Accused leader of Romanian human-smuggling ring extradited to San Diego

Border fencing is replaced along the Calexico-Mexicali line near the port of entry.
Border fencing is replaced along the Calexico-Mexicali line near the port of entry. Romanians were smuggled into the U.S. through this area by an international organization, authorities said.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A Romanian man was extradited to San Diego over the weekend to face federal charges of heading an international ring that smuggled thousands of Romanians into the United States, prosecutors said.

Luigi Cristinel Popescu, 52, was arrested on Friday in Bucharest by law enforcement on a U.S. warrant.

He was arraigned in San Diego federal court Monday on charges of conspiracy, bringing in unauthorized aliens for financial gain, and aiding and abetting. He pleaded not guilty.

Popescu is from Cernatesti, a rural village northeast of the Romanian capital.

He is accused of leading the smuggling organization, bringing Romanians into the U.S. through the northern and southern borders via Europe, Central America, Mexico and Canada for nearly seven years, according to the indictment.

He is accused of coordinating with a network of guides, stash house operators and drivers who moved the migrants through the process, authorities said. He would send photos of the Romanian clients to the contacts so they could meet at various stages of the journey, according to the indictment.

Romanians who used the Mexico-California route would often stay in various stash houses near the San Ysidro and Calexico ports of entry.


The investigation was built on numerous interviews with Romanians who were caught entering the U.S. illegally or who turned themselves in to Border Patrol. Popescu is accused of charging $10,000 to $25,000 to smuggle individuals and families, authorities said.

Special agents from Homeland Security Investigations in Calexico worked on the case with attaché offices in Mexico, Guatemala, Spain and Austria, along with foreign law enforcement agencies, authorities said.

Romanian authorities in 2013 had identified Popescu as part of a smuggling ring. In a news release at the time, prosecutors for the Romanian Directorate for the Investigation of Organized Crime and Terrorism announced that they had identified 600 nationals who had left for Mexico, about 300 of whom were later found in the U.S.

Romanian prosecutors said their investigation suggests some migrants who could not pay the smuggling fees were forced to commit crimes or beg for money in the U.S.

Popescu was ordered to remain in custody without bail.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.