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Monday, 12 August, 2002, 21:53 GMT 22:53 UK
US smashes child smuggling ring
Mexico-US border
The children were smuggled from Mexico into the US
The largest international child smuggling ring ever seen has been broken up by immigration authorities in the United States.


Breaking up this criminal organisation is a credit to the dedication of law enforcement to ending the illegal smuggling of children for profit

Johnny Williams
INS
The US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) says the ring had been in operation for years, taking hundreds of children from countries in Central America to the US.

Officials say the smugglers charged about $5,000 per child, most of whom were travelling to be reunited with their parents who were already in the country - many illegally.

The massive investigation involved INS officers in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Washington, Houston and Los Angeles, as well as Salvadoran and Guatemalan law enforcement agencies.

Crying all night

The INS agents first uncovered the smuggling last autumn when they came across four very young children in Central America who were completely unaccompanied.

"It's very uncommon to find small children unaccompanied, with no ties, not knowing where they were going," said Johnny Williams, head of field operations for the INS.

Questioning the children produced a number of leads and in April, alongside Guatemalan law enforcement agencies, the INS stopped seven buses in Guatemala.

They contained 53 smuggled children aged between 2 and 17.

INS officials said parents would pay $5,000 per child and the smugglers would then take the children from their native countries, bring them to Mexico and then smuggle them into the US.

En route the children were forced to sleep in hotel lobbies and the younger children were known to have wept all night because of lack of food.

All of the children passed through Los Angeles before being sent on to different parts of the country, Mr Williams said.

Arrests

INS special agents from Los Angeles and Washington arrested three alleged ring members - Ana Karina Cruz Rivas, Juan Orlando Servellon DeLeon and Andrea Giron - in Houston on Friday.

They follow on from the previous arrests of the alleged ring leader Berta Campos in Los Angeles last month and Guillermo Antonio Paniaqua in Houston in June.

"Breaking up this criminal organisation is a credit to the dedication of law enforcement to ending the illegal smuggling of children for profit," Mr Williams said.

All five have been indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit alien smuggling, which carry a possible 10-year jail sentence.

The INS are planning to review each child's status on a case by case basis to decide which should be allowed to remain in the US.


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