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Press Release

Mexican National Sentenced for Transportation Resulting in Death

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of New Mexico

ALBUQUERQUE – A Mexican national was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role as a foot guide in a deadly alien smuggling conspiracy where he threatened witnesses to cover up his involvement after one migrant died from heat exposure in the New Mexico desert.

There is no parole in the federal system.

According to court documents, on July 18, 2023, Texas Department of Public Safety officers pulled over a vehicle driven by Jorge Luis Estrada-Velasquez with four undocumented aliens. The aliens informed agents that other members of their group were still in the desert a few miles away and one was very ill.

Border Patrol agents and emergency medical technicians located Rafael Radillo-Bernal, 40, and three others in the desert near Strauss Road in Doña Ana County and began rendering aid to the sick individual. Tragically, the victim succumbed to the heat and passed away.

Border Patrol took the surviving seven aliens, including Radillo-Bernal, and Estrada-Velasquez, into custody. Estrada-Velasquez was charged with Conspiracy to Transport Illegal Aliens and the seven aliens, including Radillo-Bernal, were designated as material witnesses.

Initially, none of the witnesses admitted to being the foot guide, and one claimed the guide had returned to Mexico. After their initial appearances, the witnesses were released to a halfway house in Las Cruces.

Subsequent interviews with the witnesses revealed consistent accounts of crossing late at night, walking for 8-9 hours with limited water, and the victim showing signs of illness early on due to diabetes. Radillo-Bernal initially claimed to have joined the group halfway through their journey after crossing the border alone. Radillo-Bernal stated that he walked with the victim, getting to know him, and encouraging him to continue when he started falling behind. Radillo-Bernal claimed he stayed with the victim while he called his family to say he was not going to make it before leaving him in the shade of a mesquite bush to find water and help.

On September 8, 2023, two witnesses came forward alleging that Radillo-Bernal was the foot guide and had threatened them to remain silent about his role in the conspiracy.

On January 23, 2024, Radillo-Bernal pled guilty to transporting an illegal alien resulting in the death of any person. After completing his term of imprisonment, Radillo-Bernal will be subject to deportation proceedings.

Estrada-Velasquez pled guilty to conspiracy to transport illegal aliens on October 19, 2023, and was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison. After completing his term of imprisonment, Estrada-Velasquez will be subject to deportation proceedings.

U.S. Attorney Alexander M.M. Uballez and Jason T. Stevens, Acting Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations - El Paso, made the announcement today.

Homeland Security Investigations investigated this case with the assistance of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Assistant United States Attorney Alyson R. Hehr prosecuted the case.

Migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border face grave dangers and risks. The harsh desert terrain, with scorching temperatures, rugged mountains, and vast stretches without water, poses immense physical challenges that have led to thousands of deaths from dehydration, heat stroke, and exposure. Migrants are also preyed upon by criminal organizations and human traffickers who exploit, extort, and abandon them in remote areas, leaving them vulnerable to violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking.

Those involved in human smuggling operations, including foot guides, drivers, and coordinators, face severe legal consequences if caught and prosecuted. Human smuggling is a federal crime under U.S. law, with penalties that can include hefty fines and lengthy prison sentences, especially in cases involving death, serious injury, or other aggravating factors.

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Updated June 12, 2024

Human Smuggling
Press Release Number: 24-212