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5 Indicted In Human Smuggling Ring That Used Black, Non-Spanish Speaking Drivers

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LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Five people have been indicted for for allegedly masterminding a human smuggling scheme federal agents say relied on non-Spanish speaking African Americans to drive illegal immigrants from the border and into the Los Angeles area.

Four of the defendants, including suspected ringleader Maria “Reyna” Lopez-Diaz, 60, of Compton, were arrested Thursday morning by federal agents.

The indictment handed down Jan. 18 and unsealed Thursday accuses Lopez-Diaz of buying smuggling vehicles, recruiting drivers and providing them with cars, cell phones and travel expenses and sending them to the border to pick up illegal immigrants near the border. Lopez-Diaz specifically sought out poor U.S. citizens from south Los Angeles who did not speak Spanish, offering them $300 to $800 for every illegal immigrant they successfully transported, according to investigators.

The ring used non-Spanish speaking, African American drivers to avoid suspicion and detection, officials said, plus using non-Spanish speakers meant the drivers who were questioned would have little information about the broader smuggling scheme.

The ring charged immigrants between $2,000 and $4,000 to be smuggled from the border to Los Angeles, officials said. The immigrants were hidden inside vehicle trunks or in specially built compartments under the hood. Officials estimate that between January 2010 and January 2011, several dozen immigrants a month were smuggled into the Los Angeles area.

“If the allegations are true, the defendants not only targeted the financially vulnerable to perpetrate this criminal scheme, but in their eagerness to reap a profit, they put their alien clients’ lives at considerable risk,” said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge for ICE in Los Angeles.

Also indicted are:

  • Juan Eduardo Baltazar, 35, of Rialto, Lopez-Diaz’s son-in-law. Baltazar is accused of preparing the smuggling vehicles and outfitting them with hidden compartments.
  • Karen Esteban-Morales, 23, of Los Angeles, Lopez-Diaz’s daughter-in-law. Esteban-Morales allegedly took drivers to the smuggling vehicles and coordinated the pickup of the illegal immigrants.
  • Bobby Johnson, 67, of Los Angeles. Johnson is accused of taking several groups of immigrants to Los Angeles and recruiting other drivers.
  • Yvette “Hazel” Binford, 32, of Inglewood. Binford, who is still at large, is an accused driver.

Lopez-Diaz, her son-in-law and daughter-in-law are all illegal immigrants and face possible deportation.

Each of the five defendants are accused of one count of conspiracy. Lopez-Diaz, Baltazar and Johnson are charged with transporting illegal aliens and Lopez-Diaz and Baltazar are also charged with harboring aliens.

Each count carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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