Border Patrol agent
San Diego-area Border Patrol said the suspect, Perla Morales-Luna, was “an organizer for a transnational criminal smuggling organization operating in East County.” Photo: OnSceneTV

Federal authorities sought Friday to explain and defend the dramatic arrest of a human-smuggling suspect in National City, an enforcement action that prompted bitter protests after videos began circulating on social media.

The arrest by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents, who claim the woman was part of a criminal smuggling ring, took place last Saturday, five days before the footage of the encounter began garnering widespread attention on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.

In both videos, the woman’s three daughters can be heard crying and screaming as plainclothes U.S. Border Patrol officers drag the struggling suspect into a marked government SUV.

An image from the video of the arrest. Courtesy OnScene.TV

In response, a San Diego-area Border Patrol spokesman issued a statement saying Perla Morales-Luna was “an organizer for a transnational criminal smuggling organization operating in East County.”

“She was arrested as a result of a targeted operation … for being in the country illegally,” Agent Michael Scappechio said. “She is currently in Border Patrol custody awaiting transfer to (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for removal proceedings.”

Despite the explanation, many people questioned the tactics used in the arrest and wondered why Morales-Luna was arrested for being in the country illegally and not for the far more serious smuggling crimes alleged by the Border Patrol.

National City Councilwoman Alejandra Sotelo-Solis told CBS8 she didn’t witness the arrest but later spoke with people close to the family. Sotelo-Solis said Morales-Luna and her three daughters were walking to pay rent Saturday when a man dressed in civilian clothes approached, asked her name and then took her into custody.

“When I heard the screams of the daughters, I felt sadness, I felt frustration, and then I was infuriated,” Sotelo-Solis told CBS8.

Late Friday afternoon, CBP officials released further details about what allegedly led to Morales-Luna’s arrest. According to a statement from the agency, she had been involved two months ago in a Boulevard-area human-smuggling attempt that led to the arrests of other suspects, but managed to avoid capture herself.

During subsequent telephone conversations with federal agents, Morales-Luna repeatedly refused to turn herself in, according to the CBP statement.

“Due to her unwillingness to self-surrender and the fact that she was an illegal alien present in the United States, she was deemed a flight risk, and a targeted enforcement operation was approved for her arrest,” the document alleges.

As officers tried to take her into custody last weekend, Morales-Luna “physically resisted while trying to abscond into a nearby vehicle,” according to the statement.

“The video clearly shows (that) the arresting agents carried out their duties appropriately, even when faced with a barrage of insults and confrontational agitators,” the memo asserts.

“Ms. Morales-Luna was the only subject of this operation. Therefore, once she was in custody, agents immediately departed the area. The arresting agents ensured that Ms. Morales-Luna was able to arrange for her sister to take custody of her three children.”

–City News Service