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HSI San Diego, multiagency case results in 15-year sentence of man for organizing smuggling event that resulted in 13 deaths

Human RightsHSI San Diego, multiagency case results in 15-year sentence of man for organizing smuggling event that resulted in 13 deaths

SAN DIEGO – The coordinator of a fatal smuggling event near Calexico, California on March 2, 2021, was sentenced on Thursday in a federal court to 15 years in prison. During the event, 13 undocumented migrants were killed when the vehicle in which they were concealed collided with a tractor trailer near Holtville, California. This case was investigated by Homeland Security Investigations, United States Border Patrol, California Highway Patrol and Imperial County Sheriff’s Office.

“This sentencing serves as our promise to use every tool in HSI’s arsenal, in every corner of the globe, to investigate and dismantle human smuggling networks,” said HSI San Diego Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “Human smuggling is dangerous but as this case demonstrates, it’s also deadly. HSI will not stop investigating and bringing smugglers to court to face justice. There can be no safe haven for smugglers who evade our nations laws, are senselessly greedy and recklessly dangerous resulting in deaths.”

As detailed in pleadings filed prior to the sentencing hearing, Jose Cruz Noguez, 49, of Mexicali, Mexico was a coordinator of the event in which two SUVs – a GMC Yukon and a Ford Expedition – were modified by removing the seats in the passenger compartments so that undocumented migrants literally could be stacked on top of one another. Based on admissions made by Cruz Noguez to a cooperating source of information whom he tried to recruit to drive one of the load vehicles, he was responsible for organizing the event and collecting payment from the smuggled individuals. Cruz Noguez successfully recruited at least one of the drivers for the smuggling event, and on the morning of the incursion, he himself drove the smuggling route to scout for law enforcement activity. Meanwhile, his co-conspirators in Mexico crammed undocumented migrants into the load vehicles – at least 19 in the GMC Yukon and 24 in the Ford Expedition – and cut the international boundary fence, removing a section large enough for the vehicles to drive through.

Once in the United States, the vehicles proceeded eastbound on Interstate 8 towards a predetermined location. However, the cabin of the GMC Yukon eventually began filling with smoke, and the vehicle caught fire. The driver stopped the vehicle and fled on foot, leaving the smuggled individuals to fend for themselves. Nineteen of them were subsequently found hiding nearby, although it is believed that others were able to avoid apprehension. Meanwhile, the Ford Expedition and its 24 occupants continued driving eastbound towards Holtville, California. At the intersection of Norrish Road and Highway 115, the Ford Expedition collided with a tractor-trailer in a horrific accident, killing 13 of the undocumented migrants and seriously injuring many of the survivors. Further demonstrating his callousness, the defendant told the source of information in the days following the smuggling event that he was attempting to collect payment from the smuggled aliens who survived the incident and were not apprehended by law enforcement.

The sentencing hearing was held before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo. Two of the survivors of the collision spoke and explained the terrible impact the tragedy has had on their lives. Before handing down the 15-year sentence, Judge Bencivengo determined that Cruz Noguez played an aggravated role in the smuggling event and noted that in her more than a decade of experience sentencing people for human trafficking offenses, this case was particularly “tragic and heartbreaking” and “among the worst of cases I have seen.” Judge Bencivengo went on to state, “People who engage in human trafficking of this nature are monstrous and cruel…These people were treated like human cargo…jammed into two cars to maximize the profit margin that the traffickers could make by putting as many people as possible into vehicles…with no concern about their health and safety.” Judge Bencivengo expressed her hope that the statutory maximum sentence would “be a message to the trafficking community that, when you engage in this kind of gross behavior, there are serious consequences.”

“Cruz Noguez organized one of the most callous and inhumane smuggling attempts that law enforcement has responded to in this district,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “He and his co-conspirators treated these individuals like a worthless commodity. They were crammed into vehicles like sardines in a can, stacked one on top of another without seats or any form of safety restraints. Our office and our agency partners will not tolerate such heinous conduct and were determined to seek justice for these offenses.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team and investigating agencies for their excellent work on this case.

“This horrific tragedy was senseless and horrible beyond belief,” said El Centro Sector Chief Gregory Bovino. “The United States Attorney’s Office brought the defendant to justice, and the efforts of the prosecution team, plus those of Homeland Security Investigations, the California Highway Patrol, and others, signify that smugglers and traffickers of humans will face maximum consequences.”

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity.

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