Child-smuggling operation broken, U.S. officials say

Illegal immigrants paid $5,000 to transport kids from Latin America


WASHINGTON - Federal officials said yesterday that they had broken up a huge child-smuggling ring that preyed upon the desire of desperate illegal immigrants in the United States to be reunited with their children.

The ring smuggled hundreds of children, from toddlers to teen-agers, into the country from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras at a cost of $5,000 each, the Immigration and Naturalization Service said. The agency said its agents arrested three suspected smugglers in Houston on Friday.

"It was a mean-spirited criminal enterprise, driven by greed and criminal profit," Johnny Williams, head of field operations for the immigration agency, said yesterday.

It seems also to have been driven by the yearning of men and women, already living the bare-bones, shadowy life of illegal immigrants in the United States, to see their children again. To be reunited with their sons and daughters, the immigrants would scrape together $5,000 - a veritable fortune from their perspective - for each child who was to be brought in.

The children's journey was typically grueling and often risky, immigration officials said. "When I hear about children crying throughout the night, I know it wasn't a pleasure trip," Williams told reporters.

Officials said the smugglers would take children from their native countries to Mexico, then smuggle them into the United States, passing them through Los Angeles before sending them to various parts of the country.

The three arrested Friday were identified yesterday as Ana Karina Rivas, Juan Orlando DeLeon and Andrea Giron. Last month, the authorities arrested Berta Campos, reputed to be a ring leader, in Los Angeles, and a suspected ring member, Guillermo Antonio Paniaqua, in Houston.

The arrests were a follow-up to the those in April of 12 people in Guatemala who were accompanying several dozen children being transported from El Salvador into the United States.

"We are extremely concerned about the fact that parents are putting their children at risk," Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the INS, said after the arrests in April. "Human trafficking is a major issue for the United States, and in children we are looking at the most vulnerable victims. When adults get involved with it, it is by choice. Children don't know the danger they face."

Children have been found kept in squalid conditions in safe houses while in the smugglers' care, officials have said. The 49 children intercepted in April were sent back to their home countries.

Officials said the smuggling suspects face up to 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000 if they are convicted.

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