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INS Says Raid Could Unravel Smuggling Ring

Times Staff Writer

Videotapes of a Fullerton house where 91 illegal immigrants were found hiding Sunday, as well as evidence seized there, could lead authorities to other drop houses in a suspected Southern California smuggling ring, a top immigration official said Wednesday.

Along with the videotapes of traffic in and out of the house, evidence seized in the raid includes documents related to the smuggling scheme and thousands of dollars in cash, the official said.

The tapes, made surreptitiously from a neighboring house, are part of a four-month investigation into “an organized smuggling network,” said Tom Gaines, assistant district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service anti-smuggling branch in Los Angeles.

“The tapes are evidence, and I would not be surprised if they, along with information developed from witnesses and suspected smugglers, would lead us to other such houses and other smuggling rings that are operating in Los Angeles and Orange counties,” Gaines said Wednesday. The number of people crowded into the three-bedroom house makes the Fullerton way station “one of larger ones I’ve seen in recent years,” he said.

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Ten illegal Mexican immigrants and a naturalized U.S. citizen were charged with harboring illegal aliens and conspiracy in a federal complaint filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. U.S. Magistrate Venetta S. Tassopulos ordered the 11 held without bail until a detention hearing, scheduled for today.

The naturalized citizen, Guadalupe Barrientos, was one of three people who signed a $1,200-a-month lease to rent the house at 1436 S. Gilbert St. on Aug. 19, according to a source.

Immigration authorities believe that at least 77 of the men and women found crammed in the small house and attached windowless garage had agreed to pay about $350 to be transported from Mexico to Los Angeles, said INS Special Agent Dan Hudson. Some of the illegal immigrants, who were being held in the house until friends or relatives in the United States could deliver payment, had been detained there for at least five days, Hudson said. Many told authorities they had not eaten for days because they had no money to pay their captors for food.

A sugar-frosted breakfast roll on the floor of the kitchen and overturned chairs visible in the adjoining living room of the house Wednesday illustrated the speed and surprise of the raid by INS officials, who served a search warrant on the occupants of the house Sunday morning. Scraps of carpet covered the garage floor, where the illegal immigrants left behind piles of clothing, blankets and pillows. A chandelier, apparently left behind by previous owners of the house, dangled from the rafters of the garage.

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Neighbors said several Latino men who moved into the house in August were quiet at first. About three weeks ago, they said, a steady stream of cars and vans packed with Latinos began arriving, backing into the garage, then driving away empty.

“I watched vans pull in there with eight or 12 people a couple of times a week,” said Lisa Wheaton, 27, who lives across the street. “We figured there were maybe 30 people hiding there, but when we heard there were 91, we couldn’t believe it.”

Hudson said the illegal immigrants were being held in detention rooms in the federal building in downtown Los Angeles during the day, then moved to more secure facilities at night. Those who agree to testify against the alleged smugglers may remain in custody pending a trial; the others will have the option of returning voluntarily to Mexico or going through deportation proceedings.

Mike Anderholt, INS deputy assistant regional commissioner, said the Fullerton house “is a typical drop house, of which there are hundreds in Orange County and L.A.”

Although he declined speak more specifically about the Fullerton raid or the smuggling suspects, he said smugglers, or “coyotes,” usually find Mexicans willing to pay to come to the United States through recruiters who hang out at train and bus stations in Tijuana. The recruiters deliver groups of 10 or more Mexicans to a guide who takes them over the U.S.-Mexico border in a hidden compartment in a truck or through a hole in a fence at the border.

Once in the United States, they are taken to the first of several drop houses, usually in San Diego, Anderholt said.

“Generally these people (the smugglers) call relatives in the L.A. area to make sure that they’re willing to pay for transportation of their brother or cousin,” he said. “Once they’ve established that someone has the money, they want to move the illegal Mexican to the next drop house in Orange County or Los Angeles and then get him out as soon as possible.”


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