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U.S. News

Vast immigrant smuggling ring smashed in L.A.

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. immigration officials said on Thursday they had dismantled a Guatemalan human smuggling ring that brought more than 100 illegal immigrants a week into the Los Angeles area.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in an undated photo courtesy of the agency. ICE officials said on Thursday they had dismantled a Guatemalan human smuggling ring that brought more than 100 illegal immigrants a week into the Los Angeles area. REUTERS/ICE/Handout

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said 13 people, including two of the suspected ringleaders, face charges in connection with what officials described as one of the largest human smuggling operations uncovered on the West Coast in recent years.

The nearly three-year investigation was sparked by the discovery in May 2005 of two “drop” houses in south Los Angeles where more than 140 illegal immigrants were living.

According to court documents, immigration agents uncovered an organization run by Guatemalan nationals that provided housing and transport to immigrants who had already been smuggled across the U.S.-Mexico border to Phoenix.

The immigrants were taken from Arizona to the Los Angeles area where they were held in drop houses before being loaded onto vehicles and driven to U.S. cities around the nation.

The immigrants, mostly from Central America, paid the organization between $1,200 and $3,700 each for the journey.

“Based on our investigation, we suspect this ring was transporting more than 100 illegal aliens a week into this area,” said Los Angeles ICE investigator Jennifer Silliman.

“The human smuggling trade is a ruthless, greed-driven enterprise that puts communities at risk and generates billions of dollars in illicit proceeds,” she said.

Seven suspects, including a third alleged ringleader, are still being sought. Those in custody face charges of transporting and harboring illegal aliens.

An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, most of them Latinos, are thought to be living and working in the United States. Attempts to reform U.S. immigration laws and provide a path to legal status have been stalled in Congress for almost two years.

Reporting by Jill Serjeant, editing by Dan Whitcomb and Vicki Allen

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