Southern California -- this just in

Category: Border

Weapons, pot seized by Border Patrol in San Diego County

Handgun and marijuana confiscated by Border Patrol agents.
Border Patrol agents in southeastern San Diego County foiled two separate smuggling efforts, seizing weapons and thousands of dollars worth of marijuana, federal authorities said Tuesday.

The incidents occurred along Interstate 8 in the Pine Valley area and involved U.S. citizens transporting the pot and weapons, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In the first incident, agents at an interstate checkpoint seized more than a pound of marijuana, a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and ammunition from a 28-year-old man. He was also carrying $12,900 in cash, authorities said. The pot had an estimated street value of more than $19,000.

In the second incident, a 25-year-old man tried to reach for a shotgun after he was pulled over on the interstate. An agent grabbed the weapon and took it from the vehicle. Agents found about a pound of pot valued at more than $14,000, along with a scale, baggies and a log book listing marijuana sales, according to authorities. 

Both incidents occurred Friday evening, and the two men were arrested on suspicion of smuggling. 


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-- Robert J. Lopez

Photo: A handgun and some of the marijuana seized by Border Patrol agents is shown. Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

30 Mexican cartel members charged in major drug probe, officials say

Thirty members of a violent Mexican drug cartel active in bringing illegal narcotics to Southern California have been charged after a two-year undercover investigation, officials in San Diego announcedThirty members of a violent Mexican drug cartel active in bringing illegal narcotics to Southern California have been charged after a two-year undercover investigation, officials in San Diego announced Friday.

The 30 are members of the La Familia Michoacana cartel and an offshoot of the cartel known as the Knights Templar Cartel, officials said. The two rival groups, which engaged in a bloody turf battle, are responsible for smuggling large amounts of methamphetamine, heroin and cocaine into the United States.

Search warrants were served this week in San Diego, Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties, under the investigation dubbed Operation Knight Stalker. In San Diego County, 12 cases have been filed against 28 defendants, Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis said.

"This operation gives you a window into the continuing large-scale drug trafficking that continues to plague San Diego County across the U.S.-Mexico border," Dumanis said.

The structure of drug cartels is "constantly changing, but operations like this one cripple their ability to do business," Dumanis said.

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'Pick up' vans found at Rancho Palos Verdes beach where panga was headed

Two possible "pick up" vehicles were found waiting in Rancho Palos Verdes early Monday as a panga boat carrying 25 people approached the shoreline in what's being investigated as a possible human smuggling operation.

The vehicles were parked near a winding trail that connects to the beach. One was a 1991 blue GMC van; the other a 2002 red Dodge sports van registered to a medical transportation company. 

The rear window of the GMC van has a sticker with the image of St. Jude that reads “cuida mi camino” or “protect my path.”

Homeland Security is now interviewing the panga detainees, hoping to learn who is behind the apparent  smuggling operation.

Border Patrol agents said they spotted the panga, a fishing vessel that has been used in recent years by drug and human smugglers, floating off of Abalone Cove about 5 a.m.  

The agents requested aid from other agencies as the boat approached the shore, said Virginia Kice,  U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman. Authorities said they don’t know what country the suspected migrants are from and are still trying to determine how many people were on the boat.  

Those who are not held for possible criminal prosecution will be turned over to U.S. Border Patrol for possible deportation proceedings, Kice said.   

Maritime smuggling has been on the rise in the last four years along the Southern California coast. In 2008 there were 45 human-smuggling-related incidents, most of them in the San Diego area. In 2012 there were more than 200, Kice said in a statement. 

In addition to federal authorities, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Port Police are involved, Kice said.


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-- Adolfo Flores and Ruben Vives in Rancho Palos Verdes

Memorial today for slain Coast Guard officer

Coast guard terrell horne

U.S. Coast Guard officials are scheduled to hold a memorial Saturday for a veteran chief petty officer killed after suspected smugglers rammed his small vessel off the coast of Santa Barbara, tossing him into the sea.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is expected to attend the event for Terrell Horne III of Redondo Beach, who served in the Coast Guard for nearly 14 years and was second in command of the Halibut patrol cutter. The memorial, at 1 p.m. on Terminal Island, is closed to the public.

Horne, 34, had been honored by the agency for his leadership in dozens of search-and-rescue cases. He is survived by his wife, Rachel, who is pregnant with their second child, according to media reports.

Horne was killed early Sunday after his boat came across a panga, a fishing vessel that law enforcement officers say has become the craft of choice for smugglers. The Coast Guard crew members turned on their blue flashing lights and shouted, in English and Spanish: "Stop! Police! Put your hands up!" according to court documents.

In response, the two men aboard the panga throttled their engines and headed straight at the Coast Guard boat, ignoring shots fired by a crew member and provoking the collision that killed Horne and injured one of his colleagues, who was not identified.

The men on the panga, Jose Mejia Leyva and Manuel Beltran Higuera, both Mexican nationals, were charged in Horne's death in U.S. District Court. Authorities believe they had been supplying gasoline to other smuggling craft operating off the California coast.

Officials say the tragedy underscored the dangers posed by smugglers who have foregone well-policed land routes in favor of the sea. Although more than 500 maritime smuggling incidents have been logged off the Southern California coast since 2010, this was the first violent death, authorities said.


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Photo: Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne climbing up onto the Halibut after conducting water survival training. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

35,000 rubber ducks in Santa, reindeer outfits seized at L.A. port

More than 35,00 holiday-themed rubber ducks were seized at the Port of Los Angeles. Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

They may have had better luck on Santa’s sleigh, but more than 35,000 holiday-themed rubber ducks from China were detained by U.S. Customs officials at the Port of Los Angeles.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers seized the ducks -- dressed as snowmen, gingerbread men, penguins and reindeer -- which were valued at $18,522, after determining they contained the chemical phthalate in excess of the limit which may be harmful to children.  

Phthalates are used to make vinyl and other plastics soft and flexible, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a statement. Consumer officials prohibit the sale, distribution and import of any child's toy or child care item that contains concentrations of more than 0.1% of phthalate.  

In the last four years, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and Customs and Border Protection stopped more than 8.5 million units of about 2,400 different toys and children’s products due to safety hazards or failure to meet federal safety standards, officials said. 


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-- Adolfo Flores

Photo: More than 35,00 holiday-themed rubber ducks were seized at the Port of Los Angeles. Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Fugitive, suspected of murder in L.A., arrested in Mexico

Jose Luis SaenzA Los Angeles gang member on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted fugitive list who authorities say killed four people has been arrested in  Guadalajara, Mexico, authorities said Friday.

Jose Luis Saenz, who is believed to have worked for a Mexican drug cartel, was arrested after a joint investigation by the FBI, Los Angeles Police Department and Mexican authorities, said Laura Eimiller, an FBI spokeswoman.

Authorities believe that Saenz, a reputed gang member, shot and killed two gang rivals in Boyle Heights in 1998.

Days later, he allegedly kidnapped, raped and killed his girlfriend.

He is believed to have killed a fourth person in Los Angeles County in October 2008, according to the FBI.

Saenz, who is believed to be 36  or 37, was flown Friday under FBI escort from Guadalajara to Los Angeles International Airport, Eimiller said.

He is in LAPD custody and is expected to be arraigned next week on murder charges, Eimiller said.

Saenz has "been sought for some time," she said. "There's a lot of determination that went into this capture." 

Saenz -- who was believed by the FBI to use the aliases "Zapp," "Toro" and "Peanut Joe Smiley," among others -- was added to the 10 Most Wanted list in 2009.

Authorities "suspected that he had crossed the border to Mexico and back often," Eimiller said.


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-- Hailey Branson-Potts


Photo: Jose Luis Saenz in a 2009 file photo. Credit: FBI

Mexican drug warlord's alleged daughter due in San Diego court

Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, leader of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel

A woman claiming to be the daughter of the world's most wanted drug trafficker is scheduled to appear in federal court next week in San Diego after her arrest for using fraudulent documents.

Alejandrina Gisselle Guzman Salazar allegedly told U.S. customs officers at the San Ysidro border crossing that she was traveling to Los Angeles to give birth.

After questioning Friday, she admitted that she was the daughter of Joaquin "Chapo" Guzman, the leader of Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, said an unidentified, high-ranking U.S. law enforcement official.

Guzman Salazar appeared Monday morning at the downtown federal courthouse in a hearing held under heightened security. Her attorneys are Jan Ronis and Guadalupe Valencia, both known for representing high-profile drug-trafficking figures.

They would not comment on whether she was related to Guzman. The attorneys said after the hearing that Guzman Salazar is a medical doctor from Guadalajara who is seven-months pregnant.

This wouldn't be the first time a relative of Guzman's has traveled to the U.S. to give birth. Last year, Guzman's wife, Emma Coronel, was driven through the Calexico border crossing to the Los Angeles suburb of Lancaster, where she gave birth to twin girls at Antelope Valley Hospital.

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'Fast and Furious' defendant gets prison for buying guns


The first of 20 individuals indicted in 2011 on charges of buying high-powered firearms in Arizona to be used by Mexican drug gangs was sentenced Monday in San Diego federal court to 57 months in prison.

Danny Cruz Morones, 24, of Phoenix is the first of the so-called Fast and Furious defendants to be sentenced. He pleaded guilty to acting as a "straw purchaser"of weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles, and to recruiting others to buy the weapons.

The cases were shifted to San Diego after the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix recused itself because of its ties to the local Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives office.

FULL COVERAGE: ATF's Fast and Furious scandal

Fast and Furious was a failed gun-tracking operation run out of the ATF’s Phoenix field office from fall 2009 until January 2011. The idea was to allow weapons to be illegally sold in the U.S. so that they could be tracked over the border to Mexican drug cartels, and to arrest high-ranking members of the cartels. Most of the weapons vanished, however.

Two were recovered where a U.S. Border Patrol agent was shot and killed south of Tucson in December 2010 – leading to the quick shutdown of Fast and Furious. Other weapons from the program were found at crime scenes on both sides of the border.

Fast and Furious has been investigated by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Justice Department’s Inspector General. The DOJ’s inspector general’s report called the operation a "significant danger to public safety."

According to court documents, four AK-47s purchased by Morones were seized by Mexican military officers in Tijuana in September 2010. Also, six AK-47s purchased by someone that Morones recruited into the scheme were also seized.

Although the purchase of weapons is legal in Arizona, it is illegal to buy them for "shipment, transportation and/or exportation" to drug trafficking gangs and to lie on legally required purchase documents.

According to prosecutors, Morones bought 27 AK-47s. Also, two co-defendants that he recruited and assisted bought 69 AK-47s.

"Stopping the illegal purchase of firearms is critical to preventing violent crime in the United States and Mexico," U.S. Atty. Laura Duffy said.


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Real estate agent to plead guilty in multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme

--Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: U.S. Atty. Laura Duffy holds a picture of slain Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in July. Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press





Customs agent admits allowing fugitive brother-in-law into U.S.

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer admitted in a plea agreement Tuesday that he allowed a fugitive to enter the country and covered the man’s tracks by entering false information in a law enforcement database.

Thomas Silva, 33, a nine-year veteran of the agency, was working at the San Ysidro border crossing in April when he allowed the fugitive, his brother-in-law, into the country and then entered inaccurate license plate information into a database that records entries into the U.S.

Silva pleaded guilty to concealing a person from arrest.

He also pleaded guilty, in an unrelated matter, to wire fraud charges for filing a false insurance claim.

Silva is scheduled to be sentenced in December. He faces a potential 25-year prison term.


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-- Richard Marosi in San Diego

Life terms for Mexican gang members who dissolved bodies in lye

Two members of a Mexican criminal gang that employed Tijuana-style violence against rivals in San Diego were sentenced Friday to life terms in prison for taking part in the strangling deaths of two men whose bodies were later dissolved in lye.

David Valencia and Jose Olivera Beritan, both mid-level members of The Palillos, or Toothpicks, received multiple life terms without the possibility of parole at their sentencing hearing in downtown San Diego.

They were found guilty in May for their roles in the murders of two men who were lured to a house under the guise of a drug deal. Olivera was also convicted of taking part in the murder of another man whose body was left in a trunk.

The Palillos splintered from the Tijuana-based Arellano Felix drug cartel in 2003 and moved across the border, seeking vengeance by targeting cartel members for murder or kidnap and ransom schemes.

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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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