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Long Sentence Upheld in Brutal Smuggling Case

(CN) - The head of logistics for a human-smuggling operation deserved a longer sentence for dealing in minors and holding his customers captive, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.

Fredy Oswaldo Gamez Reyes pleaded guilty in Los Angeles to federal charges of harboring and concealing illegal aliens for financial gain, admitting that he rented and organized stash houses and collected fees for a ring that smuggled approximately 6,000 people into California between 2008 and 2011.

Though they didn't arrest him until March of 2011, immigration agents executed a raid two years earlier on one of Gamez Reyes' stash houses in Compton, Calif., after two women had passed a note to a child playing nearby, asking for help and claiming they were being held prisoner until their families agreed to pay the smugglers a higher fee.

Among the 18 people arrested in raid were a 13-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy, brothers on journey from Ecuador with their cousin.

When U.S. District Judge S. James Otero sentenced Gamez Reyes, he tacked on enhancements for harboring unaccompanied minors and for "involuntarily detaining aliens through coercion or threat or in connection with a demand for payment," both of which were based on the 2009 raid in Compton.

The prosecutors who arranged the plea deal for Gamez Reyes supported him in appealing eight-year sentence, based on his claim that he had not realized the two boys were travelling as "unaccompanied minors."

In affirming the sentence Friday, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit detailed the conditions under which the immigrants were held.

"It is undisputed that the Compton stash house had bars on the windows, guards on watch, locks on the doors, an aggressive pitbull, and an unloaded rifle in plain sight," Judge Mary Murguia wrote for the panel. "In their interviews with ICE agents, the aliens provided further information about the Compton stash house conditions. One alien claimed that a guard sat next to the door to prevent the aliens from leaving and that he also controlled access to the bathroom. One of the women who threw the note out of the window claimed that men arriving at the house were instructed to remove their shoes, shirts, and belts; when one man inquired why, a guard beat him."

The ruling also states that the women who tipped agents with the note had had their smuggling fees doubled at the whim of a guard named "Pablo," who had also threatened to kill them if they attempted to escape.

As for the young Ecuadoreans, the panel found that, considering Gamez Reyes' relatively large role in the operation, it was "reasonably foreseeable unaccompanied minors would also be smuggled."

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