HOUSTON (CN) – A Mexican national made his first appearance in federal court Monday on charges that he tragically botched an immigrant smuggling run when he crashed his SUV in South Texas last week and six passengers were killed.
Federal agents arrested Ivan Dario Puga-Moreno, 23, of Montemorelos, Mexico, in Houston on Thursday after his girlfriend identified him as the SUV driver for Homeland Security Investigations agents, picking his photo out of a lineup the day of the fatal wreck, according to a criminal complaint.
Puga-Moreno, who suffered a broken arm and vertebrae in the accident, appeared briefly Monday morning before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dena Palermo at the Houston federal courthouse to face charges of transporting aliens resulting in death.
If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to life in prison. Puga-Moreno’s charges were filed in Corpus Christi federal court and all his upcoming hearings will be held there.
With his SUV bogged down by 17 passengers, all undocumented immigrants like himself, Puga-Moreno crashed around 4 a.m. in Robstown, 20 miles west of Corpus Christi, HSI special agent Eric Martinez wrote in an affidavit included in the criminal complaint.
Six people died in the wreck, seven were injured and taken to Corpus Christi hospitals, and four others fled the scene with Puga-Moreno, the complaint states.
The death toll rose to seven over the weekend when one of the victims died in the hospital, according to HSI agents.
Puga-Moreno’s girlfriend Elena Ruiz gave a statement to HSI agents the afternoon of June 5, according to the complaint. She said Puga had called her on June 4 from Falfurrias, Texas and said he was getting ready to smuggle around 20 immigrants.
The Border Patrol has a checkpoint in Falfurrias, 70 miles north of the Mexico border. It’s common for Border Patrol agents and locals to find the bodies of immigrants who died from heat stroke or dehydration while making their way around the checkpoint through the thick tall brush that blankets the area.
Ruiz told the agents that Puga-Moreno had called her early June 5 and said he had wrecked the SUV.
“Puga told Ruiz that he was scared and ran from the scene with four other aliens. Puga told Ruiz that he was hurt and had broken bones and internal bleeding,” the complaint states.
Ruiz said she borrowed her friend’s car and picked up Puga-Moreno and the other four people later that morning and took them to her relative’s home in Corpus Christi.
She told the HSI agents she had an argument with Puga-Moreno at the home and told him to go, and he and his four companions left on foot, the affidavit states.
Ruiz gave the agents a tip that led to Puga-Moreno’s arrest Thursday in Houston, where he had holed up in his friend’s apartment with two immigrants who were also injured in the wreck.
His friend, Agustin Jaime Gutierrez-Gonzalez, renter of the Houston apartment, was also arrested and charged with harboring aliens.
The horrific wreck and Puga-Moreno’s arrest are prime material for President Donald Trump’s contention that Americans’ safety is at risk from undocumented immigrants who are entering the country by the thousands each day to seek asylum.
Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015 with a speech in which he said Mexico is sending criminals to the U.S.
“They are bringing drugs, and bringing crime, and their rapists,” he said.
Trump often invited Americans whose family members had been killed by undocumented immigrants to his campaign stops in 2016 to stoke fear, disregarding studies that have shown immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than Americans.
Since Trump took office, the Justice Department’s Office of Public Affairs in Washington has been the president’s town crier on immigrant crime.
The office frequently sends out press releases about immigrants receiving federal sentences for illegal re-entry, naturalization fraud and sale of phony birth certificates and Social Security cards.