2 Women Face Prison, Fine for Smuggling Babies

Times Staff Writer

Two San Ysidro women who smuggled Mexican infants into the arms of Americans under the guise of operating an adoption agency pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court to felony immigration charges.

Juanita Vargas-Ruiz, 52, and her daughter, Melinda Yolanda Leyva-Vargas, 28, each face five years in prison and a fine of $500,000. They pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to smuggle illegal aliens and concealing facts about the infants from immigration officers. They will be sentenced in June.

Court documents describe the women as hard-nosed negotiators who played on the weaknesses of the American couples who were willing to pay them as much as $5,000 for babies.

They demanded deposits and sought to raise their charges--at times by as much as 40%--during the course of discussions about some of the fraudulent adoptions, the information says.

Leyva-Vargas told a Kalima, Wash., woman who paid $4,000 to obtain a baby from the ring that she could get another one free if she referred 10 couples at $5,000 per infant, according to court papers.

The women admitted arranging the delivery of seven Mexican babies to American couples between September, 1984, and August, 1985, when Immigration and Naturalization Service officers arrested them at Lindbergh Field. They also admitted offering infants to five other prospective parents for fees of as much as $7,000.

The INS said it would not seek to deport children involved in the scheme.

Public Defender John Moot, the attorney for Leyva-Vargas, said investigators had exaggerated the extent of the ring when the women were arrested. INS officials said at the time that records seized from the women and an Arkansas man accused of supplying them with fake birth certificates showed the ring had delivered at least 26--and perhaps dozens more--babies to American couples.

"The initial police reports were talking about it being the largest baby smuggling operation ever," Moot said. "It turns out to be seven babies brought across the border by these two people, not the initial 20 or hundreds."

Court documents say the women kept apartments in Tijuana for pregnant mothers. Prospective parents were given papers purporting to show that the infants were legally adopted and then were advised that the babies could legally be brought into the United States. The papers allegedly were prepared by Vargas-Ruiz's husband, Jesus Espinosa-Mandujano, who has not been charged in the case.

Typically, one of the women would bring a child across the border at San Ysidro and deliver it to the American couple, with Leyva-Vargas once traveling as far as Chicago to conclude a deal. Other times the Americans would come to Tijuana to pick up their child.

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