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June 27, 2023Washington, DC, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

4 arrested for 2022 tractor-trailer smuggling incident that resulted in 53 deaths

WASHINGTON — Four Mexican nationals were arrested yesterday in Houston, Marshall and San Antonio, Texas, for their alleged roles in a tractor-trailer smuggling incident that resulted in 53 deceased and 11 injured undocumented individuals on June 27, 2022. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is investigating the case with valuable assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection; U.S. Border Patrol; U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations; the FBI; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office; the San Antonio Fire Department; the San Antonio Police Department; the Marshall Police Department; and the Palestine Police Department.

“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 ICE Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Deputy Director P.J. Lechleitner. “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.”

“These additional arrests are a result of the hard work and determination displayed by our agents and prosecutors in their efforts to identify those who were responsible for deadliest human smuggling event in U.S. history,” said HSI San Antonio Special Agent in Charge Craig Larrabee. “HSI will continue investigating all leads to ensure that justice will be served for the deceased, the injured, and their families. We will remain committed to leveraging our broad range of authorities to dismantle all transnational criminal organizations engaged in human smuggling around the globe.”

“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 Investigations team and U.S. Customs and Border Protection for seeking justice for the 53 lives lost last year.”

Charges resulted from the coordinated efforts of Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), which Attorney General Merrick B. Garland established in June 2021 in partnership with 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 border communities. JTFA enhances U.S. enforcement efforts against the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

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.

The indictment alleges that in the days leading up to June 27, 2022, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres and others exchanged the names of undocumented people 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.

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.

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.

“Human smugglers prey on migrants’ hope for a better life — but their only priority is profit,” said 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.”

“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 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.”

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 and supported by the Office of Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training; the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section; the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section; the Office of Enforcement Operations; the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs; and the Organized Crime and Gang Section. 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.