6 charged in immigrant smuggling scheme
Father-and-son owners of Oxnard auto body shops charged $3,000 to transport people from Mexico to California, according to federal prosecutors.
By Paloma Esquivel
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 22, 2008
The father-and-son owners of an Oxnard auto body shop were arrested Thursday on suspicion of running a human smuggling ring that outfitted vehicles with hidden compartments and used them to transport illegal immigrants into the United States.
Eduardo Aceves-Murillo, 45, and Edgar “Chucky” Eduardo Aceves, 26, both of Oxnard, and four co-defendants were indicted on charges of conspiring to transport migrants for financial gain, according to the U.S. attorney's office.
The two owners of Chucky's Auto Repair and Aceves Upholstery in Oxnard allegedly customized vehicles with large speaker boxes and center consoles to hide special compartments that fit one or two people, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.
Defendants in the case allegedly charged up to $3,000 to transport migrants from Mexico to Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
“This case shows yet again the desperate measures human smugglers will employ, and the risks they'll take with others' lives, all in an effort to turn a profit,” said Kevin Kozak, a supervisor in the Los Angeles office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In one case, officials say, a Chevrolet Suburban was outfitted with a custom-built center console that stretched from the front of the vehicle to the rear seats, according to the 17-page indictment. The console, complete with drink holders at both ends and upholstered in dark gray, was built with a trap door and just enough room for one person to squeeze in and lie down.
In another instance, a wooden box covered with upholstery was fitted into a space behind the rear seat of a GMC extended-cab pickup truck, according to court papers. In 2006, a man traveling in the compartment from the border to Pine Valley, Calif., suffered severe second-degree burns from lying directly on the floor of the truck.
“The conditions in which these people were put on some occasions were quite perilous and hazardous to their health,” said David Wales, the immigration agency's investigations chief in Ventura County. “He was basically being cooked.”
In some cases, convicted felons and unaccompanied minors traveled in the compartments, according to the indictment. In late 2005, two minors rode together in a wooden compartment behind a truck's rear seat.
On another occasion, a speaker box in a Jeep Cherokee was used to hide a man as he and a driver traveled through the Calexico checkpoint, according to the court documents.
Members of the ring were caught a number of times at various border checkpoints, Mrozek said.
They were briefly detained because they were transporting only one or two people, he said.
Aceves and his father took part in at least 25 smuggling operations, according to the indictment. But authorities believe they were able to travel undetected on a number of occasions, Mrozek said.
Aceves allegedly made arrangements with drivers to smuggle immigrants while his father built the compartments, the indictment said.
Arturo Rodriguez-Leon, 40, of Oxnard and Jose Enrique Rodriguez Jr., 23, of National City, Calif., allegedly recruited drivers for the operation, according to the indictment. Rodriguez was arrested Thursday.
Aceves and his father also were charged with conspiring to smuggle previously deported migrants who had been convicted of aggravated felonies. It is the first time such a charge has been filed in the Los Angeles area, and carries additional penalties, authorities said.
If convicted, Aceves faces a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison, while his father could be sentenced to up to 25 years, authorities said.
Aceves-Murillo's daughter, Claudia Aceves, 22, and David Fernandez, 29, of Oxnard also were arrested on suspicion of smuggling.
Gladys Anilu Leal, 24, who was among those indicted, reportedly paid Aceves-Murillo to build a rear bench seat in her pickup truck, which she allegedly used to bring three minors into the country.
In addition to the immigration agency, the investigation was conducted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Ventura County Sheriff's Department. It was launched about two years ago, Wales said, after immigration agents received a tip from a source in Ventura County.
Times staff writer Scott Glover contributed to this report.