CHICAGO -- Twenty-nine people were indicted for illegally smuggling thousands of Yugoslavs into the United States in what a federal prosecutor said Thursday may have been the biggest scheme ever to bring aliens from outside the Western Hemisphere into the country.
About 175 Yugoslavs a month were smuggled into the United States through Mexico for between $3,000 and $5,000 each, netting the smugglers as much as $10.5 million annually, federal officials said.
'It is the largest smuggling ring in the United States operating from outside the Western Hemisphere' that authorities are aware of, U.S. Attorney Dan K. Webb said in describing the 'well-organized and structured scheme.'
Operators of the 'Belgrade Pipeline' and 'Operation Gypsy' were charged with conspiracy to bring up to 2,100 illegal aliens, mostly Yugoslavians of Albanian extraction, into the United States each year.
Announcement of the April 4 and May 22 indictments followed the arrests of more than 80 people Wednesday in a sweep by about 120 federal law enforcement officials and Illinois State Police troopers through Cook, Kane, DuPage, Kendall and Grundy counties west of Chicago.
Some of the suspects and illegal aliens were armed with pistols, rifles and machine guns, but all were arrested without incident, authorities said.
The smuggled aliens who came to northern Illinois were promised employment and most worked in the restaurant business. None requested political asylum from the Communist bloc nation, officials said.
The indictments, along with two similar indictments returned by a federal grand jury in San Diego, culminated a year-long investigation conducted by INS investigators in Chicago, Tuscon, Ariz.; Newark, N.J.; Chula Vista, Calif., and San Diego.
The alleged U.S. ringleader of 'Operation Gypsy' is Oloman Selmani, 55, a naturalized American citizen from Morris, Ill. His counterpart in Mexico was identified as Alejandro Gonzalez-Diaz of Nogales.
The accused principal in the 'Belgrade Pipeline' operation is Dragisa Terzioski of Clifton, N.J. Terzioski was being held in Newark, N.J., in lieu of $1 million bond.
About 50 percent of the Yugoslavs smuggled into the United States during the three-to-four-year life of the operation wound up in Illinois, officials said.
The remainder of the aliens were transported to Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Arizona, Nevada and Alaska.
The indictments charge the aliens would travel from Yugoslavia and other locations in Europe to Mexico. They entered Mexico disguised as tourists with visitors' visas, and were then taken across the U.S.-Mexican border into Arizona or California.
Twenty-eight of the defendants in the multi-million dollar smuggling scheme were taken into custody, officials said. A warrant has been issued for the other suspect.
Conspiracy counts against the defendants carry a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Each illegal transportation count carries a maximum penalty of five years imprisonment and a $2,000 fine.
'This pipeline could have been used by anyone seeking illegal entry from an Eastern bloc country for whatever purpose,' said Harold Ezell, INS Western Regional commissioner in San Pedro, Calif.
'It is estimated the operation grossed as much as $875,000 a month or $10.5 million annually,' Ezell said.
He said many of the aliens simply walked across the border into the United States using 'genuine U.S. permanent resident cards if the legitimate owner's picture closely resembled the illegal alien.
'The cards were obtained from willing co-conspirators and mailed to Mexico for use by the illegal aliens,' Ezell said.