When Hillsborough police officers responded to a knife fight in a McDonald’s parking lot last month, they uncovered a network of van drivers delivering illegal immigrants to the East Coastand allegedly extorting their passengers.

On two separate occasions in the past month, officers in Hillsborough and Camden, S.C., have arrested drivers working for Transportes Tania, a Houston-based company, for allegedly forcing passengers to pay higher prices than originally agreed. In both cases, according to police reports, the drivers were transporting more than a dozen clientsall illegal immigrantsto destinations throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic, with planned stops in North Carolina.

On June 17, Hillsborough officers arrested Amilcar Tamayo, 31, and Yuliant Fernandez, 32, after violence erupted when two men refused to pay an additional $50 in exchange for the delivery of a passenger. According to the police report, Fernandez held a knife to one man’s throat and slashed his tires, and both Tamayo and Fernandez shattered the driver’s window with rocks. Eventually, the passenger escaped by leaping out of the van. Following the scuffle, officers chased down the 16-passenger transport van and arrested the drivers near the intersection of Interstate 85 and N.C. 86. The two face charges of assault with a deadly weapon and vandalism. Fernandez was also charged with driving with an expired license. Fernandez has posted bail, while Tamayo remains in custody in the Orange County jail. A trial is scheduled for Aug. 21. Meanwhile, the 14 passengers, none of whom had proof of residency, were turned over to immigration agents for possible deportation.

“We weren’t looking for illegal immigrants or anything like that. We were looking for the people who we were told pulled a knife and cut a tire and broke windows,” Lt. Davis Trimmer said. “When we found out what actually was going on, that they were transporting people up and down the East Coast, we called ICE at that point, just [to ask], ‘What do we do with these folks?’ We couldn’t really leave them sitting out on the side of the road.”

George Doyle, a Chapel Hill attorney representing Tamayo, said he had spoken to a relative of Fernandez who insisted that Transportes Tania was a legitimate company that was “like a taxi.” However, calls to the company’s various phone numbers listed in police records elicited conflicting responses: “Transportes Tania doesn’t exist anymore,” said one man, who identified himself as a private driver. He said the business had folded “almost a year ago.” However, another driver instructed a reporter to call back Friday. “[The boss] is in Mexico,” he explained.

Doyle characterized the Hillsborough incident as a dispute between the drivers and passengers over the agreed price for the transportation serviceand challenged the police account of the fight.

“There’s some evidence that maybe my client, and other guy, were victims of assaultnot the other way around,” he said.

Less than three weeks after the Hillsborough arrests, another Transportes Tania driver was arrested in Camden, S.C., for demanding more money from his clients. Camden Police charged Leonel Garcia DeLariva, 43, with blackmail for allegedly forcing one passenger’s family to pay $800nearly three times the agreed amount.

“The inference there was he wasn’t going to be released if they couldn’t find the money, which indicated that he was being held against his will,” said Camden Police Chief Joe Floyd.

Floyd described DeLariva as the “enforcer” of the two-driver team. He did not charge the second driver.

Twelve of the 13 passengers, all men between the ages of 18 and 33, were sent to ICE for processing, along with the second driver.

A 10-year-old girl traveling alone to meet her mother in New York was reunited with her family, according to Floyd.

“One of the guys said he had left in May from Honduras and eventually made it to Mexico,” Floyd said. “Then he got into Texas, and he basically stayed in a house, he wasn’t sure how many days, but it felt like a week or more, waiting, and finally they loaded him onto this vehicle, on this transport process, to try to get him to the Camden area.”

It was unclear whether Transportes Tania brought the passengers across the border into the United States, Floyd said.

Camden Police got a tip from a passenger’s relatives, who were commanded to pony up an additional $520. The chief credited the success of the sting operation to a Cuban-American officer who has built strong relationships with local Latino residents.

“That’s the challenge, I think, in every community that has a Hispanic populationthat they are so vulnerable. There are people who want to commit fraud against them, and take advantage of them, because of their fear of law enforcement and the idea that they can be sent back out of this country. It does set so many of them up to be a victim,” Floyd said.

Federal immigration officials told Camden authorities that the “majority” of the immigrants in the van would be deported, Floyd said.

Floyd said his officer had spoken with community members about deportation as a painful, but unavoidable, outcome to the situation.

“Most of the people got sent back. He said they can live with that, based on the fact that there was a child involved, and somebody was trying to take advantage of one of them,” Floyd said. “They can accept that part, because of what they perceived was the good that was done in this difficult situation.”

ICE officials did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Charlotte-based FBI Agent John Price said his agency does not investigate transport companies that are legitimate, even if they are potentially guilty of kidnapping or extortion.

“This company, if they’re bringing people over, and they’ve paid a ticket to go somewhere, and they won’t let them off the bus until they pay more money, that’s just a straight-up extortion charge,” he said.

Illegal immigrants are trapped in a Catch-22 when it comes to needing help from authorities, Price said.

If they report a crime to the FBI, for example, Price said his agency could only guarantee a period of “immigration parole”long enough to collaborate in a criminal investigation.

“If they say they are a victim, and they say, ‘No, I don’t want to assist [authorities], I’m too nervous,’ or ‘I’m too scared,’ or too whatever, and they don’t want to help out the police in the investigation, then we cannot give them the parole that they probably want. In those cases, they will probably be turned over to ICE for deportation hearings.”

Floyd said that illegal immigrants are willing to expose themselves to companies who can take advantage of them, if it means they can find work or reunite with family.

“The bigger story is these are individuals trying to do the best they can do for their families. [The mother of the 10-year-old child] is telling us that she’s got another daughter that she wants to eventually get into this country, but she’s going to have to do that by illegal means as well. That’s an everyday battle that’s going on out there.”