An elevator mechanic working at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) has been charged with smuggling illegal aliens into the United States by escorting them through the airport before they were inspected by customs agents, authorities said.

Roberto Amaya Canchola, 53, was arrested at the airport by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents August 23rd after they observed him allegedly escorting passengers from Mexicana Airlines flights through Tom Bradley International Terminal and into waiting taxis in July and August, according to a court affidavit.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office charged Canchola, a North Hills resident, August 25th, with alien smuggling, said Thom Mrozek, a U.S. Attorney spokesman in Los Angeles. Canchola has been released on a $100,000 bond. If convicted, he could face ten years in prison, Mrozek said.

Canchola, who began working at Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, in 1989 and has been an elevator mechanic since 1996, is suspected of smuggling over a dozen immigrants into the country, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said. As an elevator mechanic with a security identification badge, Canchola had access to secure areas of the airport, authorities noted.

“This is a very serious matter,” Mrozek said. “When you have people abusing their positions and, in this case to smuggle aliens into the U.S., it’s certainly a cause for concern. There’s the potential that it would have an impact on national security.”

Canchola’s attorney, Paul Horgan, declined to comment on the case.

Following the airport worker’s arrest, Airport Security and Terminal Operations officials conducted a thorough inspection of the Tom Bradley International Terminal and found no physical compromises or vulnerabilities related to security, airport officials said.

“Among the agencies responsible for security, we can anticipate operational adjustments to enhance what has already been demonstrated to be an effective violation detection system,” Los Angeles World Airports officials said in a statement.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have also taken security measures in response to Canchola’s arrest but they declined to disclose what type of changes were made, customs spokesman Mike Fleming said.

“We have taken a look at the situation and made appropriate adjustments that are necessary in terms of security,” Fleming said. “[The case] is still under active investigation.”

Airport officials said Canchola had passed criminal and employment history checks. He also passed record checks by Customs and Border Protection, Fleming said.

The elevator mechanic was authorized to have a security access card and was approved to be at the secure areas where the alleged smuggling incidents occurred, airport officials noted. Canchola’s badge was confiscated following his arrest and he no longer has access to non-public areas of the airport.

According to the court affidavit, a customs officer had noticed a discrepancy in the passenger count on a Mexicana Airlines flight in July, which showed that four passengers had not been inspected by customs. After reviewing information of previous arrivals in which some passengers were not inspected, customs officers determined that the flights were from LeÛn Guanajuato, Mexico, according to the affidavit.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents had viewed surveillance tapes from airport police that showed a maintenance worker, identified as Canchola, allegedly escorting passengers without luggage to waiting taxis, the affidavit said.

Lori Haley, Immigration and Customs spokeswoman, said immigrant smuggling cases are cause for concern because of the vulnerability of an international airport.

“We don’t know who it is they’re bringing in here,” Haley said. “It is always our first priority to put a halt to this kind of activity.”

Immigration and Customs agents have not encountered a similar “scheme” occurring at LAX in the past, she said.

A preliminary court hearing for Canchola is set Monday, September 15th, and he is scheduled to be arraigned Monday, September 29th.

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