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Federal agents find 14 suspected illegal immigrants in Reseda 'drop house'

February 1, 2010 | 10:18 am


Federal agents Monday were investigating a suspected “drop house” in Reseda, where 14 suspected illegal immigrants, mostly Central Americans, were being held against their will, officials said.

Los Angeles police responded late Sunday to the single-story stucco home in the 7900 block of Newcastle Avenue after one of the captives dialed 911 on a cellphone and reported that captors were not allowing anyone to leave, authorities said.

  “The smugglers were attempting to extort more money from their relatives before releasing them or moving them to onward destinations,” said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Interviews with the 14 — including 10 men and four women — revealed that smugglers had charged them between $5,000 and $7,000 each to transport them into the United States, Kice said. The prices are typical, she said.

It is not uncommon for human-smugglers, known as coyotes, to hold their charges against their will until full payment is received, often from relatives already in the United States, officials say. In this case, Kice said, the coyotes appear to have fled once law enforcement moved in, leaving the migrants alone in the home.

“No one in custody appears to be complicit with the smuggling plot,” Kice said.

The 14 were comprised of 10 Guatemalans, three Salvadorans and one citizen of the Dominican Republic, Kice said. Two were juveniles. All appeared to be illegal immigrants, the spokeswoman noted.

All were in relatively good health, Kice said, showing no outward signs of trauma. None complained of mistreatment, other than being held against their will at the home, she said.

If the smuggling case advances, some could be held as witnesses, while others will be processed for return  to their home countries.

“We’re following any leads in the case and we’ll see where that takes us,” Kice said.

No weapons were found at the scene, Kice said, but investigators did discover ledgers and other paperwork likely linked to the smuggling scheme. Smugglers typically use such drop houses as staging areas for immigrants recently smuggled in via the U.S.-Mexico border.

The migrants generally remain at the homes until the smugglers arrange to move them to their ultimate destinations. Migrants depend on the coyotes for their transport but face being victimized by them.

Human trafficking is a major industry along the U.S.-Mexico border, with tentacles stretching throughout the United States, Mexico, Central America and elsewhere. Smugglers seek full payment before final delivery of their clients, authorities say, sometimes holding migrants hostage until the bill is paid.

In some cases, Kice said, officials have found safe houses locked from the outside and with all the windows barred to prevent anyone from leaving. Cross-border traffic of undocumented immigrants has slowed as the U.S. economy slumped, officials say, but many continue to come north illegally, often seeking to reunite with loved ones already in the United States.

Currently, Kice said, authorities discover about one drop house a month in the Los Angeles area. Many others are never found, as the illegal immigrants are moved on to U.S. cities and towns, never attracting the attention of law enforcement.

-- Patrick J. McDonnell

Photos: Top,  Los Angeles police officers check a house Monday morning at 7942 Newcastle Ave. near Strathern Street in Reseda, where several suspected illegal immigrants reported being held against their will.  Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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