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CA trio charged with using high-schoolers to smuggle migrants

US Immigration Checkpoint (Jonathan McIntosh/Flickr)

Three men were indicted Tuesday on charges of running a migrant-smuggling ring that used San Diego area high-school students as drivers and Los Angeles motels as drop houses.

Cristian Hirales Morales, 31, a naturalized U.S. citizen, is alleged to be the leader of the ring, organizing the smuggling operation from his hometown of Tecate, according to the indictment. He is accused of coordinating the illegal crossings via WhatsApp, tracking migrant loads and directing pick-ups using the pin drop technology on Google Maps, authorities said.

The drivers would transport the migrants to various motels in the Los Angeles area, with co-conspirators scouting Border Patrol checkpoints for the trip north.

Marcos Julian Romero, 21, alleged to be a top lieutenant, and Sergio Anthony Santivanez, 23 — both U.S. citizens who live in San Diego County — are accused of handling the U.S. side of the enterprise. At motels they’d hold the migrants until their sponsors arrived to hand over payment, according to the indictment.

The smuggling fee was usually $8,000 per person, authorities said.

Romero and Santivanez would then funnel the profits back to Hirales, according to the indictment.

Romero is accused of recruiting the drivers from San Diego County high schools by advertising through Craigslist and similar websites, authorities said. He would then send Hirales copies of the drivers’ personal information, including photos of their driver’s licenses and vehicles.

Border Patrol investigators were able to track members of the organization to Los Angeles and surveil payoffs at motels, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

The indictment covers smuggling crimes that occurred in July, August and September. The three men were arrested in September on a complaint. They have pleaded not guilty.


© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune