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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

25 arrested in El Paso smuggling ring

EL PASO, Texas - Twenty-five people, including the owner and two managers of the Gateway Hotel in El Paso, have been arrested over the past two weeks on charges of conspiracy to smuggle and harbor illegal aliens for financial gain. These charges were announced Thursday by Acting U.S. Attorney John E. Murphy, Western District of Texas, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Special Agent in Charge Manuel Oyola-Torres.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Richard Mesa on Thursday denied bond for Song U. Chon, owner of the Gateway Hotel. U.S. Magistrate Judge Norbert Garney also denied bond to Guillermo Lopez-Nunez, an alleged alien smuggling organization leader.

Last week, alleged alien smuggling organization leader Maria Isidra Luna-Avila, Gateway Hotel night manager Alejandro Garcia-Rico, and former hotel maintenance man Jose Herrera were all denied bond after being arrested by agents with the local Border Enforcement Security Task Force (BEST), which is led by ICE. Following their arrest last week, bond was set at $20,000 for Gateway Hotel day manager Armando Arzate and Juo-Hsuan Hsu (Pronounced "Jo-Shwan-Soo"), owner of May's Café, which was once located inside the Gateway Hotel.

A federal grand jury in El Paso on May 27 returned a 51-count indictment against Chon, the Y.C.L. Corporation (doing business as The Gateway Hotel), Lopez-Nunez, Luna-Avila, Arzate, Garcia-Rico, Hsu, and others. Charges in the indictment include: conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, alien smuggling, alien smuggling resulting in death, money laundering, and structuring financial transactions in order to avoid reporting requirements. The indictment also seeks a $1 million monetary judgment against Chon as well as the criminal forfeiture to the Government of the Gateway Hotel.

The indictment alleges that beginning in June 2003; the defendants conspired and devised a plan to smuggle hundreds of illegal aliens into the country from Mexico and harbor them in El Paso using the Gateway Hotel and other locations. The defendants allegedly harbored the aliens - supplying them with shelter, food and clothing - until their family or "sponsor" paid a fee, usually aboiut $2,000. Once the fee was paid, generally via Western Union and/or Money Gram, the defendants then transported the illegal aliens to their final destination in the United States.

The indictment specifically charges Luna-Avila with alien smuggling resulting in death of an illegal alien on July 25, 2007. On that day, an illegal alien drowned in the American canal in downtown El Paso when he tried to return to Mexico. Upon conviction, Luna-Avila faces life imprisonment.

Each smuggling count carries up to 10 years imprisonment; each money-laundering count is punishable by imprisonment for up to 20 years; and, each structuring count carries up to 10 years imprisonment.

"These arrests are the culmination of an investigation of an El Paso business owner who for years was a key player of a network that smuggled and moved hundreds of illegal aliens into the country," said Manuel Oyola-Torres, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in El Paso. "The success of this case is due largely to the relationship between ICE and its BEST partners, who share our goal of securing our borders and protecting the homeland."

This investigation was conducted by agents with the ICE-led Border Enforcement Security Task Force. El Paso BEST members are: ICE, U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Office of Border Patrol; Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); U.S. Department of State; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF); Transportation Security Administration (TSA); El Paso County Sheriff's Office; El Paso Police Department; and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Juanita Fielden and David Rosado, Western District of Texas, are prosecuting this case.

An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence of guilt. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.