The suspected leader of the ring, Maria "Reyna" Lopez-Diaz, of Compton, allegedly worked with international smugglers to pick up the illegals along the U.S.-Mexican border. Employing low-income, non-Spanish-speaking African-American transporters, the immigrants were concealed under the hoods of vehicles and brought into California. Immigrants were also found locked in trunks and in compartments located in various parts of the vehicles.
Lopez-Diaz specifically used these drivers to avoid drawing attention.
"Criminal organizations are always looking for ways to evade detection by law enforcement," said Claude Arnold, special agent in charge of Immigration and Customs Enforcement homeland security investigations in Los Angeles. "This particular organization figured out, 'Hey, what if we used African-Americans as drivers? They might be likely to draw less attention.'"
Ultimately, the strategy didn't work. Authorities noticed a rise in the number of African-Americans caught smuggling illegal immigrants in these compartments and began to investigate.
Lopez-Diaz was taken into custody on Thursday by agents from ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol, along with three others suspected of masterminding the operation.
Officials estimated that, from January 2011 to January 2012, the ring smuggled dozens of illegal immigrants every month using the specially outfitted cars.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.