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9 charged in connection with recent California maritime smuggling incidents

9 charged in connection with recent California maritime smuggling incidents
9 charged in connection with recent California maritime smuggling incidents
9 charged in connection with recent California maritime smuggling incidents

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Federal criminal charges have been filed against nine individuals connected to three separate maritime smuggling incidents here in the Southland within the last week, including a failed human smuggling attempt that ended Tuesday morning when a boat capsized while coming ashore at Crystal Cove State Park.

Of the 14 aliens originally detained in the incident at Crystal Cove, four are now facing federal prosecution. Three of defendants — the vessel's captain, the assistant captain and the boat's navigator — are charged with conspiring to bring illegal aliens to the United States. The fourth defendant is being prosecuted for illegal entry after investigators determined he was arrested less than two weeks ago following his arrival in another smuggling boat that came ashore in Orange County. All four defendants made their initial appearance in federal court here Wednesday afternoon. They are:

  • Ezequial Mendez-Garcia, 37, Mexican national, vessel's captain;
  • David Moises Valderama-Acuna, 41, Mexican national, assistant captain;
  • Trididad Valderama-Acuna, 33, Mexican national, navigator; and
  • Israel Septimo-Rubio, 39, Mexican national, charged with illegal entry.

The criminal charges are the result of ongoing enforcement efforts by the Department of Homeland Security-led Maritime Unified Command to target ocean-based smuggling activity in San Diego and Orange counties. The multi-agency command is comprised of: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI); U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) 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 cases are being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California.

"Maritime smuggling poses a significant threat to public safety, and prosecutions like these make it clear that there are serious consequences for those who put themselves and others in harm's way," said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte, Jr., Central District of California.

"The risks involved in these smuggling attempts are truly chilling," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE HSI in Los Angeles. "The smugglers are putting unsuspecting people into rickety, overloaded fishing boats and transporting them up to 100 miles out to sea in the dead of night, often without even basic safety or navigation equipment. It's an equation for disaster."

The arrests in Crystal Cove came just two days after the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 15 illegal aliens from Mexico and Guatemala who were abandoned on Santa Cruz Island by a maritime smuggler. One of the rescued aliens, who was supposed to guide the group to a location near Interstate 5 where U.S.-based smugglers would pick them, has been charged with alien smuggling. According to the case affidavit, Fernando Ivan Torres-Quinonez, a 20-year-old Mexican national, was to receive $100 for each alien he helped successfully smuggle into the United States. Torres-Quinonez made his initial appearance in federal court in Los Angeles July 13.

"Dismantling maritime smuggling and defeating the transnational criminal organizations that use our Southern California coastal waters to smuggle illicit drugs and traffic human beings are critical to the mission of the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego," said Rodney S. Scott, U.S. Border Patrol San Diego Sector deputy chief patrol agent. "The strategic partnerships among Southern California law enforcement agencies on the federal, state, local and international levels, such as the Maritime Unified Command, have made it very difficult for these criminal organizations to penetrate our coastal borders. We will leverage all of our resources in an effort to promote safety in the water and prevent those who wish to illegally cross the international maritime boundary from doing so. These criminals will face the appropriate consequences, and future deaths will be prevented."

While the Southland is experiencing an increase in maritime human smuggling, boats also are gaining popularity as a means to transport drugs into the region. On June 9, CBP marine interdiction agents stopped a 23-foot private pleasure boat off the coast of Dana Point, Calif., and discovered almost 500 pounds of marijuana secreted inside hidden compartments built into the vessel. The ensuing investigation by the Los Angeles Border Enforcement Security Task Force (LA BEST) resulted in the filing of federal drug smuggling charges against four suspects, including two men found aboard the boat when it was interdicted. The defendants, who made their initial appearance in federal court here earlier this week are:

  • David Rex Wilterding, 56, of San Ysidro, Calif.;
  • Justin Wilterding, 33, of Laguna Niguel, Calif.;
  • Octavio Ruiz-Toledo, 36, of Corona, Calif.; and
  • Armando Aranjo-Larios, 40, of El Monte, Calif.

In response to the escalating number of maritime smuggling incidents in Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura counties, the Marine Unified Command and LA BEST have intensified efforts to target the illegal activity, expanding the use of marine patrols, land-based surveillance and collaboration with the Government of Mexico.

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 eight federal, state, and local agencies, include ICE HSI; CBP's 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.