U.S. immigration officials continued their crackdown on transcontinental alien-smuggling schemes that use a “red-eye” flight that departs daily from Los Angeles International Airport, arresting 69 illegal immigrants Monday night as they tried to board a New York-bound jetliner.
Among those apprehended, officials said Tuesday, was a 42-year-old suspected smuggler, who authorities say may lead them to others involved in the sophisticated smuggling operations.
Earlier Monday, 79 illegals, also bound for New York, were arrested at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport when the flight the smugglers were using--Eastern Airlines Flight 80--arrived there for refueling. Authorities said the arrests resulted from tips in Atlanta and Los Angeles that coyotes, as the smugglers are commonly called, had been using that flight to ferry thousands of aliens across the country from Los Angeles.
Despite the arrest of Jorge Guzman-Romero on smuggling charges, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in Los Angeles conceded Tuesday that they were not making much progress in capturing the masterminds behind the smuggling aboard the Eastern flight.
“We’re not as close as we’d like to be,” said Thomas Gaines, the local head of the INS’ anti-smuggling unit.
Gaines said he believes that the use of Flight 80 may involve many smugglers who are not working together. “We feel like we have a number of individual smugglers who are utilizing a rather low air fare to move their aliens away from the border from Los Angeles and on up to the East Coast,” he said.
Donald Looney, assistant director of the INS Los Angeles district, said alien smuggling aboard commercial jetliners is not new, noting that the practice has been occurring “as long as there’s been airplanes.”
As in the Atlanta arrests, Eastern officials cooperated with the INS and the airline is not involved in the smuggling, Looney said.
Gaines and Looney offered few details at a Los Angeles news conference about specifics of how the scheme worked, the location of safe houses used by the smugglers or when other arrests might be made, saying they do not want to jeopardize the investigation.
However, based on interviews with the aliens captured at Los Angeles, INS officials concluded that the smugglers have set up a system that transports aliens from Mexico City to Tijuana and then across the border to San Diego. There, a safe house was occasionally used for aliens waiting for the trip to Los Angeles and Eastern Flight 80.
The aliens captured at the Los Angeles airport said they paid smugglers an average of $800 for the trip to New York. Some of the aliens captured in Atlanta said they had paid as much as $4,000 for a package deal, including air fare, meals, housing and a job in the United States.
Of those arrested, 54 were from Mexico, seven from El Salvador, four from Colombia and four from Guatemala. The Mexicans were bused to the border at San Ysidro; the others were being held for probable deportation today.
An affidavit filed in support of Guzman-Romero’s arrest said he accompanied three Mexicans all the way from Mexico City. In one instance, Guzman-Romero went to a small village in central Mexico and recruited a woman for the trip, according to an affidavit by INS agent Anna Marie Morones.
Some aliens were told to pay more money once they arrived in New York and other cities in the Northeast.
One veteran INS investigator, who asked that his name not be used, said Monday night’s apprehensions went smoothly.
“After the arrests went down in Atlanta, it was easy enough for us to go the next night to LAX, figure out where Flight 80 was boarding and round the people up,” the agent said.
Gaines said 11 of the aliens were arrested as they waited at the gate for Flight 80. The rest were rounded up as they tried to enter Terminal 6, where Eastern is located.
Guzman-Romero, a native of the Mexican state of Puebla, was arrested in a waiting room. He was ordered jailed late Tuesday by U.S. Magistrate Volney Brown on three counts of knowingly transporting and moving aliens within the United States.