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Charges filed against five more people in San Antonio smuggling tragedy that killed 53 migrants

By Uriel J. García, The Texas Tribune

Charges filed against five more people in San Antonio smuggling tragedy that killed 53 migrants” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Federal prosecutors have filed charges against five additional people in connection with the deaths of 53 migrants found inside of a tractor-trailer a year ago in San Antonio — which officials have described as the “country’s deadliest human smuggling event.”

In an indictment filed June 7 and unsealed Tuesday, federal prosecutors allege that Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, 30; Felipe Orduna-Torres, 28; Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, 37; and Armando Gonzales-Ortega, 53, participated in a scheme to smuggle dozens of migrants who died in the process. Another suspect’s name was redacted because that person has not yet been arrested.

Among the victims discovered in the sweltering trailer parked next to an isolated road were eight children and one pregnant woman. A total of 66 people had been loaded into the 53-foot trailer, 48 of whom died at the scene, according to the latest indictment. Of the 16 people transported to hospitals, five died later. The majority were from Mexico; the remainder were from Guatemala and Honduras.

“This case illustrates how callous human smugglers can be and what they’re willing to do to turn a profit even when it means costing people their lives,” Craig Larrabee, special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio, said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

Prosecutors had charged four other men shortly after the tragedy, including Homero Zamorano Jr. of Pasadena, the alleged driver of the 18-wheeler who was arrested at the scene on June 27, 2022. Days later, federal police arrested Christian Martinez in Palestine, in East Texas, along with two Mexican citizens, Juan Claudio D’Luna-Mendez, 24, and Juan Francisco D’Luna-Bilbao, 49.

D’Luna-Mendez and D’Luna-Bilbao, who had overstayed tourist visas and were in the country illegally, were previously charged with one count of possession of a weapon by a person illegally in the U.S.

The seven other men, including Zamorano and Martinez, face four counts each of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death; conspiracy to transport 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, each faces a maximum penalty of life in prison, according to the Department of Justice.

According to the San Antonio Express-News, D’Luna-Bilbao pleaded guilty to two firearm charges. His lawyer, Cynthia Orr, told the newspaper that her client is awaiting sentencing.

“He had a minimal role in dealing with the people involved in this,” Orr told the newspaper. “He did allow his address to be used to register the truck.”

The newspaper also reported that D’Luna-Mendez is expected to challenge the gun charge against him. His lawyer, Mike McCrum, is arguing that his client should not have been prohibited from possessing a firearm.

According to the new indictment, from December 2021 to June 2022 the men participated in a human smuggling operation to illegally cross adults and children from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico into the U.S. Each person was charged between $12,000 and $15,000.

“The smugglers worked in concert with each other to transport, and facilitate the

transportation of, their various ‘customer’ aliens, utilizing each other’s routes, guides, stash

houses, trucks, trailers, and transporters,” the indictment says. “This patchwork association enabled the smugglers to consolidate costs, spread out risk, and operate more profitably.”

In the days before the tragedy, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres and the third unidentified suspect shared the names of the people who were going to be smuggled, the indictment says. The group then found an empty tractor-trailer and handed it off to Zamorano, the indictment says. Martinez drove Zamorano to a gas station in San Antonio, where Zamorano picked up the trailer, prosecutors say in the indictment.

Zamorano then drove the 18-wheeler to Laredo, where where groups of migrants “were

transported in box trucks from stash houses to the location of the tractor-trailer,” according to the indictment. Martinez received the tractor-trailer’s location from Orduna-Torres and passed it to Zamorano, the indictment says.

The smugglers, according to the indictment, “demanded that the aliens give up their cell phones prior to entering the trailer. An unknown powder was dispensed in the back of the trailer to mask the smell of the human cargo from detection K-9s at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints.”

After loading the people into the trailer, Zamorano drove three hours to San Antonio. Along the way, the rest of the suspects “coordinated, facilitated, passed messages, and made each other aware of the tractor-trailer’s progress” while Martinez “passed along messages and instructions to Zamorano,” the indictment says.

Some of the defendants knew the trailer’s air conditioning unit didn’t work properly, the indictment says.

“As the temperature inside the trailer rose, chaos ensued. Some aliens screamed and

banged on the walls for help,” the indictment says. “Some passed out, unconscious. Others clawed at the sides of the trailer attempting to escape.”

Zamorano arrived at the unloading location on Quintana Road in San Antonio and opened the trailer’s doors to discover most of the migrants dead or dying, the indictment says. Two surviving victims were taken away by other members of the smuggling organization. Police found Zamorano hiding in a nearby brush, the indictment says.

“The allegations in the indictment are horrifying,” U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza said in a statement. “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.“

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