Two Mexican nationals and two U.S. citizens have been charged in a suspected human smuggling conspiracy that drew headlines this week when 23 people were found wet and caked with sand after getting off a boat that landed near a seaside gated equestrian community.
They were part of a group of 23 people arrested Tuesday after a 30-minute search of hillsides in Palos Verdes after border patrol agents spotted a 27-foot fishing boat believed to be smuggling people from south of the U.S.-Mexico border and looking to make a clandestine landing to rendezvous with waiting vans.
Two of the people arrested told agents they had previously worked as smugglers, one most recently as a week earlier in the same neighborhood, court documents said.
Details of the arrests and the alleged smuggling operation were sworn out in an affidavit by a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security in support of a criminal complaint against three men and a woman in the alleged conspiracy.
The case comes more than a week after the first law-enforcement death related to a so-called maritime smuggling operation as authorities are seeing a spike in the number of cases in the waters of Southern California.
This week's case began late Monday as agents using infrared scanners spied the waters along Abalone Cove, an area long known as a spot used by smugglers to ferry undocumented immigrants and narcotics by boat, court documents said.
Agents spotted an open-hulled boat, known as a panga, try to come ashore in the pre-dawn darkness near Portuguese Bend Beach.
Agents lost sight of the boat and called nearby police agencies for help to find the the vessel and search for the occupants.
Police, meanwhile, spotted two vans sitting in a dirt parking lot that they believe were waiting to pick up people who were aboard the boat.
When questioned, one of the drivers, identified as Jose De Jesus Chavez-Jimenez, of Boyle Heights, said he had been in the area since midnight and was there to “hook up with girls" who he met on a website called “Meet Me.” He said he only stopped in the area because the 7-Eleven was closed and he was looking for a restroom.
A search of hillsides prompted the shutdown of a main road through the area and shocked residents who spotted people running through bushes, scattering to avoid capture by federal and local police scouring the area.
After 30 minutes, agents found 21 people whose clothes were wet and caked with sand.
A GPS unit was found on a nearby hillside.
All but one of the people detained told agents they were from Mexico -- one was from Guatemala. They told agents they were smuggled into the United States aboard a boat that night, court documents said.
The people charged in federal court were identified as Ivan Ramirez-Leyva, Juan Francisco Becerra-Ruiz, Jose De Jesus Chaves-Jimenez, and Maricela Salazar-Diaz.
Ramirez-Leyva, the panga boat’s captain, told agents he was a fisherman and needed the $5,000 promised to motor the panga boat from Popotla, Baja California to Palos Verdes.
He was convicted and served 17 months of an 18-month sentence in federal prison for a 2011 smuggling offense before he was deported to Mexico, court documents said.
Becerra-Ruiz told agents he worked as a commercial fisherman on a shrimp boat and that his father made arrangements for him to be smuggled into the United States for “3 or 4 thousand dollars.” He said he was destined for Minnesota where intended to live, court records said.
He told agents he helped the panga driver for a reduced smuggling fee in return.
Chavez-Jimenez, who told agents he was a car salesman involved in a “car flipping” business, is a U.S. citizen, born in Atlanta. His parents are Mexican nationals, court documents said.
He told agents that he was hired by a man he knows only as “Gil” to pick up illegal immigrants from the beach and drive them to a Wal-Mart store in Montebello. He said “Gil” promised to pay him $100 a head.
He also told agents “Gil” paid him about $1,800 to smuggle 18 illegal immigrants in Palos Verdes a a week earlier.