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Financial Crimes

13th and final bus passenger pleads guilty to trying smuggle more than $3 million in air mattresses in luggage

MCALLEN, Texas - The final passenger aboard a Mexico-bound bus pleaded guilty on Friday to failing to declare the $3 million in U.S. currency that was discovered in on-board air mattresses. The plea was announced by U.S. Attorney José Angel Moreno, Southern District of Texas. The investigation was conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

 Marcial Santana-Aleman, 47, a Mexican citizen, who is a U.S. permanent resident residing in Buford, Ga., pleaded guilty March 4 before Chief U.S. District Judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa. On Sept. 26, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers and ICE HSI agents stopped a southbound commercial passenger bus at the Hidalgo Port of Entry, Texas. A search of passenger luggage resulted in discovering $3.19 million sealed in air mattresses hidden in luggage.

With this final guilty plea, all 13 bus passengers who were charged have admitted to intentionally concealing the currency to evade the statutory requirement to declare exporting sums of money above $10,000 from the United States.
Santana-Aleman and his 12 other co-defendants face a maximum punishment of five years in federal prison without parole and a maximum $250,000 fine. Also, all 13 defendants have agreed to forfeit to the United States their interest in the $3.19 million seized. Judge Hinojosa has set sentencing for June 2. Santana-Aleman is in custody and will remain in custody pending his sentencing.

The following eight other defendants pleaded guilty to bulk cash smuggling on Feb. 18 and are pending sentencing on March 25: Bianca Tapia-Pineda, 20, of Cartersville, Ga.; Jobanni Hernandez, 19, and Gabriela Hernandez, 18, both of Atlanta, Ga.; Alejandro Camacho, 22, of Norcross, Ga., at the time of his arrest; Elizabeth Cornejo, 21, of Norcross, Ga.; Leticia Urieta-Aguirre, 20, and Maria Urieta, 49, both of Smyrna, Ga.; and Jonathan Nathan Gaona, 20, of Yadkinville, N.C. All eight defendants have been permitted to remain on bond pending sentencing.

The following four defendants pleaded guilty to the same charge on March 3: Rene F. Espinoza-Borjas, 46, a Mexican citizen who entered the United States with a B1/B2 visa; Pedro Sanchez-Aviles, 44, a Mexican citizen who is a U.S. permanent resident residing in Atlanta, Ga.; Margarita Patricia Jones, 50, a Mexican citizen who is a U.S. permanent resident residing in Cartersville, Ga.; and Irma Echeverria-Vega, 51, a Mexican citizen who entered the United States with a B1/B2 visa. These defendants, all of whom are in custody, are set to be sentenced on June 2.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristen Rees, Southern District of Texas, prosecuted the case.