LOS ANGELES - Three men, all Mexican nationals, made their initial appearance in federal court here this afternoon to face charges stemming from their role in operating a human smuggling "drop house" dismantled by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in South Los Angeles earlier this week.
The three men were taken into ICE custody Wednesday along with 57 illegal aliens from Central and South America after ICE agents executed a search warrant at a trash filled two-story home at 10318 South Normandie. In addition to the arrests, agents recovered a .22 caliber pistol and stun gun inside the residence that the smugglers had reportedly used to threaten the smuggled aliens. Agents also seized several ledgers and notebooks containing information related to the smuggling operation.
In a criminal complaint filed today, the three defendants are charged with harboring illegal aliens, a violation carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. There are additional sentencing enhancements if the defendants committed sexual assault or brandished weapons during the crime. Those charged in the case are Jose Teul, 23; Daniel Pena, 18; and Saul Mendez, 35.
According to the affidavit filed in the case, the defendants often brandished weapons to intimidate their smuggled aliens. Several of the women recounted how Pena and Tuel attempted to force them to have sex, relenting only when the women's young children began to cry.
One of the women found in the home was seven months pregnant and alleges that Pena is the father. According to the affidavit, Pena raped the woman repeatedly beginning shortly after she arrived at the drop house last summer. The victim stated she never told anyone about the rapes because Pena threatened her with a gun and she feared for the safety of her aunt, who was also being held at the drop house. Both women have been placed in a temporary shelter by a local anti-trafficking non-governmental organization.
"This case shows yet again the desperate and often brutal measures human smugglers will employ in an effort to turn a profit," said Robert Schoch, special agent in charge for the ICE office of investigations in Los Angeles. "Human smuggling is a ruthless criminal enterprise that puts the safety of our communities and even our nation's security at risk. ICE is working aggressively to disrupt this kind of activity and dismantle the criminal organizations involved."
The other aliens encountered at the drop house Wednesday remain in ICE custody while prosecutors determine which individuals will be needed as witnesses for the criminal case. The three toddlers and their mothers are being housed at a private shelter. The remaining individuals are being held at ICE contract detention facilities in the Los Angeles area.