U.S. breaks up Ukrainian immigrant smuggling ring

The Associated Press
Friday May 04, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Federal agents broke up a ring that smuggled hundreds of people from the Ukraine into the United States through Mexico and forced some into prostitution, authorities said Thursday. 

Eleven Ukrainian people were arrested and eight others were fugitives, two in California and six in Ukraine or elsewhere, Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan Saunders said. 

At least 200 people and perhaps as many as 2,000 were smuggled by the ring, he said. The ring charged $7,000 per person, but they were often forced to pay more. “Some of the aliens were young women who upon arrival were sold into prostitution,” he said. “But there were also families, men and children.” 

An affidavit said the ringleaders were Serge Mezheritsky, 35, and Tetyana Komisaruk, 49, of Los Angeles. They were among those under arrest. Komisaruk’s husband, two daughters and a son-in-law were charged as participants. The ring was uncovered by chance after a Ukrainian family accidentally dropped a video camera on a known trail used by smugglers entering the United States from Mexico. The videotape showed the family, speaking in Ukrainian, documenting their trip for a family history. “One of our uniformed agents discovered the video camera laying on the ground,” Fernando Grijalva, supervising agent of the Border Patrol in San Diego, told a press conference at the FBI’s Los Angeles headquarters. Within a short time, Grijalva said, a Mexican-American guide was arrested smuggling five Ukrainians and a special investigation was launched.  

The probe began in 1999 and involved a sting operation. 

The 11 under arrest were charged with conspiracy to smuggle, transport and harbor illegal immigrants. Under U.S. laws governing smuggling for profit, the defendants could face as much as three years in prison per smuggled immigrant, Saunders said.  

Patrick Patterson, the agent in charge of the Los Angeles FBI office, said that at least 200 victims had been taken into custody by the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Patterson said that although the Ukrainians paid for Mexican tourist visas and knew they were being smuggled into the United States, they were considered to be victims because they were misled and forced into servitude once they arrived. 

Patterson said the immigrants typically were brought to Mexico, came across the border by foot, car or boat, then were brought to a holding location in Los Angeles from which they were flown to their ultimate destinations across the United States. 

Some were shipped to New York, Cleveland and Detroit, Saunders said. 

The immigrants were typically charged $7,000 for the smuggling fee, travel documents to Mexico, hotel accommodations and other expenses, Patterson said. But once they arrived, they were often told that the fee had been increased and they would have to pay thousands more. 

“This investigation further underscores the global nature of crime today and the threats we now realize from abroad,” said FBI Assistant Director James DeSarno. “What was a local crime just a few years ago now touches multiple countries” 

Saunders said most of those who bought passage to the United States were seeking either economic betterment or wanted to be reunified with family members already in the country. 

Those who were not forced into prostitution often were charged more but were allowed to travel to parts of the country where they had sponsors or could rejoin families, the prosecutor said.