Customs officers have arrested five men in connection with a people-smuggling ring that used vehicles adapted with ingenious secret compartments to smuggle over 1,000 of illegals into the US.
Immigrants paid between $2,000 and $4,000 dollars to cram themselves into tiny spaces next to V8 engines or to be locked into the trunks of cars during some of the hottest times of the year.
In an attempt not to arouse suspicion, the gang used non-Spanish-speaking African-Americans recruited from poor areas of Los Angeles to drive the vehicles across the border near San Diego.
Claude Arnold, a special agent with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said: ‘We estimate about 1,000 people were smuggled across the border during the time of the investigation.
Maria Lopez-Diaz, 60, and three others were arrested Thursday on counts related to the transportation of illegal immigrants in special compartments and the trunks of cars, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.
The ring coordinated with international smugglers to pick-up illegal immigrants once they crossed the border and transport them to Los Angeles, officials said.
Lopez-Diaz recruited poor black drivers from South Los Angeles hoping they would not rouse the suspicion of authorities near the border.
The drivers’ inability to communicate with the immigrants also meant they had limited information about the broader smuggling scheme, officials said.
The drivers were paid between $300 and $800 for each of the dozens of people they transported from the border to Los Angeles each month in 2010.
‘Criminal organizations are always looking for ways to evade detection by law enforcement, said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE homeland security investigations in Los Angeles.
Another file picture released by the Customs and Border patrol shows a woman hidden behind the dashboard of a car on the US Mexico border in 2001
‘This particular organization figured out, hey, what if we used African Americans as drivers? They might be likely to draw less attention.’
‘Ultimately, of course, it didn’t work,’ he said.
Lopez-Diaz, two relatives and a suspected driver appeared in federal court Thursday afternoon. Another suspected driver remains at large. Lopez-Diaz was being held without bail.
The five defendants were indicted last month on one charge of conspiracy. Lopez-Diaz and her 35-year-old son-in-law Juan Eduardo Baltazar are also charged with transporting illegal immigrants and immigrant harboring.
Bobby Johnson, a 67-year-old driver from Los Angeles, is also charged with transporting illegal immigrants, officials said. Johnson is being held on $25,000 bond.
Messages seeking comment were left for the defendants’ attorneys Thursday afternoon.
Baltazar’s attorney Michael Belter said he has not yet received information about the case. His initial hearing was continued until next week.
Immigration officials began investigating in January 2010 when border patrol agents reported seeing a rising number of African-American drivers with illegal immigrants hidden in the trunks of their cars.
Typically, smugglers who bring illegal immigrants from Mexico use Spanish-speaking drivers, Arnold said.