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Child Smuggling Ring Busted

The Immigration and Naturalization Service has broken up an international ring that smuggled hundreds of children into the United States from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, agency officials said Monday.

The ring began operating in 1994 and mainly brought to the United States children whose parents already were in the country illegally. Parents paid the smugglers $5,000 per child, INS officials said.

The ring was the largest child-smuggling operation ever broken up by the INS.

INS special agents from Los Angeles and Washington arrested three alleged ring members — Ana Karina Rivas, Juan Orlando DeLeon and Andrea Giron — in Houston last Friday. All three are charged with conspiracy to commit alien smuggling.

Last month, INS agents arrested alleged ring leader Berta Campos in Los Angeles and alleged ring member Guillermo Antonio Paniaqua in Houston.

"It was a mean-spirited criminal enterprise, driven by greed and criminal profit," said Johnny Williams, head of field operations for the INS, in announcing the arrests Monday. "When I hear about children crying throughout the night, I know it wasn't a pleasurable trip."

The child smuggling ring was broken up in Guatemala in April when seven buses were intercepted by local authorities. Officers found 53 children, ranging in age from 2 to 17. Twelve men were arrested for smuggling.

INS officials said the ring would take children from their native countries, bring them to Mexico and then smuggle them into the United States. All of the children passed through Los Angeles before going to different parts of the country, according to the INS.

Campos and Paniaqua have been sent to Washington to face charges. The three people arrested last week in Houston will have preliminary hearings in Houston and be tried in Washington.

Those arrested face 10 years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine, officials said.

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