NOGALES, Ariz. - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has launched a criminal investigation into the circumstances leading to the stop Wednesday night of a refrigerated tractor trailer truck outside of Nogales, Ariz., carrying 97 smuggled aliens, including more than a dozen children and two pregnant women.
The truck was pulled over for an equipment violation at about 9 p.m. by an officer with the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS). The stop came after DPS received a tip from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The stop was made at the 24-kilometer marker on Interstate Highway19 north of the city.
Inside the truck's trailer, which was chilled to 34 degrees, the officer discovered the smuggled aliens, including 14 children. The driver, Luis Antonio Mendoza, 26, of Fresno, Calif., was charged July 30 in federal court with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens for profit. Mendoza made his initial appearance Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Velasco and was ordered held pending a preliminary hearing Monday, Aug. 3. The maximum penalty for conspiracy to transport illegal aliens for profit is 10 years in federal prison, a $250,000 fine, or both.
Mendoza told the DPS officer who stopped the vehicle that there were 17 pallets of mangos in the refrigerated trailer. The Bill of Lading indicated the rig was carrying produce and contained special instructions to maintain a temperature of 34 degrees.
The complaint alleges Mendoza told ICE agents he knew the illegal aliens were in the trailer. He further stated he was to transport the aliens to Eloy, Ariz., were they would be transferred to a different vehicle. According to the complaint, Mendoza said he thought there were only 15 people in the trailer and he expected to be paid $300 per person for transporting them. Material witnesses say they made arrangements in Nogales, Mexico, to be smuggled into the United States and were each to pay the smugglers up to $3,000, with Phoenix being their final destination.
"This is another great example of the cooperation and ability to work together that exists in Arizona between state, local and federal law enforcement," said Roger Vanderpool, director of DPS. "We can do a lot more than one agency working by itself. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate our officer for an excellent job."
After DPS intercepted the truck, CBP and ICE responded to the scene and took control of the truck/trailer and custody of the illegal aliens.
The smuggled aliens from Mexico and Guatemala were transported to the Nogales Border Patrol station where they were interviewed by ICE and CBP agents. All the aliens, except those designated as witnesses, were processed for return to their native countries. ICE has opened a formal criminal investigation into the smuggling scheme, and is coordinating closely with the U.S. Attorney's Office on the case.
"This is yet another frightening example of the callous disregard human smugglers have for those who entrust their lives to them," said Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of the ICE Office of Investigations in Arizona. "These people were treated like cargo. They were crammed inside this truck and subjected to near freezing temperatures. Fortunately, due to the swift action of the law enforcement agencies involved, none of these people came to any harm."