INS stops international child smuggling ring

WASHINGTON – A discovery of four lonely children in a Latin American country helped Im-migration and Naturalization Service agents uncover the largest international child smuggling ring they have ever found, officials said Monday.

After interviewing the children, following other leads and sharing that information with other governments, Guatemalan authorities stopped seven buses last April, finding 53 children between the ages of 2 and 17.

That ended a ring that had smuggled hundreds of children into the United States from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras since 1994, agency officials said. The ring primarily brought children to the United States whose parents were already here, many of them illegally, officials said.

The investigation began when agents found the four children late last fall. INS officials declined to give more information, citing an ongoing investigation.

”It’s very uncommon to find small children unaccompanied, with no ties, not knowing where they were going,” said Johnny Williams, head of field operations for the INS.

INS special agents from Los Angeles and Washington arrested three alleged ring members – Ana Karina Cruz Rivas, Juan Orlando Servellon DeLeon and Andrea Giron – in Houston last Friday. INS agents arrested alleged ringleader Berta Campos in Los Angeles last month and Guillermo Antonio Paniaqua in Houston in June.

All are charged with conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, the INS said. The charges carry a penalty of 10 years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine, officials said.

INS officials said the ring would take children from their native countries, bring them to Mexico and then smuggle them into the United States. All the children passed through Los Angeles before going to different parts of the country, Williams said.

”There’s nothing more vulnerable than a 5-year-old child who has no idea of where he’s going, who is being taken care of – or not – by strangers,” said Hipolito Acosta, who directed INS’ Mexico City office during the investigation and now heads the agency’s Houston office.

Parents paid smugglers $5,000 per child, from infants to teen-agers. They crowded into hotel lobbies to sleep, and the youngest were known to cry all night because they weren’t fed enough, officials said.

”It was a mean-spirited criminal enterprise, driven by greed and criminal profit,” Williams said. ”When I hear about children crying throughout the night, I know it wasn’t a pleasurable trip.”

Campos and Paniaqua have been sent to Washington to face charges. The three people arrested last week in Houston will have preliminary hearings in Houston and will be tried in Washington.

The INS will review each child’s case individually to see which ones will be allowed to stay in the United States, Williams said. If their parents are undocumented aliens, they could face deportation, Williams said.

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