Man Charged for Smuggling 13 Migrants Who Died in Border Car Collision

The acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Tuesday charged a man accused of orchestrating the smuggling trip where 13 Mexican and Guatemalan citizens died in a fiery car collision shortly after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Law enforcement officers work at the scene of a deadly crash in Holtville, Calif., on Tuesday, March 2, 2021. Authorities say a semi-truck crashed into an SUV carrying 25 people on a Southern California highway, killing at least 13 people. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – A legal permanent resident was charged by the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California for allegedly orchestrating the smuggling trip where 13 immigrants died in a fiery car collision shortly after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in a SUV modified to carry 25 people.

Jose Cruz Noguez, 47, of Mexicali, Mexico, made his first appearance in federal court in El Centro Tuesday on human smuggling conspiracy charges after being accused by an alleged associate of orchestrating the March 2 smuggling trip near Holtville, California.

Earlier this month, Border Patrol agents responded to calls March 2 regarding alleged human smuggling via two vehicles that breached a 10-foot section of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border in the agricultural town located in Imperial Valley, 125 miles east of San Diego.

One of the vehicles — a GMC Yukon SUV — was found burning in the desert and 19 people were arrested, according to the 5-page complaint.

The other vehicle — a Ford Expedition which been modified so all but the driver and front passenger seats had been removed — was carrying 25 people when it was involved in a collision.

Twelve people — including the suspected driver — died at the scene. A thirteenth person died while being transported to the hospital. The surviving 12 immigrants were transported to hospitals across the region, including in San Diego. Many were diagnosed with serious injuries.

Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said his office would prosecute smugglers who use dangerous methods to bring people into the U.S.

“These smuggling networks seek maximum profit by moving as many people as possible across the border with zero regard for their safety and well-being,” Grossman said in a statement. “Cramming dozens of people into eight-passenger vehicles and driving recklessly to avoid detection shows an utter disregard for human life.”

Cruz was turned in by an associate arrested at the Campo Border Patrol Station for an unrelated smuggling event March 15, two weeks after the fatal crash.

The man told authorities he had worked for Cruz and had been recruited by him to be the driver of the ill-fated modified Ford Expedition two weeks prior to the deadly collision but had declined after being offered $1,000 per passenger.

He said Cruz oversaw the transportation of individuals in the U.S. illegally to stash houses, collected smuggling payments from family members or sponsors, recruited drivers and scouted out the presence of law enforcement.

According to the complaint, the suspected smuggler participated in a secretly recorded conversation with Cruz March 26, where Cruz allegedly confirmed his involvement in the March 2 smuggling attempt and that he had collected money to smuggle the immigrants into the U.S.

Cruz allegedly told his associate during the phone call there were 60 “Pollos” — his term for customers, which means chicken in Spanish — in the two vehicles and the driver would make $28,000.

A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled in El Centro on April 13 before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Bermudez Montenegro. Cruz is scheduled to be arraigned on the charges April 27.

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