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Immigrant smuggler given 6 years in prison

March 10, 2009|Hector Becerra

The leader of the Three Franciscos, a ring accused of transporting more than 9,000 illegal immigrants through Los Angeles and around the country, was sentenced to six years in federal prison Monday.

Federal officials called the organization the most prolific of its kind ever uncovered in Los Angeles, collecting fees as high as $3,700 from relatives of immigrants who were packed into cramped vans and safe houses.

"We estimated they were moving about 100 a week," said Jennifer Silliman, deputy special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles. The group was known as the Three Franciscos because all three of the operators had the same first name.

"They weren't using the best vehicles. Not everyone had seat belts. A lot of times the vehicles were old, or they got in an accident" Silliman added. "They were essentially overloaded."

On Monday, Francisco Andres-Francisco, 40, was sentenced in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. In November, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to harbor, conceal and transport illegal immigrants. Another leader of the organization, Francisco Andres-Pedro, 36, was previously sentenced to 33 months in prison. The third man, Francisco Pedro-Francisco, 30, remains a fugitive.

Federal agents say Andres-Francisco was the main boss of the operation. Like the other two, he is from Huehuetenango in Guatemala. Together they built a well-oiled organization that by conservative estimates made at least $9 million since 2005 transporting mainly Guatemalans and other Central Americans.

The group came to the attention of federal agents in 2005 after the LAPD found 146 illegal immigrants in two safe houses in South Los Angeles.

The smuggling ring allegedly picked up immigrants who had crossed the border in Arizona, held them in drop houses in Los Angeles and Lancaster and then drove them in vans and SUVs to New Jersey, Tennessee and Illinois.

Smugglers typically confiscated immigrants' shoes to keep them from running away, and the windows of the safe houses were boarded up.

Two men who authorities said acted as guards were illegal immigrants trying to pay off their debts.

The organization had connections as far as Ecuador. The hired drivers went through the underworld equivalent of a quick internship, going on dry runs with illegal immigrants to test their mettle.

The leaders meticulously calculated the cost of trips and expected drivers to pay back money that was not used, according to a federal affidavit.

During cross-country trips that often went to the East Coast, smugglers gave the immigrants little to eat so that they would not have to go to the bathroom.

In 2007, one of the group's minivans crashed in Phoenix, throwing 10 immigrants from the vehicle, with some of them suffering crushed internal organs and brain hemorrhaging.

Virginia Kice, an ICE spokeswoman, said that people who smuggle illegal immigrants often demand more money from relatives than what was agreed on.

"These aren't people who are trying to help people," she said. "They're in it for one reason and one reason only: for profit. They do everything they can to maximize their return. To them, these people are cargo."

Andres-Francisco, the most influential of the group's three leaders, was arrested last year in Pennsylvania while driving a van loaded with immigrants.

Kice said it was relatively unusual for the leaders to do the transporting themselves.

"But sometimes managers in an organization have to do work too," she said.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com

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