Seventy Illegal Migrants Found In Southern California Raid
Updated: March 4th, 2006 10:04 PM EDT
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ANDREW BLANKSTEIN and ANNA GORMAN
Los Angeles Times
Nearly 70 illegal immigrants packed into a small "drop house" in Willowbrook were discovered Friday by law enforcement officers, underscoring the difficulty authorities have faced in cracking down on human smuggling in Southern California.
Immigration agents have made some strides but acknowledge that they continue to encounter obstacles. The biggest problem is getting beyond the men who operate the drop houses and finding the kingpins who actually run the smuggling rings.
Friday's bust points up that difficulty: Authorities said the five men apparently operating the house appeared to be gang members hired by the smuggling ring to keep the immigrants from escaping. At least one of the guards has been identified as belonging to the notorious Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gang, agents said. All of the guards, now in custody, are believed to be illegal immigrants.
Southern California is considered a hotbed of human smuggling. After a widely publicized case in Watts two years ago, federal officials announced a major crackdown that included operations at Los Angeles International Airport and greater cooperation with local law enforcement. They also started going after the money behind the smuggling rings by tracking fund transfers and freezing bank accounts.
As federal authorities have beefed up enforcement at the border, the smuggling rings have become more powerful, expensive and elusive. As a result, it has become riskier for migrants to cross the border and harder for authorities to find safe houses and the smugglers who run them.
"Because the smuggling fees have gone up astronomically, there is more money to be made and it is attracting increasingly sophisticated and ruthless organizations," said Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice. "They are trying to stay one step ahead of us, and it's our job to outmaneuver them."
In the last two years, ICE has discovered approximately one dozen major drop houses throughout Southern California. The agency is seeing an increasing number in the Inland Empire. In December, authorities found 25 illegal immigrants in a drop house near downtown Riverside.
Although arrests have been made, officials have said it's difficult reaching the upper echelons of the rings, the kingpins who are for most part based in Mexico or Central America. The ringleaders use a network of underlings, including illegal immigrants and gang members, to operate the houses.
Even when safe houses are found, law enforcement often cannot track down the smugglers who run them because they distance themselves from daily operations, often running the rings from their native countries. So after a raid, a smuggling ring can hire new guards, find a new house and start operations again.
In the most recent case, federal agents received a tip Wednesday from a relative of a migrant about a possible hostage situation. With the help of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department SWAT team, immigration agents executed a federal warrant at 6 a.m. Friday.
They discovered the immigrants crammed into four bedrooms with no light fixtures and no furniture except for unplugged televisions. On the walls were a red painted cross and scrawled phone numbers. Clothes were piled in the bathtub, and the immigrants' shoes had been taken from them, authorities said. The immigrants had been fed chicken, tortillas, hot sauce and orange juice, authorities said.
The windows were barred and covered with blankets, and surveillance cameras monitored the outside of the 1,500-square-foot converted duplex in a neighborhood of homes costing roughly $300,000 to $400,000 just south of the 105 Freeway. There were two entrances, both guarded. Authorities also found a loaded .357 magnum handgun under a bed in one of the rooms where the guards slept.
"They were obviously held against their will," said Frank Johnston, ICE assistant special agent in charge. "The conditions were utter squalor."
One of the illegal immigrants has active tuberculosis, agents said. The immigrants, including 13 minors and nine women, came from Nicaragua, Mexico, El Salvador, Ecuador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The immigrants told agents they had paid between $3,000 and $10,000 to be guided across the U.S.-Mexico border, authorities said, but smugglers demanded more money after they arrived in Los Angeles County.
Some had been in the house for as long as eight weeks; others had arrived Thursday. Agents said smugglers took new illegal immigrants into the house through the side entrance.
"The coming and going of the immigrants was in the dead of night," said Kevin Jeffery, acting special agent in charge for ICE.
Neighbors said they didn't notice anything unusual except for residents frequently taking in bags and bags of groceries, and the wooden barriers on the side of the house, apparently meant to block views from the street.
"I've never seen anything out of the ordinary there," said Irene Martinez, 37, who has lived in the neighborhood for four years. "I've never seen [lots of] people coming in and out of the house."
Amy Mendoza, who lives next door, said the house appeared quiet. "Everything was normal," she said.
On Friday morning, Mendoza, 18, said she saw about a dozen law enforcement officers, guns drawn, descend on the property. Outside, law enforcement officers talked to people in the rain, many barefoot, some sitting or standing on the curb. Two buses retrieved most of them, but a small group was taken away in a van, she said.
Because drop houses are usually in residential neighborhoods, they can go undetected for months or even years.
Federal agents also frequently have trouble persuading the illegal immigrants to cooperate with law enforcement. Many fear retaliation or plan to hire the smugglers again.
"Once they are sent home, they will try to come back in," Johnston said. "They'll use the same smugglers."
In before the dupe!
and nothing new!!!
Of course the neighbors didn't think it weird for all the windows to be covered with blankets and 4 guys going through tons of food....