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House Crammed With Illegal Immigrants Raided in Watts

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Times Staff Writers

Smugglers imprisoned more than 110 illegal immigrants for days in an 1,100-square-foot bungalow in Watts, securing the doors with chains and demanding ransom from family members until a tip led to a police raid, authorities said Wednesday.

The captives -- including some children -- were smuggled into the United States from Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador and were apparently bound for the East Coast.

Authorities said the smugglers had planned to hold the illegal immigrants until family members made payments of up to $9,000 each. Once the money was paid, the immigrants would have been taken to Los Angeles International Airport for flights east.

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The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement was holding 88 of the immigrants Wednesday for questioning. Officials said most would soon be sent back to their home countries. Investigators said that about 20 of the captives fled through a hole in a backyard fence and onto Hickory Street. The smugglers, too, appeared to have gotten away, authorities said.

Officials said the case offers a window into a form of human smuggling that is increasingly common around Southern California. The discovery prompted calls at City Hall for a crackdown on such “safe houses.”

Some neighbors said they had been aware for two years that immigrant smugglers were using the house.

Others described a white, windowless van that made nightly visits to the house to drop off between seven and 10 people in the fenced-in backyard. None said they had told authorities.

“Call the police? Immigration? Why? To each his own. They’re here to work,” said Ellie Clares, 30, who lives next door. “I’d help them with food or clothes, especially children. Help them, yes. But call the police? Immigration? Never.”

After authorities left the scene with the immigrants Wednesday morning, a small group of people looted the house by smashing a window in the rear and crawling inside to dig through the squalor for television sets, shoes, cartons of eggs and .38-caliber bullets.

Among other items left behind by the occupants -- and by investigators -- were shotgun shells, two freezers full of raw chicken, piles of shoes, lists of names with dollar figures ranging from $3,000 to $7,000 each, and an unused America West Airlines ticket from LAX to New York’s JFK Airport. The ticket had been purchased with cash.

Chains were wrapped through holes in the walls of the house and around doors, and the immigrants’ shoes had been taken from them and piled in the rear of the residence to discourage escape, said Special Agent Kevin Jeffery of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The immigrants were kept in darkness and windows were covered with metal bars and plywood. Also found were several pistols, pellet guns and a machete.

“I’m sure these were used to threaten and coerce people into obeying,” Jeffery said. “This is a big business, alien smuggling. These people will go to extremes to get their money.”

In all likelihood, the smugglers had been paid at least half of the money before the immigrants reached Los Angeles, Jeffery said.

In cases of this sort, smugglers often contact family members and say “ ‘Hey, your family members made it into the United States. We’re not going to tell you where, but they’re here,’ ” said Daren Dowell, supervisory special agent for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “ ‘We know we told you it was three [thousand], but now it’s $6,000 so you better come up with the money.’ ”

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is the successor to the INS.

The immigrants told authorities they had crossed by foot into the desert of Nogales, Ariz., and were taken to Phoenix before arriving in Los Angeles, Jeffery said.

Smugglers increasingly have been bringing immigrants to Los Angeles for flights because of the relatively sparse immigration enforcement at LAX and the stepped-up enforcement in Arizona, officials said.

“We have people assigned to Sky Harbor [Airport] in Phoenix all the time,” Jeffery said. “They were probably taking the roll of the dice that we would not be at LAX.”

Local law enforcement officials say the only thing unusual about the case is the large number of people found in the house -- and the active involvement of federal immigration officials.

LAPD Cmdr. Jim Tatreau said that the department has encountered numerous safe houses and human-smuggling rings that federal officials chose not to handle.

In many of these cases, he said, the immigrants were released into the streets after police ensured that they are in decent health and not victims of other crimes because the LAPD does not have authority to hold them.

LAPD rules prohibit officers from seeking deportation proceedings against illegal immigrants who have not committed a crime, Tatreau said.

City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes Watts, said the immigration agency has largely abdicated enforcement responsibilities in Los Angeles.

“The federal government is turning a blind eye to what’s happening at the border,” Hahn said.

Immigration and Customs spokeswoman Virginia Kice defended the agency’s efforts in Southern California, saying that local law enforcement usually gets the first tips on such safe houses and that federal agents respond quickly when called by police.

“Our jurisdiction spans seven counties, and we do respond quickly and even take down drop houses independently,” Kice said. “But usually we don’t become aware of them until local law enforcement is tipped off.”

Los Angeles Police Lt. Ruben De La Torre said that an individual who had been released from the residence after payment of $5,000 telephoned authorities and told them that about 100 illegal immigrants were being held there.

The immigrants who were detained by federal officials were interviewed and fingerprinted before being taken to the Mira Loma Detention Center on Wednesday night.

Agents said that 42 of the immigrants came from Ecuador, 40 from Mexico, two from El Salvador and four from Guatemala. There were 17 women among them and five boys ranging from 10 to 17 years of age.

The children were in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.


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