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Human Smuggling/Trafficking
01/15/2009

2 charged after ICE rescues illegal aliens from Los Angeles-area drop house

Hostage claims he was starved, beaten and subdued with stun guns

LANCASTER, Calif. - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents executed a search warrant overnight at a home here where a Salvadoran and Ecuadoran national were rescued by ICE Tuesday night after reportedly being held hostage by human smugglers in the residence, one for at least three weeks.

Following their rescue Tuesday night, one of the hostages told ICE investigators his captors had beaten him repeatedly and forced him to go nearly two weeks without food. Agents said that one of the other smuggled aliens at the residence shared portions of his daily meal with him, possibly helping him to survive. A hostage also told investigators his captors often assaulted him with stun guns. The men are now in protective custody.

The two were freed after ICE agents received a tip late last week that smugglers were holding a hostage and abusing him in an effort to collect a $5,000 smuggling fee. Based upon that information, investigators determined the smugglers were operating somewhere in the Lancaster area. After working virtually around-the-clock over the weekend, ICE agents traced the activity to a home at 646 Martha Court.

When agents knocked on the door Tuesday evening, they heard one of the victims crying out for help inside. As investigators entered the residence, they saw windows boarded up from the inside, and one of the suspected smugglers straddled atop a man beating him. The victim was soaked in sweat and clad only in underwear.

"Tragically, this case shows yet again the ruthlessness and brutality of the human smuggling trade," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge for the ICE Office of Investigations in Los Angeles. "To the smugglers, these people are nothing more than a payday and they have no qualms about using threats and violence in an effort to collect their smuggling fees. ICE is working aggressively to disrupt this kind of activity and dismantle the criminal organizations involved."

The two suspected smugglers, both of whom are in the country illegally, made their initial appearance in federal court yesterday. Roberto Jose-Tomas, 23, of Mexico, and Diego Francisco-Pascual, 32, of Guatemala, have been charged in a criminal complaint with harboring illegal aliens, an offense that carries a maximum statutory penalty of 10 years in federal prison. At yesterday's hearing, a United States Magistrate judge ordered the men held without bond pending an arraignment on February 2.

During last night's search of the Lancaster residence, ICE agents recovered additional evidence related to the investigation. Authorities say the investigation is ongoing.