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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Alien smuggler sentenced to 30 years in prison for conspiracy resulting in the death of 9 smuggled aliens

MCALLEN, Texas — A 43-year-old Mexican national was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison on Wednesday for alien smuggling that resulted in the death of nine illegal aliens, announced U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas. The case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), with the assistance of U.S. Customs and Border Protection's (CBP) Border Patrol, and the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Joel Cardenas-Meneses appeared before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane on Nov. 30. Judge Crane sentenced Cardenas-Meneses to 360 months in federal prison for his role in an alien smuggling conspiracy that resulted in the death of nine people who were being smuggled into the United States.

According to court records, on Aug. 9, 2004, ICE HSI and CBP responded to a vehicle accident that occurred near an irrigation canal close to Hidalgo, Texas. At the scene, agents found a vehicle that had fallen into an irrigation canal. Inside the vehicle, agents found seven men and two women inside who had drowned. The subsequent investigation revealed that the nine people were illegal aliens from El Salvador and Honduras.

During the course of the investigation, agents learned that the juvenile driver of the vehicle had been involved with a group of individuals who included Jose Antonio Arispe-Elizondo and Norberto Garza, both 28 and U.S. citizens, residing in McAllen. The investigation further revealed that Cardenas-Meneses was in charge of recruiting individuals from Central America and arranging their transportation to the Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico area.

Once in the Reynosa area, Cardenas-Meneses coordinated smuggling the illegal aliens across the Rio Grande River and into the United States. At that point, Joel Cardenas-Meneses' right-hand man, Jorge Hernandez-Hernandez, 40, hired a group of young men to pick up the illegal aliens and transport them to various stash houses that Hernandez-Hernandez had in northern Edinburg, Texas. From there, Hernandez-Hernandez hired numerous individuals to transport the illegal aliens to Houston.

On the date of the accident, the driver, as instructed, had been driving with his lights off to avoid detection. After making a sharp turn, the vehicle ended up in the canal where the deceased aliens were found.

In August 2006, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Cardenas-Meneses charging him with conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens as well as 11 counts of transporting illegal aliens. At that time he was living in Mexico, but in February 2011, Cardenas-Meneses was arrested in Houston.

The federal jury trial began hearing the case on Sept. 19, 2011. Five days later, the jury found Cardenas-Meneses guilty on all counts.

With the exception of two individuals who remain fugitives, others charged in the indictment have been convicted and sentenced. Arispe-Elizondo and Garza have already been sentenced to 100 and 58 months, respectively. Last year, Hernandez-Hernandez, opted to plead guilty, and was sentenced to 180 months in federal prison.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Anibal J. Alaniz and Casey MacDonald, Southern District of Texas prosecuted this case.