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LAX worker accused of immigrant smuggling

September 4, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
The suspect, 53-year-old Roberto Canchola, was an elevator mechanic who worked at LAX since 1989.The operation was apparently simple. Officials say Canchola would watch passengers for a secret signal: their hand over their heart. When he saw that sign, he would escort passengers to a specific elevator. The elevator required a special access card that Canchola possessed.

Taking them through that elevator would mean the passenger did not pass through Customs.

"This guy probably was relying on the fact that he's got a badge that's been issued by the LAX airport that gives him the ability to go into some of these unsecured - or - some of these secured areas," said Jennifer Silliman, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Officials say the investigation started when they noticed pattern. They discovered Mexicana Flight 112, which traveled from Guanajuato, Mexico, to LAX, seemed to have a discrepancy in passenger numbers. The amount of people going through Customs did not add up. Officials also noticed the discrepancies happened on Saturdays.

Officials say video surveillance on three Saturdays showed the suspect escorting passengers.

"He was pulling people through the secure area of the airport. He was pushing them into an elevator, putting them on a different floor and walking them straight out to the taxi stand," said Silliman.

On August 9, Canchola allegedly moved four people, including an infant, right out to a waiting Bell cab.

Officials say smuggled immigrants went to downtown Los Angeles. They ended up at a Jack in the Box presumably to be met by family members.

Officials believe each person paid about $4,500 to be smuggled to the United States.

"We didn't let it go on for too long, obviously, because of vulnerability. But, I think it speaks volumes of the vulnerability of human smuggling; particularly when you are coming into an international airport. You don't know who they're bringing in - whether they be criminals, whether they be terrorists - and why are they trying to circumvent customs and border protection inspection," said Silliman.

LAX officials wouldn't comment about the investigation but issued a statement: "Canchola successfully passed criminal and employment background checks in order to be issued a new airport badge. Canchola also passed a separate check by U.S. Customs and Border Protection that authorized him to access the restricted federal inspection area."

When Eyewitness News attempted to contact Canchola, no response was received.

In addition, Canchola's attorney refused to comment.

Canchola is free on $100,000 bail. If he is convicted, he could face 10 years in federal prison.

 

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