Suspected human smuggling ring exposed

April 8, 2008 9:00:40 PM PDT
An emergency-room visit by a battered Honduran woman led authorities to a suburban pair who allegedly smuggled aliens into the country and imprisoned them until they paid their debts.

The man and woman indicted Tuesday beat the mother-of-four and threatened to have her killed or forced into prostitution over her unpaid debt, U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan said.

Elvis Nuricumbo-Pena, a Mexican national, and Marubeny Martinez-Oliveth, of Honduras, held the 33-year-old woman and other customers in the apartment they shared in the Philadelphia suburb of Ardmore, officials said.

The suspects charged five people from Mexico and Central America - including two of Nuricumbo-Pena's teenage nephews - fees of $2,500 to $7,000 to smuggle them into the United States, the indictment said.

They also got them forged documents and helped the fellow illegal immigrants find work with a janitorial company to pay off the debts, which were also financed by family members back home, Meehan said.

The woman hoped to send money to her children in Honduras, but had trouble just paying the smuggling debt. She arrived in the U.S. in October, and visited the hospital after being assaulted in January.

Hospital staff thought she was a domestic violence victim and called Lower Merion police, who ultimately helped her and others in the apartment get help through a social service agency, Meehan said.

The five smuggled to the U.S. will remain in the country temporarily to help prosecutors make their case and can then apply to stay through legal channels, he said.

"They'll become part of the millions who are here in the country in similar circumstances," he said.

Their journey included a stop in a safe house in Phoenix, according to court papers.

"People who think they are coming to the United States for a better life, often find themselves exploited, threatened and assaulted by the very people they trusted to illegally smuggle them across the border," said John P. Kelleghan, Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Office of Investigations in Philadelphia.

"Smugglers are not altruistic people. They are criminals who make enormous profits by smuggling desperate people across the border illegally," Kelleghan said.

Nuricumbo-Pena and Martinez-Oliveth, who are in their early 30s, were in court Tuesday afternoon for an initial appearance before a magistrate. It was not immediately clear if they had lawyers.