Investigators map trail of illegal aliens Riders in truck crash may have been going to Md. chicken plants

Criminal charges unlikely

Immigration officials track new routes with Denver as hub

February 13, 1996|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

The Ryder truck that crashed last week with 40 suspected illegal immigrants aboard likely was heading to chicken processing plants on the Eastern Shore -- and helping to blaze a major new trail to get there, according to investigators.

Since late last year, immigration officials say they have documented significant new routes by illegal aliens hoping to avoid intensive border patrols in California and Texas.

The routes feature Denver as a hub, then branch to areas such as Tennessee or Chicago or Maryland, where illegal immigrants in the job market have been comparatively low.

"Since the first week of November, we've caught 79 loads with more than 1,500 aliens," said Joseph Greene, district director of the Immigration and Naturalization Service office in Denver.

Investigators say that Chandler, Ariz., a small town near Phoenix where the Ryder truck picked up its passengers, has become a key origination point for illegal aliens.

Across the border, organizers sometimes hold several hundred people at once, waiting for a break in the border watch before channeling the immigrants across illegally. From there, the trucks drive north to Interstates 70 and 80.

The squalid travel conditions experienced by the passengers of the Ryder truck, who traveled nonstop for nearly two days, also are typical.

"These are uninsulated trucks going over mountain passes, with no food, and with jugs of urine and bags of feces," Mr. Greene said.

Two weeks ago, the Kansas State Patrol stopped a Ryder truck carrying 58 people, standing room only. A few weeks earlier, police stopped two trucks in Durango, Colo., that were carrying 72 people and heading for Florida.

Ben Ferro, INS district director in Baltimore, would not comment on the destination of the illegal immigrants -- 39 job-seekers and the driver -- but said specific companies are under investigation. But Mr. Greene confirmed that investigators believe they were on their way to jobs at chicken-processing plants on the Delmarva Peninsula.

The passengers were discovered Wednesday night after their truck collided with a Toyota sedan at the Bay Bridge toll plaza. Two people suffered minor injuries.

Mexican authorities say the journey began at a place called Las Huertas, apparently a small farm near Phoenix, where the 39 Mexicans and Guatemalans looking for jobs gathered early last week. Guatemalan officials yesterday said they had not spoken with the Guatemalan passengers.

Most of the Mexican nationals crossed the border into Arizona alone or in pairs a few days earlier, said Arturo Chavarria, the Mexican Embassy's deputy counsel.

"Apparently they didn't intend to stay in the U.S. indefinitely," Mr. Chavarria said. "They were planning to stay for a few months or a few weeks, then return to Mexico."

Las Huertas was the place to go, the job-seekers learned after arriving in the United States. They didn't have to wait long once they got here. Within hours -- or just minutes, for some -- the Ryder truck had pulled up and its driver was offering jobs "somewhere north," said Mr. Chavarria.

The prospective workers plunked down $15, $20, $30 each, dropping the money into a pile on the ground. The cash was pocketed by a person whom no one seems able to identify, Mr. Chavarria said.

"Nobody saw the person who collected the money," he said. "It was very, very dark because it was night and there was no light."

Afterward, they crammed into the 15-foot truck, which investigators believe went north to Denver, then east on Interstate 70.

But their destination apparently remained a mystery to most, if not all, of those on board, Mr. Chavarria said. Over the two-day trip, the truck stopped only two or three times to briefly release the passengers.

"They didn't see the streets or the landscape. What they told me was that most of them were sleeping all the time," Mr. Chavarria said. "They didn't even know the name of the driver, or his age or if there was more than one driver."

By the time the truck collided with a Toyota sedan at the Bay Bridge Wednesday night after the marathon trip, most of the occupants crammed inside had no idea whether it was day or night, he said.

No federal charges have been filed. Mr. Chavarria said all of the Mexican nationals he interviewed were in the country illegally, but he doesn't expect any will be criminally charged.

"All of them told me they want to go back to Mexico," he said.

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