8 arrested as ICE dismantles human smuggling ring linked to notorious local street gang

LOS ANGELES - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents today arrested eight defendants linked to a drug trafficking and human smuggling ring with close ties to the notorious Drew Street clique of the Avenues street gang. A ninth suspect charged in the case remains at large.

The arrests came last night and this morning as ICE agents executed search warrants and arrest warrants in the Imperial Valley and at a Los Angeles residence. Investigators believe the home at 2862 West Avenue 34 in northeast Los Angeles was the local base of operations for the ring, serving as a "drop house" to hold smuggled aliens before they were transported to their final destinations. At the residence, agents located two of the defendants, Teodoro Alvarez-Estrada and his wife Aquilina Alvarez. Agents also seized three firearms at the home, including a semi-automatic handgun and a .357-caliber revolver.

According to the search warrant affidavit filed in federal court in connection with the case, the ring allegedly smuggled more than 200 illegal aliens per year into the United States. At one point, investigators say, members of the Drew Street clique contacted the smuggling organization about bringing the infamous matriarch of the gang, Maria Leon, into the United States from Mexico. While the ring did not end up smuggling Leon into the United States, she returned to the country illegally and was subsequently arrested. Leon is now serving a 100-month federal prison sentence for racketeering crimes related to the Avenues street gang.

As part of today's operation, ICE agents served search and arrest warrants at three locations in the Imperial Valley, including a commercial parking and import lot in Calexico, Calif., operated by one of the defendants, Ruben Servin-Mejia. Servin-Mejia was taken into custody late yesterday by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers at a port of entry in Calexico as he attempted to return to the United States from Mexico. ICE agents in the Imperial Valley also executed a search warrant at a residence in Holtville, Calif., where they believe smuggled aliens were hidden prior to being transported to Los Angeles.

According to affidavits filed in support of today's enforcement actions, the ring charged aliens from $2,500 to $4,500 to be smuggled into the United States from Mexico. The fee depended on the type of smuggling method used. Those methods included concealing people in trucks and hidden compartments of vehicles, and providing aliens with fake or counterfeit immigration documents. The ring is also suspected of methamphetamine drug trafficking.

The investigation leading to the arrests began in August 2008 as a result of information developed during prior federal and local enforcement actions targeting the Drew Street clique of the Avenues street gang. It is suspected that a number of the organization's "clients" were criminal aliens with ties to the gang.

"This case illustrates the disturbing ties we're increasingly finding between local street gangs and criminal organizations," said Kevin Kozak, deputy special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Los Angeles. "ICE is working not only to target and dismantle violent street gangs, but also the criminal organizations that support the gangs' illegal activities."

The nine defendants charged in the case are named in a five-count indictment handed down Oct. 1 by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles. The allegations include smuggling and harboring illegal aliens for financial gain and conspiring to do so. The eight defendants who were arrested last night and this morning include the following:

* Teodoro Alvarez-Estrada, 56, of Los Angeles;
* Aquilina Alvarez, 56, of Los Angeles; (Teodoro's wife)
* Eduardo Alvarez-Marquez, 35, of Los Angeles; (adult son of Teodoro and Aquilina)
* Martina Araceli Carreon, 44, of Holtville, Calif.;
* Jose Carreon, 47, of Holtville, Calif.;
* Ruben Servin-Mejia, 37, of Calexico, Calif.;
* Maria Toledo-Fierros, 49, of Calexico, Calif.; and
* Yesenia Rubi Mendoza-Gonzalez, age unknown, of Mexicali, Mexico.

The ninth defendant in the case, Rosario Maria Rodriguez-Ortiz, 26, of Los Angeles, remains at large and is still being sought.

The defendants are expected to make their initial appearances in federal court today in Los Angeles, El Centro and San Diego. The charge of human smuggling for financial gain carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Alvarez-Estrada and his wife are also charged with re-entering the United States after deportation, which is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.