In the calculus of cross-border human smuggling, Maria Lopez-Diaz allegedly concluded that black instead of brown equals green.
The 60-year-old Compton woman, prosecutors say, tried to cash in on racial profiling by operating a human smuggling ring that hired mostly African American drivers who didn't speak a word of Spanish to ferry small groups of immigrants from Mexico to Los Angeles.
In the end, the alleged venture failed. Authorities announced charges Thursday against Lopez-Diaz and four others, including conspiracy and transporting and harboring illegal immigrants. Lopez-Diaz, two family members and a driver were arrested by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol.
A second driver facing a conspiracy charge, 32-year-old Yvette "Hazel" Binford, remains at large.
Authorities said the group's approach was the latest innovation they have seen in the evolving trade of sneaking illegal immigrants into the United States.
"It's absolutely true that most of the people involved in transporting human smuggling networks are Hispanics, by virtue of the fact that most customers are Hispanics," said ICE Special Agent in Charge Claude Arnold. "This organization thought, 'What if we recruited those who attract less attention from law enforcement?' Obviously they were wrong."
The group, allegedly headed by Lopez-Diaz and two family members, recruited drivers who were down on their luck — jobless, homeless or drug-addicted — who were lured by the few hundred dollars' payoff and kept in the dark about the extent of the enterprise, prosecutors said. Had they been able to communicate with their passengers, they would have learned the ringleaders charged the immigrants up to $4,000 a person for the ride north, authorities said.
"There were two layers of exploitation here, one of the aliens in the trunks coming up to Los Angeles, and then of the drivers they used," said U.S. Assistant Atty. Rupa Goswami, the federal prosecutor in the case.
The investigation began when Border Patrol officials noticed an unusual pattern in early 2010. They found African Americans, mostly from Compton, carrying up to six immigrants in the trunks and hidden compartments of their cars. Their vehicles were elaborately modified, including compartments under the hood or under the back seats, as well as special shock absorbers to conceal the heavy load.
The group is estimated to have smuggled several dozen immigrants a month into Los Angeles, immigration authorities said.
Juan Eduardo Baltazar, 35, Lopez-Diaz's son-in-law, was allegedly responsible for preparing the vehicles and installing the compartments. Her daughter-in-law, 23-year-old Karen Esteban-Morales, is accused of coordinating the pickup of the immigrants. Lopez-Diaz and her two family members are themselves in the country illegally, according to authorities, and face deportation if they are convicted.
Also charged are drivers Binford and Bobby Johnson, 67, who allegedly transported groups and recruited drivers. Authorities said they have identified an additional 19 drivers, many of whom are cooperating with investigators.
On Thursday, a federal magistrate judge ordered Lopez-Diaz and Esteban-Morales held without bail, and for Johnson to be released to a drug rehabilitation facility. Baltazar's initial appearance was delayed until next week.
Dana Cephas, an attorney representing Lopez-Diaz, declined to comment.
Each charge in the three-count indictment carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.