Using an alleged "drop house" as a news conference site, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials have announced federal grand jury indictments against six people suspected of operating an illegal alien smuggling ring from Tijuana to Los Angeles by way of National City and San Diego.
The suspects, five of them illegal aliens, were arrested earlier this month after an eight-month investigation and 60-day undercover operation, INS Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell said.
The smuggling ring, which Ezell said "probably grossed over $1 million a year," had been in operation for about five years, smuggling "thousands and thousands of people, up to 500 a week," into the country.
The INS made the arrests after two agents infiltrated the group, posing as drivers for a transport truck allegedly used in the smuggling operations, Ezell said.
Indicted on charges of conspiracy to violate the smuggling statutes and inducing, transporting and harboring illegal aliens were Vincente Martinez-Olmos, 24; Pedro Sagala-Saldivar, 25; Aristel Martinez-Torentino, 49; Martin Martinez-Perez, 21; Benito Olvera-Aguilar, 25, and Javier Carrasco-Madrigal, 36.
Carrasco-Madrigal is the only suspect who is a legal resident, Ezell said.
The ring charged as much as $300 to Mexicans and $600 to non-Mexicans, recruiting them out of a Tijuana hotel, said Ernest Gustafson, district director of the INS in Los Angeles.
Ezell said there are "literally scores of houses . . . at least a couple hundred" being used as "drop houses" for illegal aliens on their way to Orange County, Los Angeles and the Midwest.
Smuggling aliens "is big business," Ezell said. "The international grapevine is very good. Everyone knows one of the easiest ways to get into the United States is through the south border. This year, well over 1 million people will be apprehended crossing illegally."
Ezell said the ring would use a residence as a "drop house" for only a few months, moving to another when neighbors became suspicious.
Accompanied by guides, the aliens would walk across the border, where smugglers would herd as many as 80 into a 4-by-8-by-18-foot tarpaulin-covered flatbed truck that had only a small hole for ventilation, Gustafson said.
After they stayed for a week at one of the houses, the aliens would be taken to Los Angeles County, where their relatives would be contacted and asked to "buy them out," Gustafson said.
Ezell said this smuggling ring was different from others because it "specialized in non-Mexican illegal aliens" and its members threatened the people being smuggled.
"They abused the aliens," said an agent who would not give his name.
The INS is continuing the investigation, Ezell said.