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Catching foreign fugitives in L.A.

Before sunrise at an underground parking garage in Los Angeles, Rafael Lugo briefed more than a dozen officers about the day’s target: Guatemalan. Skinny. Five feet 10 at most. Likely wearing a blue sweat shirt and a black ball cap.

The man, Oliverio Grijalva Carrillo, was suspected of fatally shooting a man in a Guatemalan bar in September before fleeing to the U.S.

“He loves to fight,” Lugo said in a brusque New York accent. “That’s the word out on the street.”

“Does he speak English?” someone asked.

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Lugo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, answered with a smile, “I haven’t talked to him yet.”

If all went as planned that Friday morning, Grijalva would be arrested at the doughnut shop where he waited for a ride to work and soon would be sent back to Guatemala. There, law enforcement officials would be waiting to welcome him home.

Lugo works alongside other immigration officers, Los Angeles police and U.S. marshals to track down foreign fugitives hiding in the U.S. Theirs is not an easy job, because fugitives can easily access high-quality fake documents in Los Angeles and blend in among the diverse communities of Southern California. Hiding in plain sight, the suspected criminals often change their names and appearances and get jobs, buy homes and even start families.

One of the most publicized arrests was that of Alfredo Rios Galeana, Mexico’s “Public Enemy No. 1,” who had escaped from prison 20 years earlier and was wanted in a string of killings, kidnappings and bank robberies. When authorities found him in South Gate in 2005, he was running an office-cleaning business, had become involved in his neighborhood church and apparently had made himself less recognizable with plastic surgery.

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“These people may have nothing but fake documents,” said Thomas Hession, chief inspector for the U.S. Marshals Service regional fugitive task force. “They may be able to slip and slide through the system.”

Over the last three years, immigration officers, working with other law enforcement agencies, have captured 87 foreign nationals in the Los Angeles area wanted in their native countries on suspicion of murder, rape and other crimes.

A much larger task force headed by the marshals in Southern California has captured thousands more foreign fugitives, including 142 in the last year who were wanted in connection with homicides.

Last year, authorities arrested a Mexican national in Inglewood wanted in the 2004 shooting of a policeman in Jalisco while he sat in his patrol car.

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They also tracked down a man in East Los Angeles a decade after he and other gunmen allegedly stormed a ranch near Ensenada and killed 19 men, women and children as part of a drug massacre in 1998.

Some of the suspects in recent arrests are believed to be involved in the ongoing drug wars in Mexico, Hession said.

Others have also been convicted of crimes in the U.S.

Last week, agents arrested a man in Northern California who is suspected of shooting his aunt and cousin in a church in Guanajuato, Mexico, in 2002. The man had served time in the U.S. for a sex crime and been deported.

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Most of the arrests are of Mexicans, but officers have found suspected criminals from around the world, including Korea, China and Hungary.

Building a case

In the Guatemalan case, Interpol, the international police agency, passed along information from the Guatemalan government to the task force that Grijalva, 32, was named in an international warrant and was believed to be living in the Los Angeles area.

For three weeks, immigration and Los Angeles Police Department officers investigated the case, searching databases and talking to co-workers, acquaintances and apartment managers.

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“Little by little, you build your case,” said Federico Sicard, an LAPD detective supervisor who worked on the case.

They created a likely scenario: Grijalva came to the U.S. about five years ago, lived with his brother in the San Fernando Valley and registered a car in his own name. Within the last year, authorities believe, he made his way to Guatemala. After the shooting in September 2008, they believe, Grijalva sneaked back into the U.S. and found construction work.

The officers couldn’t find a home or a work address, so they staked out the brother’s apartment. For three days, they watched as a man driving a gray Audi picked up Grijalva’s brother and then met up with Grijalva about 7:15 a.m. at a doughnut shop on De Soto Avenue. On the third day, Lugo put out the word that the fugitive team would meet at 5 the next morning.

Leads on cases come from foreign governments, local police and ordinary citizens. Someone will see a story on Spanish-language television and call Los Angeles law enforcement or will walk into a local consulate with an old newspaper clipping, saying the suspect is a neighbor.

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“They know the case, whether it’s five years ago, 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” Lugo said.

In their hunt, authorities use federal and local databases that show criminal records, prior deportations and recent addresses. When traditional methods don’t turn up leads, they may publicize the search in ethnic newspapers or check with local post offices to see if the suspect has received mail. But Lugo said he often has the most success just knocking on doors and talking to people who may have information.

“The best investigative tool that anybody’s got is two feet,” Lugo said. “You could sit in front of the computer 12 hours a day and not get anything. You have to get out there in the old-fashioned way.”

Preparing to move

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Lugo handed out maps and photographs and explained the plan for that late-January morning:

One car would follow the Audi. Others would be on the side streets. Several would be stationed at the doughnut shop parking lot, where Lugo and the immigration officers would arrest Grijalva.

Everyone would be in place by 6:15 a.m.

“If he runs, he’s gonna run to one of us,” Lugo said. “If anything goes south, LAPD is going to take over.”

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Just after 7, Lugo said over the radio, “We’ve got movement.” The Audi had left the apartment to pick up Grijalva’s brother. But then the plan changed and the car stopped a few blocks away, where Grijalva was waiting, wearing the blue sweat shirt and black cap.

As he headed to the car, armed immigration agents surrounded and handcuffed him. In his apartment, they found his birth certificate and government card, but the identification documents bore a different name, Benigno Guevara Grijalva.

At an immigration detention processing center in downtown Los Angeles, Grijalva said he paid a coyote $5,500 in 2004 to guide him illegally across the border. He left Guatemala to make money to send his two children to school, he said. Grijalva said he had been in the U.S. continuously for five years.

“Do you know why you are here?” Lugo asked.

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Grijalva just stared straight ahead.

“You are in the country illegally.”

Lugo offered him the choice to leave voluntarily. If Grijalva agreed to go, he would be home within a few weeks. If he wanted to see a judge, the process could take a lot longer.

“If I fight or I don’t fight, they’re still going to send me home,” he said. “This is faster.”

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Lugo said suspects often lie about their time in the country.

“They don’t want us to know the crimes they committed,” he said. “They are under the impression that we have no idea.”

Later, a representative from the Guatemalan Consulate confirmed that the man arrested was the man wanted in Guatemala. Grijalva was here illegally, so authorities sent him home last week on the immigration violation, rather than formally extraditing him.

That afternoon, Grijalva was placed behind bars to await his return trip to Guatemala. And Lugo returned to work -- on three new cases.

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--

anna.gorman@latimes.com


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