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19 Illegal Immigrants Found in Truck on Harbor Freeway

Six are taken to hospital for dehydration. Driver is arrested on suspicion of human smuggling.

March 09, 2004|Arlene Martinez | Times Staff Writer

Nineteen illegal immigrants spent at least 12 hours stuffed inside the camper shell of a Chevrolet pickup truck before a motorist noticed them screaming for help and alerted authorities.

Immigration officials believe the passengers got into the truck Sunday evening in Mexicali after paying smugglers to get them into the United States, though they are unsure what route brought them into Los Angeles on Monday morning.

Six of the passengers, who were suffering from dehydration because of the cramped conditions and record heat, were taken to local hospitals. There was no indication that the immigrants had had anything to eat or drink since leaving Mexico.

"They had been packed into a very tight space," said Los Angeles Fire Department spokesman Jim Wells. "They were suffering from dehydration, shortness of breath and chest pains."

A motorist driving on the San Bernardino Freeway in East Los Angeles noticed the immigrants motioning for attention, shouting and trying to break out of the camper shell about 10 a.m., said California Highway Patrol Officer Alex Delgadillo.

The motorist called authorities, but continued to follow the truck onto the Harbor Freeway. "He stayed on the cellphone, giving us updates and calling out locations," Delgadillo said. "Thank God he stayed on the phone."

CHP officers pulled over the truck on the Vernon Avenue offramp of the Harbor Freeway. Some passengers were so weak they needed help off the truck, said Juan Custodio, 45, who was at a coin laundry near the offramp when the vehicle was stopped.

Officials allowed the immigrants to lie down against an iron fence. Some bystanders yelled "Let them go!" and "Run!" Others, however, went to a nearby Burger King to purchase sandwiches and drinks for the passengers or offer water and Gatorade from the local Ralphs supermarket.

Many of the bystanders were themselves immigrants and said they sympathized with the passengers. "All the hopes you bring to this country ... they're gone," Custodio said.

Arnoldo Lopez, who lives just off Vernon Avenue, also was drawn to the scene by his own experiences. "We come here to fight, to work and to earn for our family," said Lopez, 34, a Guatemalan who came to the United States in 1989. "It's sad what happened."

Authorities arrested the driver of the truck on suspicion of human smuggling. His name has not been released. The immigrants -- 10 men and nine women -- were in federal custody and, after questioning, were expected to be sent back to Mexico.

Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said her agency is trying to determine whether the driver acted alone or worked for a larger ring.

Considering that temperatures were in the upper 80s, "it's really remarkable that more people didn't become ill," Kice said. "You had a very, very dangerous situation."

Kice said such smuggling is common across California and Arizona. On March 4, a 10-foot-long U-Haul truck with 28 undocumented immigrants, including a 6-year-old girl, was found near Tucson.

"Smugglers don't look at them [immigrants] as human beings. They look at them as cargo," Kice said. "I wish I could say that this was unusual. What's unusual is that it became a public spectacle because it happened on a major Los Angeles freeway."

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