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LAX tightens security after alleged smuggling

September 05, 2008|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

Airport officials and federal authorities said Thursday that they have tightened security at Los Angeles International Airport because of the recent arrest of an elevator mechanic suspected of smuggling illegal immigrants into the United States.

Officials for LAX and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the measures included security adjustments at the federal inspection area inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Authorities declined to describe the changes to protect airport security.

"We have certainly reviewed the situation quite thoroughly and looked for opportunities to tighten security," said Jeff Fitch, deputy executive director of operations, maintenance and security for Los Angeles World Airports, which operates LAX.

Officials said the improvements were made following the arrest of Roberto Amaya Canchola, 53, on Aug. 23 at LAX, where he has worked as an elevator mechanic for more than 20 years.

Authorities believe the North Hills resident smuggled in at least 15 illegal immigrants, including two with criminal records who had previously been deported. They suspect that he might be part of a larger smuggling ring that used him to gain access to restricted areas at LAX.

According to court records, Canchola allegedly used his airport security clearances and a key to terminal elevators to help illegal immigrants skirt customs and immigration checks after arriving aboard Mexicana Airlines flights.

All international passengers arriving at the Bradley terminal must go through the federal inspection service area, where their passports and baggage are checked by customs officials before the travelers are allowed into the United States.

"We have reviewed the situation and made security adjustments in the federal inspection service area," said Mike Fleming, a Customs and Border Protection spokesman. "You try your best to make the necessary changes after these things happen."

Fleming and Fitch said Canchola received security clearances from LAX and the federal government and passed background checks that included his employment history and whether he had a criminal record.

"In terms of the suspect, we vetted him and he was clean," Fleming said.

Federal authorities became suspicious of Canchola after he was filmed by a surveillance camera on July 19 and July 26 guiding passengers through an exit at the Bradley terminal to a taxi waiting at the curb, according to federal court records.

The six passengers, all without luggage, were believed to have arrived on Mexicana Flight 112 from Guanajuato, Mexico.

Court records state that on Aug. 9, immigration agents observed Canchola escorting four adults and one infant, who had arrived from Mexico, onto and off an elevator in the terminal.

Authorities arrested Canchola on Aug. 23 after he guided five illegal immigrants through the airport, court documents state.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the case Thursday because the investigation is ongoing.

Despite Canchola's arrest, Fitch said that security remains "robust" at LAX and that law enforcement officials regularly assess security measures.

State officials have described LAX as the top potential target for terrorists in California.

"You depend on the constant evolution of security practices," Fitch said. "You look for things you can do to prevent these types of things from happening."

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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