SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Federal criminal charges have been filed against eight individuals suspected of running a Southern California-based alien smuggling organization that used cell phones to guide clients across the U.S.-Mexico border.
The defendants appeared in federal court Wednesday and Thursday to face conspiracy charges for alien smuggling, following a year-long investigation by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Border Enforcement Security Taskforce (BEST) in San Diego. The charges carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"This human smuggling organization is perhaps the first we've ever uncovered that relied exclusively on cell phone technology to guide their clients as they made their way illegally into the U.S. across the Southwest border," said Derek Benner, special agent in charge for ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in San Diego. "I commend the resourcefulness and perseverance of the HSI investigators who succeeded in infiltrating and ultimately dismantling this ring. The perpetrators may have thought tapping this technology made them untouchable, but today they found out otherwise."
The arrests were made Tuesday and Wednesday in Orange County and Los Angeles by agents with ICE HSI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Border Patrol. As part of this week's enforcement action, agents executed search warrants targeting three Orange County residences, two vehicles, and a farm in Jacumba, Calif.
Those charged in the complaint are:
- Gil Reyes-Cruz, 33, of Santa Ana, Calif.;
- Javier Cruz-Renteria, 30, of Santa Ana, Calif.;
- Procopio Gudino, 31, of Gardena, Calif.;
- Francisco Alejandro Ramirez, 26, Santa Ana, Calif.;
- Lester Eckstein-Paz, 27, Santa Ana, Calif.;
- Jose Jimenez-Magana, 57, Santa Ana, Calif.;
- Miguel Angel Torres, Jr., 33, Santa Ana, Calif.; and
- Rodrigo Roy Romero, 29, Santa Ana, Calif.
ICE HSI began investigating the suspected smuggling activity in June 2010 after receiving information about a human smuggling ring headed by a man named "Carlos." According to the criminal complaint, members of the smuggling ring conspired with each other and with another criminal organization in Jacume, Mexico, to arrange for the aliens to be smuggled across the international border.
The ring charged aliens $4,000 to $5,000 each, which included transportation, mostly in rental cars, to their sponsors in Orange County. The complaint further alleges agents identified more than 30 specific alien smuggling events linked to the "Carlos" ring during the course of the investigation. Most of those events included multiple aliens.
According to details described in the complaint, the Mexico-based ring either provided the aliens with a cell phone or forced them to use their own cell phone before transporting them to the border. The aliens then received instructions remotely by cell phone from the ring's members who were watching from a mountaintop. Once the aliens crossed the international border, they were guided to pick-up locations, either a farm in Jacumba or along the highway near the border.
The investigation was led by the San Diego BEST, which includes ICE HSI, CBP Border Patrol with assistance provided by the DHS Office of Inspector General and CBP Field Office.