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Four Alleged Human Traffickers Arrested Following Incident Killing 53 Undocumented Individuals

TEXAS - Authorities allegedly arrested four individuals of Mexican nationality in San Antonio, Houston, and Marshall, Texas. They were apprehended for their suspected involvement in a tractor-trailer smuggling incident that occurred one year ago today. This incident resulted in the deaths of 53 undocumented individuals and left 11 others injured.

The charges were brought about by Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), which was established by Attorney General Garland in June 2021 in collaboration with Secretary Mayorkas. The task force aims to enhance the departments' collective efforts in combating crimes related to increased smuggling activities from Central America that have been affecting border communities. JTFA supports U.S. enforcement efforts targeting human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, which are considered to be highly active and dangerous.


According to a press release from the Department of Justice, court documents allege that individuals named Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, Felipe Orduna-Torres, Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, and Armando Gonzales-Ortega were involved in a human smuggling operation. The operation is said to have illegally transported adults and children from Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico into the United States between December 2021 and June 2022. 

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The individuals involved in the smuggling operation allegedly collaborated to transport the migrants by sharing various resources such as routes, guides, stash houses, trucks, trailers, and transporters. This allegedly allowed them to reduce expenses, mitigate potential dangers, and increase their financial gains. The organization allegedly possessed a range of tractors and trailers for their transportation activities, some of which were allegedly kept at a privately-owned parking lot in San Antonio.

According to Attorney General Merrick Garland, human smugglers take advantage of migrants' aspirations for a better life, with their main focus being financial gain. He said 53 individuals were tragically found deceased in a tractor-trailer in Texas after enduring an alleged prolonged period of mistreatment. He said this incident occurred as a result of a scheme he says lacked compassion. He further said that individuals involved in the illegal transportation of people, endangering their lives and seeking financial gain, are subject to being apprehended, and that authorities are committed to locating and holding accountable those responsible for such actions.

Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas stated that the announcement marks a significant milestone in the ongoing efforts against smugglers. he believes the indictments are a result of a comprehensive government effort to prevent such crimes and he says it represents the largest campaign of its kind in U.S. history. he further said human smuggling is a practice that some individuals engage in for financial gain, and that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is committed to taking necessary measures to prevent and address this issue. he also expressed gratitude for the leadership of the Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) team and U.S. Customs and Border Protection in their efforts to seek justice for the 53 lives lost last year.

According to the Department of Justice's press release on the indictment, it is alleged that Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres, and other individuals exchanged the names of undocumented individuals who were planned to be transported in a tractor-trailer in the days leading up to June 27, 2022. The four additional defendants mentioned in the revised indictment are accused of coordinating the transfer of an empty tractor-trailer to the driver on June 27. Homero Zamorano Jr. of Elkhart, Texas, and Christian Martinez of Palestine, Texas, were both allegedly charged in a July 2022 indictment. It is alleged that Orduna-Torres provided the address in Laredo, Texas, where Zamorano loaded the migrants onto the tractor trailer. 

According to the Department of Justice, Gonzalez-Ortega is said to have traveled to Laredo to meet a tractor-trailer. It is alleged that at least 66 undocumented individuals, including eight children and one pregnant woman, were loaded into the back of the trailer with the intention of being smuggled. According to the press release, Martinez, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres, Rivera-Leal, and Gonzales-Ortega are said to have allegedly collaborated, assisted in communication, exchanged messages, and stayed informed about the tractor-trailer's movement.

The U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Texas, Jaime Esparza, expressed concern over the allegations in the indictment. She claims numerous individuals, including men, women, and children, were in a vulnerable state and placed their trust in smugglers. According to her, the smugglers left them in a locked trailer, leading to tragic consequences in the unforgiving summer conditions of south Texas. 

According to the Department of Justice's press release, it is alleged that certain defendants were aware of a malfunction in the trailer's air-conditioning unit, resulting in a lack of cool air for the migrants inside. Allegedly, when individuals from the organization arrived at the tractor-trailer's alleged destination in San Antonio after a journey of almost three hours, they discovered that 48 migrants, including a pregnant woman, had passed away. Sixteen individuals without legal documentation were taken to hospitals, and five of them passed away while receiving medical care.

The defendants are facing charges related to conspiracy and transportation of illegal aliens, which resulted in death, serious bodily injury, and endangering lives. If found guilty on the most serious charges, each individual could potentially receive a life sentence as the maximum punishment.

The case is being investigated by HSI, with assistance from various agencies including Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol, ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, FBI, ATF, San Antonio Police Department, Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, San Antonio Fire Department, Marshall Police Department, and Palestine Police Department.

The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Fuchs, Sarah Spears, and Amanda Brown for the Western District of Texas.

The Department of Justice said an indictment is considered to be an allegation. Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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