Man admits to smuggling immigrants in bombing range

Friday, September 12, 2008 at 7:35 a.m.

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- A man pleaded guilty Thursday to running an organization that authorities said smuggled dozens of illegal immigrants per day through a live bombing range in southeastern California.

Javier Sanchez Perfino, 30, acknowledged running a group from 2003 to 2006 that smuggled people from Mexico through the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Bombing and Gunnery Range and eventually to Los Angeles.

Sanchez, a Mexican citizen and legal U.S. resident, faces up to 10 years in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 5.

"Guilty," he said in Spanish after U.S. District Judge Jeffrey Miller outlined the charges against him, smuggling illegal aliens for financial gain and conspiracy. His attorney, John Lemon, declined to comment after the hearing.

The complaint said Sanchez kept migrants at two homes he rented in Holtville, a town about 120 miles east of San Diego. Guides then led the migrants through the southeastern California bombing range.

No migrants have been reported killed by explosives at the Chocolate Mountain range, said Border Patrol spokesman Quinn Palmer.

Authorities have said the organization smuggled 60 to 80 people a day at its peak, charging $1,500 a person.

Prosecutors say the ring paid two U.S. Border Patrol agents to release illegal immigrants from federal custody, but Sanchez was not charged with that crime.

The agents, Mario Alvarez and Samuel McClaren, pleaded guilty in 2006 to taking about $180,000 between them.

Smugglers are drawn to bombing ranges in the area — where pilots are trained before going to war in Afghanistan — because immigration authorities avoid them, said Jeffrey Calhoon, chief of the Border Patrol's El Centro, Calif., sector.

Border Patrol agents rely on sensors to alert them to traffic and make arrests when the migrants leave the range, Calhoon said. If agents think lives are endangered, they enter the range after calling military authorities to suspend bombing.

"It's possible that there's quite a bit of unexploded ordnance out on the range," he said.

Sanchez allegedly rented homes in rural Holtville from Alberto Noriega Perez, who has pleaded not guilty to smuggling charges and is free on bail pending trial.

Holtville has a cemetery with more than 200 graves of unidentified migrants who died in the desert.