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02-11-2013, 12:28 AM #1
In Missouri, illegal immigrants used to smuggle drugs
Jess Rollins, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader
3:56p.m. EST February 10, 2013
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- For at least the last two years, court documents and federal drug agents say, illegal immigrants have been funneled to the Springfield, Mo., area and, at times, used as unwilling participants in the local distribution of Mexican methamphetamine.
After paying a fee, these illegal immigrants — from Mexico, Honduras and elsewhere — are brought to the Ozarks under the belief they will get good jobs and make enough money to improve the lives of their families left in home countries.
Instead, many can arrive to low wages, squalor-like living conditions and a hefty debt owed to the organization that got them across the border.
Drug agents say a horse ranch in Polk County, Mo., and an Ozark-based construction company are among the places where illegal immigrants have been located during a large-scale drug investigation.
"Southwest Missouri is not immune to organized crime — it truly does affect this community," said Jerry Craig, a supervisor in the Drug Enforcement Administration's Springfield office.
"It is happening here and it's happening now."
Getting authorities' attention
The smuggling of methamphetamine and human beings into Springfield first came to the attention of authorities on Sept. 1, 2010, when an illegal immigrant was pulled over for speeding near Albuquerque, N.M.
According to federal court documents, Ruben Martinez-Martinez handed a fake driver's license to a New Mexico State Police officer with trembling hands.
The officer immediately became suspicious. Authorities searched the vehicle and found a spare tire stuffed with bundles of meth.
Martinez-Martinez came clean: He was supposed to drive the drugs from Flagstaff, Ariz., to Springfield and in return pay off his $2,000 debt — owed for receiving help when entering the country illegally.
Federal court documents filed in December name Juan Moreno-Malagon as a leader in a large drug organization that imported Mexican meth into the Springfield, Mo. area since, at least, September 2010. Moreno-Malagon was also owner of the Ozark-based construction business, J B Moreno Siding, Inc. Court records, in a case that is still ongoing, say Moreno-Malagon had "extensive connections to individuals experienced in helping people illegally cross the U.S.-Mexican border."(Photo: Courtesy photo)
Nearly a year later, Leopoldo Sarmiento-Cruz and another man were arrested in Carson County, Texas, after authorities found six and a half pounds of nearly pure meth in a back-seat floorboard.
Sarmiento-Cruz, who was also later convicted, told Texas officials he had been hired by an unknown person to transport the drugs from Fresno, Calif., to Springfield.
'Looking for a better way of life'
Although drug distribution and smuggling illegal immigrants across the border are separate enterprises, Craig noted the two often intertwine.
Craig said illegal immigrants throughout the country have inadvertently become "drug mules" in the transportation of illicit substances.
Whether it's fake identification or a bribe to border agents, the immigrants accept the help of border-crossing specialists known as "coyotes."
"Then, they are indebted to the organization," Craig said.
With promises of a better life, they cross the border and find low-paying jobs and cramped living quarters.
"And oh, by the way, I need you to drive this package to Springfield. Call me when you get there and we will give you further instructions," Craig said, describing a typical task.
Many illegal immigrants mixed up in these groups might also believe their families will be put in danger if they refuse to comply with the drug organization's demands.
"Whether it is real or not, they believe it," Craig said.
In the event they get caught, these immigrants are given very little information. They are already afraid of police because they are in the country illegally.
The organization views them, Craig said, as disposable.
"Most of these migrant workers truly are looking for a better way of life — money for their families."
"These organizations capitalize on their vulnerabilities."
In the Ozarks
Federal court documents filed in December name Juan Moreno-Malagon as a leader in a large drug organization that imported Mexican meth into the Springfield area since, at least, September 2010.
Moreno-Malagon also was owner of the Ozark-based construction business, J B Moreno Siding Inc., according to filings maintained by the Missouri Secretary of State.
Court records, in a case that is still ongoing, say Moreno-Malagon had "extensive connections to individuals experienced in helping people illegally cross the U.S.-Mexican border."
Craig said illegal immigrants were brought to the Springfield area to work for Moreno's construction business.
On Dec. 3, federal authorities raided a horse ranch in Morrisville, Mo., where a pound of meth was located, documents say, in a room occupied by Luis A. Ramon-Lara. Authorities say they also seized $6,700 in cash, a shotgun and a .25-caliber handgun.
Also found at the ranch, Craig said, were nine illegal immigrants living in a small room with four bunk beds.
According to the Polk County Assessor's Office, the property has four owners, one of whom is Martin Zuniga.
Zuniga also was connected to a flow of undocumented workers in 2005. When questioned in a hit-and-run case, although he wasn't driving, he told Springfield police he owned a construction business and routinely hired Mexican workers, providing them with housing and transportation.
Zuniga is one of six Springfield-area men who were killed in a semi versus pickup crash near Jamestown, N.D., on Dec. 26. Family and friends say the six men traveled to North Dakota to find construction work.
Shawn Neudauer, regional spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment on the specifics of this case as to why all of these illegal immigrants weren't immediately deported. But he agreed to speak generally of what happens when immigration officials confirm someone is in the country without proper documentation.
"If you are found to be in the country illegally, there are a wide range of penalties.," he said.
Deportation, also known as a final order of removal, is one penalty — usually ordered by a judge after court proceedings, Neudauer said.
Some people found to be in the country illegally might simply be told to leave the country and warned that if they stay, they might be subjected to a harsher penalty.
Others might make a claim they have a right to be in the country — temporary status, family connections or political asylum, for example.
"Everybody gets a form of due process," Neudauer said.
"There's a wide range of things that can come into play."
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