September 5, 2008
LAX Mechanic Accused of Smuggling Immigrants
By Art Marroquin
A longtime elevator mechanic allegedly smuggled at least 15 illegal immigrants past federal authorities shortly after they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport this summer, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.Roberto Amaya Canchola, 53, of North Hills was arrested Aug. 23 during a sting operation at LAX, where he had worked for more than 20 years, according to an affidavit filed Wednesday in federal court.
Canchola apparently used a city-issued access card to help the illegal immigrants slip past the secured federal inspections area inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal, then led them into a public area of LAX, where they would board waiting taxicabs, according to the affidavit.
At least two of the illegal immigrants had criminal records and were previously deported. Both of those men were later arrested and charged in federal court.
Authorities are now trying to determine whether Canchola was part of a larger network of smugglers.
"Our agents really haven't seen a scheme quite like this before," said Lori Haley, a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Smuggling organizations generally see people as nothing more than currency," Haley said. "We're committed to attacking and dismantling any networks that allow people to enter this country illegally."
Canchola faces up to 10 years in federal prison if he's convicted of smuggling the illegal immigrants into the United States. He was released on $100,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court again on Sept. 15.
Canchola's attorney, Paul Horgan, declined any comment.
Federal authorities learned about the alleged smuggling on July 26, when U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents reported a discrepancy with passengers arriving aboard Mexicana Flight 112 from Guanajuanto, Mexico.
A search through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security database revealed that four passengers aboard the flight were not inspected by customs agents. The query also found that two passengers used forged alien registration cards, while the other two did not have visas to travel into the United States, according to the affidavit.
A subsequent database search found several other instances when passengers had bypassed the federal inspection process after arriving at LAX aboard Mexicana Flight 112, most frequently on Saturdays.
Airport surveillance video records from July 19 and 26 showed Canchola leading six of the passengers aboard Flight 112 from their airline gate to a curbside taxi. None of those passengers had luggage or went through the customs inspection area at LAX.
Shortly afterward, ICE agents set up a sting operation and watched Canchola meet with a man, three women and an infant who had arrived at LAX aboard Mexicana Flight 112 on Aug. 9. Canchola then guided the five passengers into a public elevator that leads to the federal inspection area.
Shortly afterward, authorities saw them walking out of a different elevator and into an unsecured, public area of the airport, where they boarded taxis headed for downtown Los Angeles.
Authorities believe Canchola used a city-issued access card that allows him to use any elevator at the airport as part of his duties as a mechanic. This time, he used the key to help the five passengers get past customs inspectors.
"I know from experience that it is not possible for the general public or arriving international passengers to gain access to any other part of the (Bradley terminal) without an authorized access key or identification card," Ben Shelton, an ICE special agent with the Human Smuggling Unit at LAX, said in the affidavit.
Canchola allegedly tried to repeat the process on Aug. 23, when he was arrested.
Canchola had worked at LAX since 1989, but briefly went to work for the city's Department of Building and Safety in 2007 before returning to the airport in April 2008.
Just before his return to LAX, Canchola had passed a series of city and federal background checks that allowed him to access secure areas of the airport, according to Nancy Castles, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that operates LAX.
Canchola's access badge was confiscated and deactivated immediately after his arrest, Castles said.
Airport officials said renovations at the Bradley terminal and customs areas did not create any security gaps.
"This was a case where an employee already working inside a secure area was able to escort some folks by using a restricted elevator," said Jeff Fitch, deputy executive director of operations, maintenance and security at LAX.
"In the end, the system worked," Fitch said. "All the checks and balances we have in place worked, and he was caught."
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