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Smuggling ring accused of using black drivers to avoid detection

February 2, 2012 |  3:58 pm

Human Smuggling - Lopez-Diaz, Engine Compartment Case (2-12)
In the calculus of cross-border human smuggling, Maria Lopez-Diaz allegedly concluded that black instead of brown equals green.

The 60-year-old Compton woman, prosecutors say, tried to cash in on racial profiling by operating a human smuggling ring that hired mostly African American drivers who didn’t speak a word of Spanish to ferry small groups of immigrants from Mexico to Los Angeles.

In the end, the venture was a flop – authorities on Thursday announced charges against Lopez-Diaz and four others, including conspiracy and transporting and harboring illegal immigrants. Lopez-Diaz, two family members, and a driver were arrested and due to appear in federal court.

A second driver facing a conspiracy charge, 32-year-old Yvette “Hazel” Binford, remains at large.

Authorities said the group’s approach was the latest innovation they have seen in the evolving trade of sneaking illegal immigrants into the U.S.

“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,” said Special Agent Claude Arnold of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Los Angeles. “This organization thought, ‘What if we recruited those who attract less attention from law enforcement?' Obviously they were wrong.”

Prosecutors say the group, headed by Lopez-Diaz and two family members, recruited drivers who were down on their luck – jobless, homeless or drug-addicted – who were lured by the few hundred dollars’ payoff and kept in the dark about the extent of the enterprise. Had they been able to communicate with their passengers, they would have learned the ringleaders charged the immigrants up to $4,000 a person for the ride north, authorities 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 Rupa Goswami, the federal prosecutor in the case.

The investigation began when Border Patrol officials noticed an unusual pattern in early 2010. They were seeing a number of black, U.S.-citizen drivers, mostly from Compton, hiding up to six immigrants in the trunk and other compartments in their cars. The vehicles they drove were elaborately modified, including compartments under the hood or under the backseats of cars, as well as shock absorbers to conceal the load.

The group is estimated to have smuggled several dozen immigrants a month into Los Angeles, immigration authorities said.

Juan Eduardo Baltazar, 35, Lopez-Diaz’s son-in-law, was allegedly responsible for preparing the vehicles and installing the compartments. Lopez-Diaz's daughter-in-law, 23-year-old Karen Esteban-Morales, is accused of coordinating the pickup of the immigrants. Lopez-Diaz and her two family members are themselves in the country illegally, according to authorities, and face deportation if convicted.

Also charged are drivers Binford and Bobby Johnson, 67, who allegedly transported multiple groups and recruited drivers for the group. In addition to the two, authorities said they have identified an additional 19 drivers, many of whom are cooperating with investigators.

Each count in the three-count indictment carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.


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-- Victoria Kim

Photo: A Compton smuggling ring allegedly used African American drivers and hidden vehicle compartments to avoid detection by authorities while transporting illegal immigrants from the U.S.-Mexico border to Los Angeles. Credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement