Officials say 5 indicted in human smuggling ring

LOS ANGELES (AP) ? Five people have been indicted in connection with an alleged human smuggling ring that used non-Spanish-speaking, African-American drivers to shuttle illegal immigrants from the border in a bid to elude detection, authorities said.

Maria Lopez-Diaz, 60, of Compton and three others were arrested Thursday on counts related to the transportation of illegal immigrants in special compartments and the trunks of cars, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.

The ring coordinated with international smugglers to pick-up illegal immigrants once they crossed the border and transport them to Los Angeles, officials said.

Lopez-Diaz recruited poor black drivers from South Los Angeles hoping they would not rouse the suspicion of authorities near the border. The drivers’ inability to communicate with the immigrants also meant they had limited information about the broader smuggling scheme, officials said.

The drivers were paid between $300 and $800 for each of the dozens of people they transported from the border to Los Angeles each month in 2010.

“Criminal organizations are always looking for ways to evade detection by law enforcement, said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of ICE homeland security investigations in Los Angeles. “This particular organization figured out, hey, what if we used African Americans as drivers? They might be likely to draw less attention.”

“Ultimately, of course, it didn’t work,” he said.

Lopez-Diaz, two relatives and a suspected driver were scheduled to appear in federal court Thursday afternoon. Another suspected driver remains at large.

The five defendants were indicted last month on one charge of conspiracy. Lopez-Diaz and her 35-year-old son-in-law Juan Eduardo Baltazar are also charged with transporting illegal immigrants and immigrant harboring. Bobby Johnson, a 67-year-old driver from Los Angeles, is also charged with transporting illegal immigrants, officials said.

Messages seeking comment were left for the defendants’ attorneys Thursday afternoon. Baltazar’s attorney Michael Belter said he has not yet received information about the case.

Immigration officials began investigating in January 2010 when border patrol agents reported seeing a rising number of African-,American drivers with illegal immigrants hidden in the trunks of their cars.

Immigrants paid between $2,000 and $4,000 for the trip, officials said.

Typically, smugglers who bring illegal immigrants from Mexico use Spanish-speaking drivers, Arnold said.