Four Mexican nationals were arrested on June 26, in San Antonio, Houston, and Marshall, Texas for their alleged roles in a tractor-trailer smuggling incident that ended the lives of 53 people and injured 11 more. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) says the arrests were the result of Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), a task force between DHS and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to combat human smuggling and trafficking groups.

The JTFA focuses on smuggling networks that operate in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

“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 will continue to do everything possible to stop them, Mayorkas continued. “I am grateful for the leadership of our Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) team and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for seeking justice for the 53 lives lost last year.”

Court documents show that 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, allegedly participated in a human smuggling operation illegally bringing adults and children from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico into the U.S.

“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.”

The indictment indicates that Gonzalez-Ortega allegedly 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.”

Allegedly, some of the people charged were aware that the trailer’s air-conditioning unit was malfunctioning and would not blow any cool air. 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.

“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 Senior Official Performing the Duties of Deputy Director PJ Lechleitner of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“The indictments announced today emphasize that we will work tirelessly to bring to justice those who are responsible for this horrible tragedy,” continued Lechleitner. HSI continues investigative efforts with Joint Task Force Alpha and international partners to dismantle smuggling networks that demonstrate no regard for human life.”

The defendants are 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, they each face life in prison.

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Arturo Dominguez

Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice.

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