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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

South Texas jury convicts Mexican national for alien smuggling that led to the death of 9 illegal aliens

MCALLEN, Texas — A 43-year-old Mexican national was found guilty on Friday by a federal jury for alien smuggling that resulted in the death of nine illegal aliens. 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, 43, a citizen of Mexico, appeared before U.S. District Judge Randy Crane on Sept. 23. Cardenas-Meneses could face a possible punishment of up to life in prison, a fine not to exceed $250,000, and a $100 special assessment for each count at his sentencing. Judge Crane has set sentencing for Nov. 28.

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.

The driver of the vehicle, an unindicted 17-year-old male who was involved with a group of individuals which included Jose Antonio Arispe, 28, and Norberto Garza, 28, both U.S. citizens; and Cardenas-Meneses, who was in charge of recruiting aliens from Central America and arranging to illegally smuggle them into the United States. Cardenas-Meneses was also in charge of coordinating the illegal aliens' transportation to the Reynosa, Tamaulipas, Mexico area.

Once in the Reynosa area, Cardenas-Meneses coordinated smuggling the illegal aliens across the Rio Grande River. Cardenas-Meneses' right-hand man, Jorge Hernandez-Hernandez, 40, of Mexico, hired a group of young men, to include Arispe, Garza and the juvenile driver, to pick up the illegal aliens and transport them to various stash houses that he had in northern Edinburg, Texas. Once in those stash houses, Hernandez hired numerous individuals (unindicted co-conspirators) to transport the illegal aliens to Houston.

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.

With the exception of two individuals who remain fugitives, others charged in the indictment have all been convicted and sentenced. Hernandez-Hernandez, Arispe and Garza received sentences of 180, 100 and 58 months of in prison, respectively. Hector Garza, who operated a staging area where aliens were divided into smaller groups and placed in multiple vehicles to avoid detection by law enforcement, was sentenced to 21 months imprisonment in September 2007.

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