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You can run, but you can’t hide

Using Global Positioning System, or GPS, technology, and with the help of immigration agents, Escondido police were able to arrest two suspects in recent weeks, including a man charged with raping a 15-year-old girl, authorities said.

The arrests were touted by police as a success for the partnership between the Escondido Police Department and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under a pilot program that has been heavily criticized by some advocacy groups, including the North County-based El Grupo.

In the rape case, police were able to identify the suspect as a family member of the victim. Police gave the name of the suspect, Wenceslao Mendez, 34, to ICE agents working out of the Escondido Police Department headquarters, and the agents were able to determine that he was wearing a GPS ankle bracelet.

Mendez was arrested the following day, police said.

The agency allows some illegal immigrants to wear the tracking device while going through deportation procedures because of limited jail space.

Lauren Mack, a spokeswoman for the agency in San Diego, said that ICE permits some illegal immigrants who are fighting deportation to remain out of custody if they don’t have a history of criminal convictions. However, those immigrants are monitored either through a GPS bracelet, office visits or a telephone call-in system, Mack said.

About 40 persons are wearing the bracelets in San Diego County, Mack said.

"Without this technology and the assistance of the ICE officers, it is likely that valuable evidence could have been destroyed and the suspect could have fled the country," said Escondido police Lt. Craig Carter.

But Victor Torres, a criminal defense attorney and a spokesman for El Grupo, said the case did not justify the department’s partnership with immigration authorities. He said the partnership will further alienate the city’s immigrant community and act as a deterrent against reporting crime in Escondido.

About 45 percent of the city’s 145,000 residents are Latinos, many of whom are immigrants.

Torres said the case illustrates what some in the immigrant community fear: the department’s side-by-side working relationship with immigration agents.

"There are many tools available to law enforcement," Torres said. "A simple telephone call to ICE and relayed instructions directly to the patrol officers would have proven just as effective and without alienating 45 percent of the population."

In mid-May, the department started a pilot program with ICE allowing two immigration agents to work with the department to identify and deport criminal illegal immigrants and those suspected of committing crimes.

Since the partnership began, the agents have helped police identify 114 criminal immigrants in the city, including several child molesters, people with multiple drunken-driving convictions, drug dealers and burglars, according to police.

Escondido is the only city in the county that has this kind of a partnership with ICE, said Mack. She said she could remember only one other department that has used the federal agency’s GPS system to track down a suspect: the San Diego Police Department, which did so last year.

Mendez was arrested in March on domestic violence charges, which were later dropped. While he was detained, ICE agents at the jail determined that he was an illegal immigrant, and he was released with the bracelet pending deportation proceedings.

On July 13, Mendez allegedly entered a home on the 500 block of West Ninth Avenue. The 15-year-old victim told police that her assailant locked her in a bedroom and raped her.

Using the girl’s description of her attacker, police determined the suspect was the cousin of the girl’s stepmother.

Carter said the immigration agents located the suspect’s name on their database and found that he was wearing the bracelet. With the use of GPS, they were able to track the suspect to his home in the 1100 block of South Escondido Boulevard.

A few days earlier, police were also able to track down Jimmy Alexander Magadiaga, 22, with the use of his ICE-issued ankle bracelet. Magadiaga, who also was awaiting deportation proceedings, allegedly broke into an Escondido home on July 8, police said.

A girl who was in the home at the time called police. Neighbors chased the suspect and told police that he lived in a nearby apartment complex.

Using the GPS tracking system, police were able to find and arrest the suspect, Carter said.

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