SANTA ANA, Calif. - A key figure in a large-scale maritime human smuggling organization and three alleged accomplices made their initial appearances in federal court here Monday to face charges after a multi-agency law enforcement operation Friday, that began with the discovery of an abandoned vessel on a San Diego County beach and culminated with the arrest of the boat's illegal alien passengers in Anaheim, Calif., six hours later.
The smuggling investigation leading to the arrests shifted into high gear at around 7 a.m. Friday after the Carlsbad Police Department located an abandoned panga-style boat near Ponto Beach in Carlsbad, Calif. Local authorities alerted federal agents from the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force (LA BEST) and U.S. Border Patrol who had been tracking the movements of this smuggling organization for several weeks.
According to investigators, a van believed to belong to the organization spent Thursday night parked in a coastal neighborhood in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., but agents suspended surveillance when the vehicle left at sunrise without picking up any passengers. Investigators say the Ensenada-based vessel that came ashore in Carlsbad was originally supposed to make landfall farther north. However, the smugglers had to abort the plan after the boat developed engine trouble.
Upon receiving information about the boat landing in Carlsbad, agents with the LA BEST and the Border Patrol resumed surveillance on the cargo van believed to belong to the smuggling organization, ultimately tracking it to an apartment building in Anaheim, Calif. When investigators entered the residence, they encountered nine illegal aliens from Mexico whose clothes were still wet and caked with sand from the morning's boat landing. Agents also detained four alleged members of the smuggling ring, including one of the organization's suspected leaders. Those charged in the case are:
- Mario Echeverria, 24, a naturalized U.S. citizen residing in Tijuana, Mexico. Echeverria is suspected of being one of the ringleaders of the maritime smuggling organization;
- Javier Gomez-Dominguez, 30, of Mexico, the alleged caretaker of the Anaheim drop house;
- Jose Sevilla, 26, of Mexico, the suspected captain of the smuggling boat; and
- Fernando Medina-Gonzalez, 43, of Mexico, the alleged smuggling boat navigator and fuel man.
The defendants are charged in a criminal complaint with conspiring to bring, transport and harbor illegal aliens. The violation carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.
Officials with the Department of Homeland Security say Friday's events offer further evidence that maritime human smuggling has expanded from the San Diego area into Orange and Los Angeles counties. In recent months, suspected human smuggling boats have come ashore as far north as Malibu.
To combat this dangerous trend, last year authorities formed the Orange County/Los Angeles County Maritime Unified Command to focus specifically on ocean-based smuggling activity. Among the agencies participating in the Maritime Unified Command are ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine, Office of Field Operations, and Border Patrol; the sheriff's departments of Orange and Los Angeles counties; and the Los Angeles Police Department. The Command's targeted enforcement efforts include expanded use of marine patrols, land-based surveillance and collaboration with the Government of Mexico.
"The surge in maritime smuggling here in the Los Angeles area poses a significant security and safety threat, which is why it demands an aggressive response," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for ICE HSI in Los Angeles. "We know these criminal organizations' clients include previously deported felons and others we don't want in our communities. Beyond that, there are serious safety issues for the smuggled aliens themselves, who are being transported in overloaded, often unseaworthy boats, risking injury or even death."
"The arrests made in Anaheim are the outcome of exceptional collaboration within the federal law enforcement community," said U.S. Border Patrol San Diego Sector Acting Chief Patrol Agent Rodney S. Scott. "Our efforts to fuse intelligence and operational planning capabilities have and will continue to produce successful results in deterring illegal maritime border crossings. We will continue to disrupt, dismantle and defeat the transnational criminal organizations operating within the San Diego Sector area of influence whose criminal activities endanger both our citizens as well as those who are smuggled through treacherous ocean waters."
The heightened enforcement targeting maritime human smuggling has resulted in an increase in the prosecution of these cases. In the last year, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Orange County has brought charges against at least 17 individuals tied to maritime smuggling schemes. In one of those instances, a female passenger suffered injuries, including a broken leg, when attempting to climb out of the boat and flee law enforcement.
The LA BEST was launched in 2008 to investigate a variety of maritime-related crime in the Los Angeles area, such as drug, alien, currency and weapons smuggling; trade fraud; and cargo theft. The LA BEST is made up of officers from nine federal, state, and local agencies, including ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine, Office of Field Operations, and Border Patrol; the Los Angeles Police Department; the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service; the U.S. Secret Service, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department; the Los Angeles Port Police; and the California Highway Patrol.