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Officials: Immigrant smugglers used fake prisoner van

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • Van "cloned" to look like either a tour van or a security van, authorities say
  • 10 people inside were one smuggler; nine illegal immigrants, authorities said
  • Smugglers in Mexico helped the illegal immigrants into the United States, authorities say

(CNN) -- At first glance, the van carrying 10 people looked like it was owned by a San Diego tour company. But a California deputy took a second glance last week and discovered something quite different.

The van was a "cloned" vehicle -- one that could be quickly converted to look like either a tour van or a security van commonly used to transport illegal immigrants apprehended in the area, authorities say.

And the 10 people inside it weren't tourists at all. Instead, the occupants included one smuggler and nine illegal immigrants, authorities said.

The U.S. Border Patrol said quick action by the local police department led to the discovery of an inventive ploy to smuggle aliens into the United States.

Here's how the operation worked, the agency says: Smugglers in Mexico helped the illegal immigrants get into the United States, either on foot or by other means. Once across the border, the people were met by a van that had "Wackenhut" stenciled on its side. It looks similar to vans contracted by the federal government to transport apprehended aliens.

Border Patrol spokesman Jerry Conlin said a Wackenhut van full of people would not normally raise suspicion in the border area. Once the van was well north of the border, smugglers slapped a magnetic sign reading "San Diego Tours" over the Wackenhut insignia.

The van, a 1999 Ford, was outfitted with the "San Diego Tours" sign at 1:30 a.m. Friday when a deputy with the Riverside County Sheriff's Office saw it parked on a dirt road in Lake Elsinor, California.

A check indicated its expired registration belonged to a Mazda, authorities said.

The deputy found 10 men inside the van and called for the Border Patrol to help translate. The agents discovered seven Mexican nationals and two Chinese nationals -- all in the country illegally. The 10th person, a 19-year-old U.S. man, was charged with smuggling, authorities said.

The Border Patrol said the van's front end had been modified to resemble the newer 2010 models used by Wackenhut. Agents also discovered a Wackenhut uniform in the van.

Conlin said the cloning of a prisoner transport van is a new twist on an old smuggler ruse. Drug and human smugglers have been known to use vehicles disguised as UPS, DHL and San Diego Gas and Electric trucks, and even one disguised as a contractor working on the border fence.

In more than one instance, smugglers cloned Border Patrol vehicles, he said.

"These are very organized events," Conlin said of the smuggling efforts. "Absolutely there was an association with a smuggling organization." He said an investigation is continuing.