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Watts Case Shows Difficulty of Halting Human Smuggling

Charges against three found in a packed house are tossed. No 'coyotes' or ringleaders are held.

June 19, 2004|Solomon Moore | Times Staff Writer

Two of the three people charged by federal prosecutors in April with operating a human smuggling ring out of a Watts "safe house" were actually immigrants paying for passage into the United States, according to authorities.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials have dropped charges against the two men as well as a woman they suspect may have had some connection to the smugglers. Moreover, investigators said they had few clues about who was actually running the smuggling operation.

The Watts raids highlight the trouble federal officials have apprehending both "coyotes," who guide illegal immigrants into this country, and the masterminds who oversee the rings. It's also another setback in a raid first believed to have been a victory in the battle against smuggling of people.

Agents compare Latin American human-smuggling operations to the drug-trafficking cartels that dominated cross-border crime during the 1980s and '90s. But unlike the circumstances of the long-running drug war, in which cartels were often identified by name, the U.S. government is just beginning to identify the largest targets in the booming human smuggling trade, officials said.

"I'm not sure the public is aware of how complex and deep-seated these organizations are," said Scott Weber, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit. "These organizations have a huge profit motive."

The Watts house alone operated as long as two years, officials say, funneling up to 400 people a week at a fee of $3,000 to $10,000 per head into the United States.

Authorities discovered the house in April, crammed with more than 100 Latin American migrants -- some held against their will. At the time, officials thought they had captured at least a few of the actual smugglers who were keeping the immigrants until their families secured final payments. But during interviews with migrants from the safe house, that contention crumbled.

Marvyn Raul Soto-Chavez was one of the three initially arrested on suspicion of smuggling. But in a jailhouse interview, he insisted that he was one of those being smuggled.

When he could not pay the last $3,000 of his bill to the smugglers, he said, his captors agreed to let him work off the debt through a variety of chores, including cooking meals and cleaning the single, broken toilet in the house. He said he also had called relatives of other migrants to demand ransom.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice said officials were now inclined to believe Soto-Chavez's story. She described him and the other two whose charges were dropped as "little fish" in what is though to be a large, sophisticated human smuggling organization.

Kice said Soto-Chavez had refused to cooperate with federal agents, perhaps fearing retaliation by the smugglers. He will probably be deported this month.

In an interview, he offered a lengthy description of his journey from San Salvador to Watts that speaks to the size, sophistication and reach of the smuggling rings. The following account is based on the interview and court records:

Soto-Chavez had no problem finding a smuggler in San Salvador to organize his passage to the United States, he said, adding that within a week of contacting one, he found himself on a bus headed north.

The guide from San Salvador left him at El Salvador's border, where Soto-Chavez was joined by two other coyotes, rugged woodsmen who led him and other Salvadoran migrants who accompanied him to a truck loading dock across the Guatemala line. Then began an 18-hour journey to Mexico City.

The group boarded a bus there, driven by another smuggling operative, for a 10-hour trek to Guadalajara. They met their first serious obstacle -- a military checkpoint -- in that city.

"The soldiers told all seven of us to get off the bus and line up," Soto-Chavez said. "A 16-year-old boy was with us. He cried too and tried to run away. The soldiers grabbed him by the hair and made him tell them where we were from."

At that point, the bus driver led the soldiers away for a private discussion. Soto-Chavez suspects that the driver bribed the soldiers, "because when they came back, the soldiers were smiling and joking."

The soldiers smiled and waved at them as the bus pulled away.

Finally, the group arrived at Hermosillo in the state of Sonora, which borders Arizona. There they were joined by 19 other migrants and were told to wash and put on their best clothes -- they were to cross the U.S. line the next day. Two fresh guides led them on foot for three days through the desert near Nogales as the group grew to about 60 migrants.

Soto-Chavez said that once they were in the United States, their guides grew increasingly belligerent, threatening the slowest of the group and occasionally hitting the migrants.

For the first time during the trip, both guides carried guns, he said.

Eventually, the group rendezvoused with several vans, which drove them through the night to Los Angeles.

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