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December 9, 2022Corpus Christi, TX, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

Stash house operator sentenced to prison for smuggling noncitizens in back of fruit truck following HSI Corpus Christi investigation

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — A South Texas stash house operator was sentenced to nearly three years in federal prison Dec. 8 for his role in smuggling unlawfully present noncitizens in the back of a fruit truck following an investigation by Homeland Security Investigations Corpus Christi and U.S. Border Patrol.

Elias Lopez III, a 35-year-old resident of San Benito, Texas, was sentenced Thursday in the Southern District of Texas to 33 months imprisonment to be immediately followed by two years of supervised release for conspiring to transport unlawfully present noncitizens within the United States. Lopez pleaded guilty to the charges July 26.

On Dec. 10, 2021, authorities discovered 24 unlawfully present noncitizens hidden among a load of watermelon in a commercial trailer at a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint near Sarita, Texas.

The investigation revealed some of the noncitizens had crossed into the United States sometime in November and had been kept in a so-called stash house until Lopez arranged transportation through the checkpoint.

Two women identified Lopez and his wife as the stash house’s owners and operators. They also provided information about the house and where it was located. The women stayed in the house with Lopez and his wife for approximately three weeks while waiting for transport.

On the evening of Dec. 10, Lopez drove the women from the house to a lot where a tractor-trailer was waiting. The trailer doors were open and its lights were on. Lopez told the women to enter the trailer and hide among pallets of watermelon. Once moving, the trailer did not stop until it reached the checkpoint.

Lopez’s wife was also charged for her role in the smuggling incident and previously pleaded guilty. She is set to be sentenced in March 2023. The tractor-trailer’s driver was also charged for his role but is currently a fugitive and remains at-large.

Lopez will remain in custody pending transfer to a U.S. Bureau of Prisons facility to be determined in the near future.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Ashley Martin prosecuted the case.

For more news and information on Homeland Security Investigations Houston’s efforts to investigate human smuggling in Southeast Texas follow us on Twitter @HSIHouston.