The two men who authorities allege helped keep 146 illegal immigrants in two separate safe houses in South Los Angeles were themselves illegal immigrants who told investigators they were working to pay off their debt to a human smuggling ring.
The men, both Guatemalan nationals, were identified as Jose Garcia Rush and Marco Vinicio Jimenez. They were each charged Thursday with one count of harboring and concealing illegal immigrants and accused of working as guards at one of two houses raided by authorities Wednesday.
Safe houses are typically places where smuggled immigrants stay temporarily before arriving at a final destination. Frequently, immigrants are kept locked inside so they won't be spotted by neighbors, or if they are unable to pay smugglers' fees, investigators said.
Garcia and Jimenez were arrested at 853 W. 80th St. at about 2 p.m. Wednesday along with 58 migrants, officials said. Five hours later, a second safe house containing 88 people was discovered 20 blocks away in the 100 block of West 59th Place.
Garcia, 22, "slept at the front of the house so nobody could escape," the court complaint said. He is also accused of using brass knuckles and a baseball bat to keep people from leaving the house. That group included 45 Ecuadoreans, 10 Salvadorans and three Guatemalans.
Jimenez, 20, handed out food to immigrants and told them "to keep quiet and not to make any noise." He also allowed immigrants to call family members and arrange smuggling payments, according to court documents.
Both men told investigators they had agreed to pay thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the United States. They could not pay the entire debt, so they went to work for the smugglers.
Federal authorities have struggled to apprehend high-level leaders of the smuggling rings, who generally stay away from safe houses.
According to investigators, Garcia and Jimenez probably are low-level operatives in a larger smuggling operation.
"This is not a mom-and-pop deal," said Kevin Jeffery, an agent in the Los Angeles office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "There is a large amount of organization and arrangements that have to be made."
Jeffery said immigrants found in both houses paid between $5,000 and $7,000 to be smuggled into the United States through Arizona, where they also stayed in safe houses before arriving in Los Angeles.
Many of the immigrants arrested Wednesday said they had stayed in South Los Angeles for a week before being discovered by authorities, Jeffery said.
Jeffery said safe houses are common in the Los Angeles area, with about two dozen of them being dismantled in the last year. What's new, he said, are the kinds of immigrants arriving here.
"We're seeing a lot more people from Central and South America," he said.