INS Breaks Up Major Ring of Smugglers

Times Staff Writer

Capping a six-month investigation, U.S. immigration authorities said Tuesday that they have broken up a sophisticated, San Diego-based smuggling ring that allegedly funneled thousands of illegal aliens into the United States and earned millions of dollars over the last five years.

Most of the aliens involved were Mexican nationals, but authorities said the organization extended as far south as Guatemala, where aliens were recruited to provide farm labor in California. The ring--17 of whose members were arrested in the last two days--was a "major supplier" of farm workers to labor contractors in the San Joaquin Valley, said Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the INS.

Officials said the ring displayed a troubling degree of sophistication that demonstrated how smugglers seeking potentially huge profits have adapted to the mass movement of illegal labor.

Noting the ring's broad tentacles, immigration officials likened it to a "conglomerate" consisting of three smuggling rings that brokered alien labor, depending on the demand. If one branch of the organization could not provide the labor, officials explained, another branch would be contacted and asked to fill the demand.

"This was a very sophisticated operation," Ezell said at a news conference here. "They were operating a form of slavery, brokering human beings."

Immigration officials said they had arrested a total of 18 alleged ring members in various raids in San Diego, including seven identified as principals, nine guides and transporters, and two Los Angeles-based smugglers. Officials expect to seize 30 vehicles, 20 of which are already in federal custody, authorities said. Additional arrests are also expected, and the investigation is continuing.

Among the vehicles seized was an 18-foot truck with a secret compartment that could hold as many as 50 illegal aliens, authorities said. The truck was seized in San Diego on Monday night, and 25 aliens on board were arrested, officials said.

For some time, the ring had been dropping large groups of aliens at a warehouse in Chula Vista. For that reason, the investigation was called "Operation Bodega." Bodega is the Spanish word for warehouse.

In recent months, investigators said, the ring has been using two "safe houses" in Logan Heights as drop-off points for illegal aliens being moved northward.

Officials said the ring had been in operation for as long as five years. The smugglers were moving as many as 400 illegal aliens each week into the United States and earning weekly profits of more than $100,000, officials said. Aliens paid about $300 each to be transported from Tijuana to various job sites in California, officials said, adding that the price was much higher for aliens seeking to travel from the Mexican interior or Guatemala.

Two ring members in custody have boasted that they earned more than $1 million during the life of the smuggling operation, officials said.

On Tuesday, two alleged principals in the ring were arraigned in U.S. District Court in San Diego on charges of smuggling and harboring illegal aliens, said Assistant U.S. Atty. Lynne Lasry. Tomas Molina, a U.S. citizen who lives in Chula Vista, and Jose Antonio Verdugo-Aripez, a Mexican national who lives in Tijuana, both pleaded innocent, Lasry said.

The two will remain in federal custody pending bail hearings scheduled for Friday before U.S. Magistrate Irma E. Gonzalez.

Today, 16 other suspects are scheduled to be arraigned on the smuggling charges, officials said. Among those to be charged, authorities said, are Esperanza Cardenas de Gaspar of San Diego, and Peter Pessapati, a Pakistan-born, naturalized U.S. citizen who was the manager of the Moana Court Motel in Chula Vista.

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