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Message to be learned from Don Juan probe: report all illegal activity

February 17, 2002|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

The two-year probe into smuggling operations in which immigrants were stashed in a Calexico motel should serve as a message to those who run lodgings that illegal activity must be reported, a U.S. Border Patrol anti-smuggling unit agent said Friday.

The El Centro sector agent, who asked not to be identified, was part of the investigation into smuggling operations that stowed immigrants at the Don Juan Motel in Calexico until they could be moved to Los Angeles.

That agent revealed details of the investigation, stating it was a complex effort that involved trailing smugglers from Calexico to Los Angeles over a two-year period.

On Monday, the owner of the motel, Richard Melvin Graham, pleaded guilty to a charge that he had knowledge smugglers were using the motel for their operations and did not report their activity.

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As part of a plea agreement, the government dropped smuggling charges against him.

Graham, 69, declined to make a public comment on the matter when contacted by a reporter Friday.

Seventeen others were charged in the case, including a woman authorities have described as Graham's common-law wife, Silvia Tamayo Garcia, who pleaded guilty to the same charge Monday. Smuggling charges also were dismissed against her.

Graham must pay $120,000, $46,000 of which already has been confiscated. The rest must be paid within 11 weeks. He also was given a three-year probation. Garcia was sentenced to 10 months in federal custody and she must turn herself in to federal authorities in July, Border Patrol officials reported.

The agent alleged Graham and Garcia allowed smugglers to use the motel as a base of operation. The agent said Garcia would purchase food for the immigrants and would either charge the immigrants or pay the costs and be reimbursed by the smugglers.

The agent further alleged the smugglers were being charged $20 to $30 more to keep large numbers of immigrants in the motel rooms.

Two other Imperial Valley residents were arrested as part of the investigation.

One was Maria Rosa Cervantes-Jimenez, who the agent said was a ringleader of a smuggling operation that used the Don Juan as a stash house.

Cervantes-Jimenez had an apartment in Brawley where she reportedly conducted her operation but also had a house in a suburban Los Angeles area where she resided.

Cervantes-Jimenez, who pleaded guilty to smuggling charges, is serving a 46-month federal sentence. She was sentenced in August 2001.

The fourth local person arrested was Israel Nuño-Perez, a Mexican national who was staying at the Don Juan, according to the agent, and was caring for immigrants stashed there.

The investigation was launched in September 1998 when Border Patrol agents stopped a pickup with a camper shell leaving the motel. A number of undocumented immigrants were found in the rear of the truck.

"At that point we started watching," the agent said.

For two years agents watched as smugglers would drop off immigrants at the motel, utilizing the back rooms, which are hidden from view by a cement wall.

The agent said the smugglers would guide immigrants over the border fence or across the canal, drop them off at the motel and leave them there for up to three days until they determined it was safe to take the immigrants to Los Angeles.

In some cases 10 immigrants would be loaded into a room and would not leave until the smugglers said it was safe.

What the smugglers didn't know was the anti-smuggling unit was keeping watch to the point that agents would trail load vehicles that left the motel headed for Los Angeles.

"They would load people up in the back of pickups, place two sheets of plywood over them and keep them like that all the way to Los Angeles," the agent said.

There was one stopover on the trips. There was a safe house in Indio where the smugglers would stop. The home was in a fringe area of Indio and the man residing there, Froylan Cobian Pelayo, was reportedly allowing the house to be used by smugglers.

Once the smugglers reached L.A., they would keep the immigrants until their family members would come and pay the $1,500 fee — the cost of guiding them to Los Angeles.

Agents would wait until the "buyout" occurred and once the immigrants were with their families and away from the smugglers, the agents would move in and take the immigrants into custody.

The agent said in doing so investigators had a chance to interview the illegal immigrants and gain the information they needed to move toward breaking up the operation.

In the course of the two-year investigation, the agent said, he probably made 12 trips to Los Angeles trailing load vehicles.

"It took two years because we wanted to identify all the members of the smuggling operation here and in Los Angeles," the agent said.

In November 2000, in a joint effort of the El Centro sector anti-smuggling unit and the Border Patrol's Los Angeles district office, raids were done in Los Angeles, Indio and the Imperial Valley.

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