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- 03-26-2006, 01:52 PM #1
Driving while Hispanic: It's not a crime
Driving while Hispanic: It's not a crime
Some Latino advocates worry area police have turned to racial profiling in their search for human traffickers
By Kristen Zambo
Sunday, March 26, 2006
When a Hispanic man drives a van filled with other Latinos down Interstate 75, he’s just driving.
But when local police and federal law enforcement — on the lookout for human smuggling and trafficking — pull over men like this, some Latino advocates say his only offense is driving while Hispanic.
Six men have been stopped on I-75 since September 2005 and accused of human smuggling for hefty profits. Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy said these men are profiting off the hopes and dreams of migrants, who illegally cross the border each day hoping for better lives in America.
“There is really nothing more despicable than that,” Molloy said.
The interstate long has been considered a corridor through which to smuggle drugs, guns and, now, people. That’s because such traffickers can hide in plain sight, Molloy said. Investigators know people now are transported through Southwest Florida on that route and they are targeting the smugglers and their bosses.
“What we’re trying to do is improve the situation of the worker,” Molloy said. “To bring people, who are making money off their hopes and dreams, to task. This is not a safe harbor for (smugglers).”
But it’s the way some of these investigations begin that’s troubling for some.
Leonardo Garcia, executive director of the Southwest Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said Hispanic business owners and workers have voiced concern to the chamber that Southwest Florida is becoming inhospitable for Latinos. Workers needed in some industries might turn away from the area, as might some businesses, he said the Chamber’s been told.
“It looks like Southwest Florida is becoming strong anti-Hispanic,” Garcia said clients have told the Chamber. “One concern that I have as a director is that we are promoting international business. It doesn’t help us when we try to promote the area to bring tourists, to bring investors to the area.”
Law enforcement should arrest those committing such crimes as smuggling and human trafficking, Garcia said, and people committing crimes should be prosecuted. But some members tell Chamber staff they believe police have turned to racial profiling.
“We have a system that’s based on fairness,” Garcia said. “Let’s not abuse that when in power.”
And if one group feels targeted today, he said, others may fall to profiling tomorrow, he added.
“Who knows if you’re going to be the next one tomorrow? These are some of the feelings being expressed to us,” Garcia said.
Human trafficking prosecutions have been on the rise nationwide after it became a Bush administration priority after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez issued an 89-page report earlier this month showing Justice Department prosecutions of such cases are up more than 300 percent.
The department filed 91 trafficking cases from fiscal year 2001 through 2005, which the report said involved 248 trafficking defendants. And 140 defendants nationwide were convicted in that time of various trafficking-related crimes. That represented a 109 percent increase over the prior five years, according to the report released March 15 during a conference at Chicago-Kent School of Law.
One local case is that of Rene Flores Calderon, 22, who was driving on Interstate 75 in Estero when U.S. Border Patrol agents say he was transporting a load of undocumented workers. According to an agent’s affidavit in the case, Flores Calderon was driving a van with Arizona plates when agents noticed him on Feb. 2. He slowed down to less than the speed limit when the marked car pulled alongside the van. The driver went from looking relaxed to looking fearful, according to the affidavit.
But Flores Calderon’s defense attorney said it looks to him like a case of driving while Hispanic. Investigators actions’ appear “like a very clear case of profiling,” Assistant Federal Public Defender Kevin Beck said Feb. 6 after Flores Calderon appeared in court on a charge of transporting illegal aliens.
Molloy said he understands defense lawyers will cry racial profiling. But that’s untrue, he said.
Investigators are tipped to smuggling and trafficking cases from traffic stops, domestic violence calls and fights.
“If we come across this while breaking up a fight, we’re not targeting Hispanic men fighting,” Molloy said.
Flores Calderon was arrested after border patrol agents spotted him driving a southbound van at about 2 p.m. near mile marker 126 in Estero. Three Mexican nationals, Nicholas Gomez Soto, 32; Luis Gomez Pelcastre, 25; and Arnulfo Garcia Fermin, 22, were found inside the van. Two, Gomez Soto and Gomez Pelcastre, still are being held in jail without charges on material witness warrants in this case.
They said they paid Flores Calderon between $1,300 and $1,500 to come to Florida, according to court records. They were bound for Naples.
In another of the six cases, Mexican national Gustavo Ramirez Cruz, 30, was pulled over Jan. 19 on I-75 in northern Lee County. Border Patrol agents spotted him at 8:40 p.m. and said he appeared nervous while driving southbound in his van. Agents stopped him after they said he was gripping the wheel with outstretched and locked arms, was driving the speed limit and didn’t look at the Border Patrol car as it pulled alongside. They also said the rear of the van bounced more than normal, as if heavily laden.
Ramirez Cruz then dropped to 5 to 10 mph under the speed limit, court records said. He later drifted into the right-hand shoulder before agents stopped him, finding six male passengers. Two remain jailed without charges on material witness warrants, court records obtained by the Daily News show.
“I think it’s great that Border Patrol is working so diligently to ensure that human trafficking is being stymied,” said Naples immigration lawyer Karen Caco, with Int’l Immigration Services.
“However, if it appears that law enforcement and/or (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is racially profiling a certain group ... then that is certainly troubling,” she said. “It appears based on the two affidavits I have read, that none of the circumstances that the officer testified to reached the level of probable cause.
For example, Caco said, in one case an officer said he saw the driver of a van looking nervous, driving under the speed limit and gripping the wheel tightly.
“The officer stated that the time in one case was after 8 p.m., when it was obviously already dark,” Caco said. “So I wonder how clearly he could have seen their faces, all while driving next to them on I-75. How many people do you know that drive slower when they see a police officer in their rearview mirror?
“I would suspect that the officers are not pulling over every nervous driver they see, nor are they pulling over every out-of-state license plate on the road. Especially not now in the height of the tourist season,” Caco said.
Molloy objects to criticism of law enforcement investigative procedures. So does Steve McDonald, assistant chief of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s Miami sector. Border Patrol agents have beefed up enforcement in Southwest Florida since January, he said. They want to stop cross-border smuggling.
McDonald said smugglers try to pack as many people into boats and vehicles as possible because they earn more money per head.
Smugglers, often called coyotes, can make $600 to $1,000 per person transported, said Sgt. Dan Hinton, supervisor of the Florida Highway Patrol’s contraband interdiction program in Southwest Florida.
Sometimes troopers are tipped off that a routine traffic stop may be anything but. It starts when a driver appears overly nervous — and the normal nervousness, common in motorists stopped by police, doesn’t subside. When talking with officers, potential smugglers and traffickers may inadvertently give their criminal activity away, Hinton said. Officers should keep asking questions to keep them talking, he said.
“There’s nothing wrong with having 15 people in a van. It’s not illegal,” Hinton said.
But if drivers won’t talk or give an excuse why they must leave, “Guess what? They’re involved in some criminal activity,” Hinton said. “Why doesn’t he want to talk to me?”
Routine traffic stops may lead to people smuggling human cargo. Or to DUI charges when officers smell alcoholic beverages on the driver’s breath. Other little clues may give away criminals, Hinton said.
“It can be something as vague as a lip quiver,” he said. “When these people are involved in criminal activity (and stopped by police), their worst nightmare now has come true. Our job is to make sure a criminal doesn’t go free.”
Caco said immigration reform, which would allow seasonal workers to work for U.S. companies, would stop smuggling and trafficking. She urged residents to contact their local congressmen to promote such legislation. The Senate is expected to vote on guestworker legislation Monday.
Reyna Ozorio emigrated from El Salvador and has lived in Naples with her husband for about nine years. Ozorio works in the hotel industry in Naples and her husband works on Marco Island. She is proud of her driver’s license, beaming when she said she has one.
Ozorio said she’s glad investigators are trying to stop smuggling and trafficking of immigrants.
“They should look for it,” she said in broken English.
Molloy said prosecutions are not aimed at nabbing undocumented workers, but on catching employers profiting at their expense.
“There are good growers out there,” Molloy said. “But those that aren’t are creating illegal activity. We’re hoping to work our way up. The illegal aliens that are being victimized endure a lot to send money back to their families. It’s the vultures preying on them we want to put in jail.”
He said employment policies will change once industries that employ undocumented workers see other businesses prosecuted for these crimes.
“There’s a need, they’re (coyotes) filling it,” Molloy explained. Prosecution “is about crippling a criminal enterprise.”
Good growers don’t make as much money as companies that employ undocumented workers trucked over by illicit smugglers, he added. They pay these workers less and keep more for themselves.
And that’s where Ray Gilmer bristles a tad. Gilmer, director of public affairs for the Florida Fruit and Vegetable Association, said he can’t vouch that every business in his industry swears off using coyotes to smuggle in their labor force. It’s illegal, he said, for farm operators knowingly to hire coyotes who illegally smuggle in workers.
But employers also can’t be blamed for the criminal actions of others, Gilmer said. And the fruit and vegetable industry needs seasonal workers to keep jobs here and Florida’s economy booming.
Targeting Hispanic men transporting other Latinos “would be devastating” to the industry, he said. “Crops would go unharvested. Farms might well shut down. This is the type of work for generations that was filled by migrants.”
If American citizens had to fill these jobs — at higher salaries — Florida no longer could compete with countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Honduras, he said.
“Instead of paying double or triple the amount, (consumers) will more than gladly accept an imported product, and that will be the end of it,” Gilmer said.
Assistant Federal Public Defender Martin DerOvanesian said he finds it curious that police enforce these laws at certain times, but not others.
“Why, after the hurricanes when they were helping people put their lives back together, why was there no enforcement then? It doesn’t seem fair that they were welcomed with open arms when America was desperate.”
Hinton says he’s heard defense lawyers claim racial profiling before and knows that troopers will be attacked for enforcing laws. But FHP keeps a traffic stop data reporting form on every trooper detailing the race of every person stopped and cited.
“At any time I can defend myself and the troopers under me,” Hinton said. “Defense attorneys will say that (racial profiling) because that’s all that’s available to him.”
Recent smuggling-related stops in Southwest Florida:
-- Oklahoma resident Antonio Vasquez Perez, 27, an undocumented worker, was sentenced March 22 to time served in jail after pleading guilty to illegally entering the country. He was on Interstate 75 near Fort Myers when Lee County sheriff’s deputies pulled over his pickup truck for a traffic violation Sept. 29, 2005.
Deputies found seven Mexican nationals inside. They planned to seek jobs in Immokalee and paid Vasquez Perez to be smuggled into Florida, according to an affidavit in the case.
Vasquez Perez was indicted in October 2005 on one count of transporting illegal aliens. Two of the passengers told detectives they paid $1,000 and $800 to be smuggled in and that their driver also would be paid for bringing them from Oklahoma, court records showed. Six days after they were ordered jailed on material witness warrants in this case, they were released as no longer needed. With them went prosecutors’ smuggling case.
-- Pedro Lopez Barrera, 28, of Arizona, was ordered held without bond March 21 on one count of re-entry of a deported alien. Lopez Barrera was stopped March 13 on Interstate 75 north of Fort Myers by a Florida Highway Patrol trooper after a man called the Collier County Sheriff’s Office saying the man driving his brother was demanding more money before delivering him in Collier County, according to court records. Prosecutors declined to comment on whether a federal grand jury may indict Lopez Barrera later this month on a human-smuggling charge.
-- A vehicle with an undisclosed number of people was reported to be stopped on Interstate 75 on March 15. However, they all had to be released, Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Doug Molloy said, and none will be prosecuted. He said “it did not yield a prosecutable case. We’re not gonna prosecute anyone who doesn’t have information.”
-- Guatemalan immigrant Jorge Martin Yac Vasquez, 32, was convicted March 13 after federal jurors said he smuggled eight undocumented workers through Southwest Florida in January. Although one man testified at trial that he never paid for the trip and wasn’t a smuggling victim, jurors convicted Yac Vasquez of transporting illegal aliens for private financial gain.
Yac Vasquez was arrested and charged after a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled over the van he was driving Jan. 12, 2005, on Interstate 75 in Lee County for having windows tinted illegally dark. The eight men didn’t have green cards, and Yac Vasquez had $594 in cash with him, an agent testified at trial.
-- Rene Flores-Calderon, 22, appeared fearful when Border Patrol agents saw him driving on Interstate 75 in Estero. He was driving a van with Arizona plates on Feb. 2, and slowed down to less than the speed limit when the squad pulled up.
-- Mexican national Gustavo Ramirez Cruz, 30, was pulled over on Interstate 75 on Jan 19 in northern Lee County after Border Patrol agents spotted him at 8:40 p.m. appearing nervous while driving south in his van. Agents stopped his van after they said he was gripping the wheel with outstretched and locked arms, was driving the speed limit, didn’t look at the Border Patrol car and the rear of the van bounced more, as if heavily laden.
Six men were found with him, and two are being held without charge on material witness warrants.Need Law Enforcement Information? Click here for the Alipac Action Panel
- 03-26-2006, 02:35 PM #2
These automatic assumptions on the part of the police just underline the need for an effective immigration policy. If we were stopping them at the border, we wouldn't be racially profiling the people inside it. There would be no need for the targeting.