- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 13, 2005

BALTIMORE — When three children were found nearly beheaded last year, police struggled to uncover a motive for the slayings.

One possibility, raised during the trial of two men charged with the killings, tied the deaths to the smuggling of illegal aliens.

Defense attorney James Rhodes, who represented one of the Mexican men charged with killing their young relatives, suggested that smugglers might have committed the crimes because family members had not paid for being brought illegally into the United States.

Human smuggling by criminals called “coyotes” is growing nationwide, touching even cities thousands of miles from the U.S. border with Mexico. And it is becoming increasingly violent.

“It’s always been there; you’re just waking up to the reality that it’s there now,” said Marc Raimondi, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “This is something that is happening throughout the nation, even in Baltimore.”

ICE conducted 2,564 human-smuggling investigations in fiscal 2004 and 3,348 in fiscal 2005, which ended Sept. 30. Since 2003, there have been 5,460 criminal arrests, 2,880 criminal indictments and 2,358 convictions for human smuggling.

In the past two years, ICE has probed five human-smuggling operations in Baltimore and seized money from smugglers in amounts ranging from $150,000 to $1.3 million.

“What you see now is traditional drug smugglers moving into the human-smuggling element because it is more profitable and involves less penalty,” Mr. Raimondi said.

Although a large portion of immigrant crime and human smuggling has taken place on the southwestern border of the United States, it’s not limited to that area.

“The border is one element of human smuggling,” Mr. Raimondi said. “What we aim to do is identify and dismantle the organization.”

Authorities have seized millions of dollars nationally in human-smuggling operations, including $7.7 million in fiscal 2004 and $26.8 million in fiscal 2005, Mr. Raimondi said.

The latest Baltimore incident involved three illegal aliens who police said forced another illegal alien into a vehicle with Texas license plates last month as the victim walked to work.

The kidnapping occurred because Hugo Umana, 22, owed the men money. Police couldn’t determine whether it was a smuggling debt, but detective Maj. Richard C. Fahlteich of the Baltimore Police Department said it was possible that the suspects might be coyotes.

The abductors offered to return Mr. Umana to his family for $600, police said, but officers tracked them to Virginia Beach.

Mr. Umana told officers at first that he hadn’t been taken against his will, but that was because he was afraid of what would happen to him and he recanted that statement, Maj. Fahlteich said. Police said the suspects were in custody and would face kidnapping charges.

“This is probably something that happens a lot, but is never reported,” he said of the kidnapping.

In the case of the three slain children, a jury was unable to reach a verdict on first-degree murder and conspiracy charges against Adan Canela, 18, and Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 23. A new trial is scheduled March 1.

A police detective testified at the men’s trial that he had tracked the history of the children’s family and found out that the family had paid someone to bring them into the country, but he did not know the details.

Authorities estimate that human smugglers could make $1,500 to $3,000 per person, depending on the route. Mr. Raimondi said the price has gone up since border security was increased after the September 11 attacks.

Aliens are sometimes brought across a border using fraudulent documents. Once the illegals are in the United States, smugglers bring them to locations throughout the country.

Smugglers serve as guides for immigrants in their new locations and often place them in safe houses until they can moved into permanent homes and find jobs to pay the smuggler.

“Smugglers provide far more than just getting someone through a cut in the fence,” said Mr. Raimondi.

Mike Albon, spokesman for the National Border Patrol Control Council, Local 2544 in Tucson, Ariz., a union that represents U.S. border patrol agents, said large profits have been made from smuggling aliens.

“The penalties and risks are not quite as great for smuggling immigrants as opposed to smuggling narcotics,” he said. “There has been emphasis on narcotics for a long time, but I think prosecutions are picking up as far as immigrant smuggling is considered.”

He said smugglers have been involved in reckless-driving accidents and shootouts along the southwestern border. He thinks the number of smugglers has increased recently, based on an increase in the number of illegal aliens.

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