

Authorities cited no known link to terrorism in the LAX case--merely a highly profitable scheme in which people with no legal way to enter the U.S. paid up to $10,000 apiece.

INS officials initially considered shutting down the Transit Without Visa Program after the Sept. 11 attacks, but are now considering less drastic changes, such as limiting the number of airports using it and expanding the list of countries whose nationals are barred from no-visa transit travel.

More than 1 million foreigners lacking U.S. visas pass through the country each year as transit passengers en route to other nations.

"It's a program that needs to be looked at because there are loopholes in it," said Andrew Cowan, an assistant U.S. attorney who is handling the case against Maximiano R. Ramos, 52, a 19-year INS veteran.

Ramos and two alleged confederates, Eshraga E. Nugud, 41, and Gloria E. Acosta, 47, both employees of a private security firm at LAX, appeared Tuesday before a U.S. magistrate in Los Angeles. Ramos and Acosta were ordered held without bail, while Nugud's bond was set at $10,000.

The fourth suspect, Vinzon S. Perez, 57, is expected to appear in court today. A fifth suspect, Rita A. Cunanan, 42--described by authorities as Ramos' girlfriend and a former employee of a firm that helps handle ground arrangements at LAX for Philippine Airlines--remained at large, authorities said.

If convicted on federal smuggling charges, the defendants could each face up to five years in prison.

According to court documents, Ramos and his girlfriend helped coordinate the scheme through contacts in the Philippines. Ramos, a retired U.S. Marine, is a naturalized U.S. citizen from the Philippines.

Prosecutors say those to be smuggled would fly from the Philippines to LAX, making sure to arrive while Ramos was on duty. Nugud and Acosta, employees of Aviation Safeguards, allegedly would meet the passengers at their arriving flight gate and escort them past security and out of the terminal.

At that point, court papers allege, Perez and an accomplice would pick up the passengers and drive them to an apartment or "safe house" in Panorama City. They would remain there for several days until they were ready to leave for their final destinations in the United States.

On one occasion, the federal complaint alleges, Ramos, various confederates and several smuggled passengers who had arrived on the evening of Dec. 24, 2000, all had a Christmas Eve dinner together after leaving LAX.

Ramos was put on paid administrative leave pending resolution of the criminal matter, an INS spokesman said.

The Transit Without Visa Program was launched after World War II to help resettle refugees, many of whom lacked identity and travel documents. INS officials have argued that the program is obsolete and represents a security risk, but the airline industry has fought fiercely to maintain what is regarded as an important marketing tool.

The program allows carriers to route many of their most lucrative customers through LAX and other hubs in the United States, while offering fliers a means to avoid the inconvenience of obtaining visas, including time-consuming State Department background checks.

A central weakness of the program is that it relies largely on the airlines to police themselves and ensure that transit passengers actually leave the country. Typically, the airlines hire private security firms to "escort" transit passengers, but authorities fear the lure of graft from smuggling proceeds is too great a temptation for security guards and even INS officials.

The INS cannot easily verify that all transit passengers depart the country. Inspectors at airports do not confirm each departure at the time of boarding, but instead rely on an archaic paperwork system that takes weeks to enter into INS computers.

The four suspects allegedly conspired to meet the passengers at their arriving flight at LAX, divert them past their connecting flight and escort them past airport security. The schemers allegedly received about $10,000 per person smuggled, Cowan said.

The criminal complaint against the five was based on eight Philippine nationals allegedly smuggled into the country since 1998.

Cowan declined to comment on the volume of cases the defendants may have handled. The FBI also was involved in the case.

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