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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

Leader in hostage-taking case sentenced to more than 24 years in prison

HOUSTON — A Mexican man was sentenced on Monday to 24 years and four months in federal prison for holding for ransom the aliens he had violently hijacked from other alien smugglers. This sentenced was announced by U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson, Southern District of Texas. The investigation was conducted jointly by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations, and the Houston Police Department (HPD).

Heriberto Perez-Pinon, 26, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore sentenced to 292 months in prison on Jan. 9. After he completes his prison sentence, Perez-Pinon will be deported to Mexico. Perez-Pinon pleaded guilty shortly before trial on March 12, 2010 to one count of hostage taking. He admitted to transporting a load of smuggled aliens from south Texas to a Houston stash house where the aliens were kept until relatives or friends paid a fee for their release.

The following five defendants also pleaded guilty to hostage taking or conspiracy to commit hostage taking, and have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from 150 to 262 months: Alejandro Pantoja-Rosales, 29; Juan Romero-Trejo, 36; Israel Perez-Pinon, 28; Edgar Ivan Guerrero, 22; and Eduardo Lopez-Vargas, 34. As supervisor of the operation, Heriberto Perez-Pinion received the longest sentence.

On Aug. 21, 2009, Perez-Pinon, Pantoja-Rosales, Lopez-Vargas and Guerrero drove to a location near El Campo, Texas, targeting a load of 13 aliens being transported by another alien smuggler. To hijack the pickup truck in which the 13 aliens were being transported, Pantoja-Rosales fired multiple gunshots at the truck. The defendants then dragged the driver from the pickup, and pistol-whipped him until he was severely injured. Pantoja-Rosales then drove off with the smuggled load of 13 aliens with the three other defendants following in separate vehicles. The smuggled aliens were taken to a Houston stash house on the 5400 block of Heron Drive. Israel Perez-Pinon and Guerrero then placed calls to the aliens' relatives demanding money, to be paid by wire transfer, for their release.

The investigation leading to the arrest and filing of criminal charges began when a concerned citizen contacted the Houston Police Department (HPD) on behalf of two aliens who escaped from the load on the way to the stash house. While talking with officers, the two aliens noticed Pantoja-Rosales and Lopez-Vargas drive-by, apparently attempting to recapture them. HPD officers arrested Pantoja-Rosales and Lopez-Vargas. Agents with ICE HSI were then led to the stash house on Heron Drive, where Guerrero and Israel Perez-Pinon were found guarding four aliens in a middle bedroom who had not yet been released. The electricity to the house had been turned off.

ICE HSI agents and HPD officers learned of the possibility that the organization was harboring additional aliens at an apartment located on the 4000 block of Hollister. There, agents and officers discovered Romero-Trejo, who was arrested, and two female aliens. Heriberto Perez-Pinon was arrested the following day during a traffic stop.

The two female aliens found at the apartment, as well as a third female alien who came forward days later, stated that they had been sexually assaulted by Heriberto Perez-Pinion, Romero-Trejo and Pantoja-Rosales.

Previously, on April 25, 2011, Pantoja-Rosales and Romero-Trejo were sentenced following a lengthy trial, and following the testimony of one of the female illegal aliens who was held hostage for two weeks. The woman described how Heriberto Perez-Pinion, Pantoja-Rosales and Romero-Trejo sexually assaulted her and two other female aliens multiple times while awaiting ransom payments from their families. Information was presented regarding a rape kit examination following the testifying woman's rescue by ICE HSI agents which revealed the presence of DNA linked to Romero-Trejo. Heriberto Perez-Pinion, and two other defendants denied sexually assaulting the women, claiming that the intercourse was consensual.

All the defendants, except Guerrero, who is a U.S. citizen, will be deported following their release from federal prison.

Assistant U. S. Attorney David Searle, Southern District of Texas, is prosecuting the case.