Four Mexican nationals were arrested yesterday in San Antonio, Houston, and Marshall, Texas, for their alleged roles in a tractor-trailer smuggling incident that resulted in 53 deceased and 11 injured undocumented individuals one year ago today. These arrests were the result of Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), a law enforcement task force that enhances the coordination between the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice to combat human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
“Today’s announcement is another important step in our unprecedented effort against smugglers,” said Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas. “These indictments are the direct result of a whole of government effort to prevent these horrific crimes and is the largest campaign of its kind in U.S. history. Human smugglers will do anything to turn a profit, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will continue to do everything possible to stop them. I am grateful for the leadership of our Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) team and U.S. Customs and Border Protection for seeking justice for the 53 lives lost last year.”
“Human smugglers prey on migrants’ hope for a better life – but their only priority is profit,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “Tragically, 53 people who had been loaded into a tractor-trailer in Texas and endured hours of unimaginable cruelty lost their lives because of this heartless scheme. Human smugglers who put people’s lives at risk for profit and break our laws cannot hide for long: We will find you and bring you to justice.”
These charges resulted from the coordinated efforts of JTFA, which Attorney General Garland established in June 2021 in partnership with Secretary Mayorkas, to strengthen the departments’ overall efforts to combat these crimes based on the rise in prolific and dangerous smuggling emanating from Central America and impacting our border communities. JTFA enhances U.S. enforcement efforts against the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
According to court documents, between December 2021 and June 2022, Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, aka Rrili, aka Rilay, 30; Felipe Orduna-Torres, aka Cholo, aka Chuequito/Chuekito, aka Negro, 28; Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, aka Cowboy, 37; and Armando Gonzales-Ortega, aka El Don, aka Don Gon, 53, are alleged to have participated in a human smuggling organization which illegally brought adults and children from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico into the United States. The alleged smugglers worked in concert to transport the migrants by sharing routes, guides, stash houses, trucks, trailers, and transporters to consolidate costs, minimize risks, and maximize profit. The organization maintained a variety of tractors and trailers for their smuggling operations, some of which were stored at a private parking lot in San Antonio.
“One year ago today, an unthinkable crime perpetrated by human smugglers at our southern border caused the death of 53 human beings,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco. “But today’s arrests demonstrate that those who seek to profit from desperation will be brought to justice. Working with international partners, the Department of Justice is striking back at international organized crime and sending a clear message that there is no safe haven for trafficking in firearms, deadly narcotics, or human beings.”
“This horrific tragedy underscores the callous disregard criminal smuggling organizations have for human life, including the lives of children,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “These indictments and arrests are another step forward in obtaining justice and accountability for these senseless deaths. Joint Task Force Alpha will remain steadfast in its efforts to thwart these deadly schemes driven by greed at the expense of safety and security.”
The indictment alleges that in the days leading up to June 27, 2022, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres, and others exchanged the names of undocumented individuals who would be smuggled in a tractor-trailer. The four new defendants charged in the superseding indictment allegedly orchestrated the retrieval of an empty tractor-trailer and its corresponding hand-off to the driver on June 27. The driver, Homero Zamorano Jr. of Elkhart, Texas, was previously charged in a July 2022 indictment along with Christian Martinez, of Palestine, Texas. Orduna-Torres allegedly provided the Laredo, Texas, address at which Zamorano loaded the migrants onto the tractor trailer. The indictment also alleges that Gonzalez-Ortega traveled to Laredo to meet the tractor-trailer, where at least 66 undocumented individuals, including eight children and one pregnant woman, were loaded into the back to be smuggled. Martinez, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres, Rivera-Leal, and Gonzales-Ortega then allegedly coordinated, facilitated, passed messages, and kept each other updated on the tractor-trailer’s progress.
“The allegations in the indictment are horrifying,” said U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza for the Western District of Texas. “Dozens of desperate, vulnerable men, women, and children put their trust in smugglers who abandoned them in a locked trailer to perish in the merciless south Texas summer. Thanks to our law enforcement partners at the local, state, and federal levels – with the Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio Division leading the investigation – we are one step closer to delivering justice for those migrants and their families.”
Some of the defendants charged were allegedly aware that the trailer’s air-conditioning unit was malfunctioning and would not blow any cool air to the migrants inside. When members of the organization met the tractor-trailer at the end of its nearly three-hour journey to San Antonio, they opened the doors to find 48 of the migrants, including the pregnant woman, were already dead. Sixteen of the undocumented individuals were transported to hospitals, and five of them died there.
“One year ago today, HSI responded to a mass casualty human smuggling event that occurred in San Antonio, which resulted in the death of 53 undocumented noncitizens from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras,” said Senior Official Performing the Duties of Deputy Director PJ Lechleitner of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “The indictments announced today emphasize that we will work tirelessly to bring to justice those who are responsible for this horrible tragedy. HSI continues investigative efforts with Joint Task Force Alpha and international partners to dismantle smuggling networks that demonstrate no regard for human life.”
Each defendant is charged with one count each of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death, conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy, transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death, and transportation of illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy. If convicted on the top counts, they each face a maximum penalty of life in prison.
HSI is investigating the case with valuable assistance from Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, FBI, ATF, San Antonio Police Department, Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, San Antonio Fire Department, Marshall Police Department, and Palestine Police Department.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Fuchs, Sarah Spears, and Amanda Brown for the Western District of Texas are prosecuting the case.
Since its creation, JTFA has successfully increased coordination and collaboration between the Justice Department, DHS, and other interagency law enforcement participants, and with foreign law enforcement partners, including in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico; targeted those organizations that have the most significant impact on the United States; and coordinated significant smuggling indictments and extradition efforts in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country. JTFA is comprised of prosecutors from southwest border U.S. Attorneys’ Offices, including the Southern District of Texas, the Western District of Texas, the District of New Mexico, the District of Arizona, and the Southern District of California. Dedicated support for the task force is also provided by numerous components of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division that are part of JTFA – led by the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP) and supported by the Office of Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training (OPDAT), the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (NDDS), the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS), the Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO), the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs (OIA), and the Organized Crime and Gang Section (OCGS). JTFA is made possible by substantial law enforcement investment from the DHS, FBI, DEA, and other partners.
An indictment is merely an allegation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.