A longtime elevator mechanic at Los Angeles International Airport has been charged with smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States by leading them out of the terminal before they were inspected by federal authorities.
Roberto Amaya Canchola, 53, was arrested at the airport Aug. 23 after a sting operation involving federal immigration agents. Authorities believe the North Hills resident smuggled in at least 15 illegal immigrants, including two with criminal records who had previously been deported. They all arrived on Mexicana flights from Guanajuato, Mexico, officials said.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. attorney's office are still investigating the allegations. Agents believe that Canchola was only one player in a larger smuggling organization and that he probably was used for his airport access.
"We don't know at this time how big it is," said Louis Rodi, assistant special agent in charge of immigration and customs investigations at the airport. "We believe he is not the biggest player. . . . We are targeting the larger organization."
Canchola's attorney, Paul Horgan, declined to comment on the accusations.
Rodi said the allegations show that there may be holes in security because of ongoing construction at the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Canchola "knew security and he knew where the holes were on any given day," Rodi said.
But airport officials said it is highly unlikely that gaps in security are occurring due to the construction. Canchola, a city employee for 23 years, had been cleared by both the airport and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to access the restricted area, said Nancy Castles, public relations director for Los Angeles World Airports.
Canchola has been working at the airport since 1989. He left in 2007 to work for the L.A. Department of Building and Safety, but returned to LAX in April 2008, undergoing new background checks at that time, Castles said. His annual salary as an elevator mechanic is nearly $81,000.
"His badge allowed him access to that area," Castles said. "It's what he allegedly did once he was there," that led to the federal charges.
Castles said the airport relies on a system of employment and criminal background checks to screen potential employees. More than 45,000 employees have airport badges.
The arrest was the first time airport officials could recall a city employee being accused of smuggling at the airport, Castles said.
Canchola was released on $100,000 bond and is scheduled to return to court Sept. 15. He faces a maximum of 10 years in federal prison if convicted, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
Immigration agents said they didn't know how long the alleged smuggling had been going on.
"I wouldn't rule out the possibility that additional aliens were brought into the country by this individual," said U.S. attorney's office spokesman Thom Mrozek.
Federal authorities caught Canchola on surveillance video July 19 and 26 guiding passengers through an exit to a taxi waiting at the curb, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. The six passengers, all without luggage, were believed to have arrived on Mexicana Flight 112 from Guanajuato, Mexico, but never went through immigration and customs inspection, according to the affidavit.
On Aug. 9, immigration agents observed Canchola guiding four adults and one infant, who had arrived from Mexico, onto an elevator on one floor and off of a different elevator on another floor, court papers said. He allegedly accessed certain floors by using a special key or identification card, court papers said.
The passengers signaled to Canchola by putting their hands over their hearts, "like they were saying the Pledge of Allegiance," Rodi said.
Canchola then allegedly led the passengers outside.
"These are people with money," he said. "They didn't look like people who were coming to pick strawberries."
One of the women held a job in Los Angeles as a computer analyst, he said.
The passengers were taken to downtown Los Angeles, where relatives allegedly paid other people involved in the smuggling operation, Rodi said. He said each immigrant may have paid about $4,500.
Rodi said he doesn't know how much Canchola may have been paid, but recent deposits show he may have received about $500 per immigrant.
To board the flight, the passengers had presented passports and permission to travel into the U.S., but discrepancies in the information were later discovered, court papers said.
The two immigrants with criminal records were arrested and charged in federal court.
Canchola was arrested after he allegedly repeated the process Aug. 23. Airport police confiscated and deactivated his badge at the time of his arrest.