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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

5 indicted in Department of Homeland Security probe targeting unusual human smuggling scheme

LA-based ring recruited non-Spanish speaking African-Americans as drivers

5 indicted in Department of Homeland Security probe targeting unusual human smuggling scheme
5 indicted in Department of Homeland Security probe targeting unusual human smuggling scheme

LOS ANGELES – Five Los Angeles-area residents have been indicted for operating a human smuggling scheme that relied largely on non-Spanish speaking African-Americans to transport loads of illegal aliens from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Los Angeles area.

Four of the defendants, including the suspected ringleader of the scheme, Maria "Reyna" Lopez-Diaz, 60, of Compton, were taken into custody Thursday morning by agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Border Patrol.

The indictment, handed down Jan. 18 and unsealed Thursday, accuses Lopez-Diaz of running a human smuggling transportation cell. She allegedly coordinated with international smugglers to arrange for the pick-up of illegal aliens near the border. Lopez-Diaz also allegedly purchased the smuggling vehicles and recruited the drivers, providing them with cars, cell phones and travel expenses. The investigation revealed Lopez-Diaz specifically sought out financially disadvantaged U.S. citizens from south Los Angeles who did not speak Spanish, offering them $300 to $800 for every illegal alien they successfully transported.

According to investigators, the ring charged aliens anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000 to be smuggled from the border to Los Angeles. The aliens were locked inside vehicle trunks or concealed in specially built compartments under the hood or elsewhere. During a one-year period from January 2010 through January 2011, it is estimated the organization was smuggling several dozen aliens a month into the Los Angeles area.

"The actions uncovered in this case are calculated and troubling," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for HSI Los Angeles. "If the allegations are true, the defendants not only targeted the financially vulnerable to perpetrate this criminal scheme, but in their eagerness to reap a profit, they put their alien clients at considerable risk."

The three-count indictment is the culmination of a two-year probe by Los Angeles and San Diego-based HSI special agents and agents from the U.S. Border Patrol's San Diego Sector. The investigation began in January 2010 after Border Patrol agents began encountering an increasing number of African-American drivers with as many as six aliens concealed in the trunks of their vehicles.

"Operation Green ICE exemplifies the successful collaboration of the United States Border Patrol, Homeland Security Investigations and the United States Attorney's Office to target and dismantle the Transnational Criminal Organizations that attempt to operate in the California Corridor," said Boulevard Border Patrol Station Patrol Agent in Charge Michael Doolittle. "Our enhanced integration with our law enforcement partners promotes inter-agency information sharing and the ability to rapidly respond to transnational threats such as this criminal smuggling organization."

According to investigators, the ring's decision to primarily use non-Spanish speaking African-American drivers was a calculated attempt to try to reduce the risk of detection and prosecution. First, the defendants believed the drivers were less likely to arouse suspicion. In the event they were stopped by the Border Patrol, the drivers' inability to speak Spanish and communicate with the aliens they were transporting meant the drivers had limited information about the broader smuggling scheme. Finally, by keeping the number of aliens in each smuggling attempt to six or fewer, the defendants believed there was less chance authorities would seek criminal charges against the individual drivers.

Besides Lopez-Diaz, the others charged in the case are:

  • Juan Eduardo Baltazar, 35, of Rialto, Lopez-Diaz's son-in-law, who allegedly prepared the smuggling vehicles and outfitted them with hidden compartments to conceal the aliens;
  • Karen Esteban-Morales, 23, of Los Angeles, Lopez-Diaz's daughter-in-law, who allegedly transported drivers to the smuggling vehicles and coordinated the pick-up of the illegal aliens;
  • Bobby Johnson, 67, of Los Angeles, who allegedly transported multiple groups of aliens and also recruited other drivers; and
  • Yvette "Hazel" Binford, 32, of Inglewood, an alleged driver who is still being sought at this time.

All five defendants are accused of one count of conspiracy. In addition, Lopez-Diaz, Baltazar and Johnson are charged with transporting illegal aliens; and Lopez-Diaz and Baltazar are also charged with alien harboring. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In addition to the criminal charges, defendants Lopez-Diaz, Baltazar and Esteban-Morales are all in the United States illegally and face possible deportation at the conclusion of the criminal proceedings.

The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California with substantial assistance provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of California.