Authorities topple human smuggling ring

Published February 15, 2006

WINDSOR, Ontario (AP) - A human smuggling ring that charged Asian and Eastern European migrants thousands of dollars to send them across the Canadian-U.S. border - sometimes hanging on the sides of freight trains or stuffed in car trunks - was brought down yesterday with the arrests of 17 people, U.S. and Canadian authorities said.

U.S. authorities said they intercepted 74 illegal aliens being smuggled from Canada into the United States. Canadian officials said 24 migrants were stopped going into Canada.

An indictment unsealed yesterday in Detroit described people riding on freight trains traveling through the Detroit/Windsor and Sarnia/Port Huron rail tunnels. Others rode over bridges and on ferries in car trunks or in the cargo trailers of semi-trucks, according to the indictment. Still others crossed the border in small boats, officials said.

"There was a complete disregard for the safety of these migrants, who paid thousands of dollars to the ring for the privilege of being treated worse than cattle," said Inspector Glenn Hanna of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, adding that people were sometimes found hiding in subzero temperatures.

The arrests were made in Toronto, Windsor and Michigan, and were the culmination of a two-year investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Canada Border Services Agency. The people charged include residents of the Detroit area, Windsor, Toronto, Albion and Vicksburg, Mich., and Rockford, Ill.

More arrests are expected. A total of 23 people are charged, including 11 in Canada and 16 in the United States.

While no ring leader was explicitly identified, Maitham Aziz Alzehrani, 33, of Windsor, was named most frequently in the indictment as a person directing the smuggling. Alzehrani was among those arrested yesterday and is charged in both countries.

The 11 charged in Canada are accused of human smuggling and conspiring to violate U.S. immigration laws, Hanna said. If convicted, they would face up to life in prison.

The 16 U.S. defendants are accused of conspiring to smuggle aliens, which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. One of the defendants is also charged with alien smuggling and re-entry after deportation, while three others are charged with transporting illegal aliens.

Officials said migrants from China, South Korea, Albania, Russia, Ukraine and Poland paid smugglers to take them across the border. Most began their journey in Toronto and were trying to get to New York City.

Speaking at a joint Canadian-U.S. news conference in Windsor, Hanna said Canadian officials believe the migrants were motivated by a desire to better their economic situation. However, U.S. officials said their intentions were unknown.

"We have no idea who were coming over," said Stephen Murphy, the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Michigan. "There was no screening done by immigration authorities before these people came into the United States. There could have been drug dealers, terrorists and God knows who coming in those boats, cars and trains."

However, Murphy indicated the detained migrants are not likely to be charged, though they will face deportation.

U.S. and Canadian authorities hailed yesterday's arrests as an example of effective cross-border cooperation. In bringing the charges, U.S. authorities relied on more than 2,000 telephone conversations intercepted by the Canadians.