SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — Four men have been arrested and charged with leading a smuggling ring that ferried illegal immigrants by sea from Mexico to Southern California.
Federal authorities announced Monday that the arrests came after the discovery of an abandoned boat near a San Diego County beach on Friday. Agents tracked the suspects to an apartment in Anaheim. There, they found nine illegal immigrants from Mexico whose clothes were still wet and caked with sand from the boat landing.
Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, says the immigrants are still in custody.
The suspects, including alleged ringleader Mario Echeverria, were due in court Monday afternoon on charges of conspiracy to smuggle illegal immigrants.
A call to Echeverria's attorney was not returned.
The others under arrest are Javier Gomez-Dominguez, 30, the alleged Anaheim drop house caretaker; Jose Sevilla, 26, the suspected boat captain and Fernando Medina-Gonzalez, 43, the alleged boat navigator.
They are charged with conspiring to bring, transport and harbor illegal aliens, a violation carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Department of Homeland Security officials say maritime human smuggling has expanded from the San Diego area into Orange and Los Angeles counties, with suspected boats having come ashore as far north as Malibu in recent months.
"The surge in maritime smuggling here in the Los Angeles area poses a significant security and safety threat, which is why it demands an aggressive response," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for ICE HSI in Los Angeles.
Arnold said human smugglers are often trafficking previously deported felons.
"Beyond that, there are serious safety issues for the smuggled aliens themselves, who are being transported in overloaded, often unseaworthy, boats, risking injury or even death," Arnold said.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.
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