5 charged in immigrant smuggling ring

Feb. 3, 2012 at 3:10 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Feb. 3 (UPI) -- Five people have been charged in an illegal immigrant smuggling operation that employed African-American drivers to deflect suspicion, officials said.

Maria Lopez-Diaz, 60, has been accused of being the leader of the human smuggling ring that hired mostly black drivers to bring small groups of immigrants from Mexico to Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times reported.

"It's absolutely true that most of the people involved in transporting human smuggling networks are Hispanics, by virtue of the fact that most customers are Hispanics," U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Claude Arnold said. "This organization thought, 'What if we recruited those who attract less attention from law enforcement?' Obviously they were wrong."

On Thursday, Lopez-Diaz and four others -- her son-in-law, Juan Eduardo Baltazar, her daughter-in-law, Karen Esteban-Morales, and two drivers, Yvette "Hazel" Binford and Bobby Johnson -- were charged with conspiracy and transporting and harboring illegal immigrants, authorities said.

Prosecutors said Lopez-Diaz and her two family members sought out jobless, homeless or drug-addicted blacks, predominantly from Compton, and paid them a few hundred dollars to drive immigrants across the border. Meanwhile, they were making up to $4,000 a person for the ride north, prosecutors said.

"There were two layers of exploitation here, one of the aliens in the trunks coming up to Los Angeles, and then of the drivers they used," said U.S. Assistant Attorney Rupa Goswami, the federal prosecutor in the case.

Lopez-Diaz and Esteban-Morales were ordered held without bail and for Johnson to be released to a drug rehabilitation facility. Baltazar's initial appearance was delayed until next week. Binford remains at large.

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