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Press Release

Coordinator Pleads Guilty in Fatal Imperial County Smuggling Incident Resulting in Thirteen Deaths

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, Southern District of California

SAN DIEGO – Jose Cruz Noguez pleaded guilty in federal court today to charges stemming from a March 2, 2021, smuggling incident in which thirteen people died when the vehicle in which they were concealed collided with a tractor trailer near Holtville, California.

In a hearing in United States District Court, the defendant admitted that he and his co-conspirators sought to smuggle a large number of undocumented migrants into the United States by loading them into modified SUVs and breaching an area of the international boundary fence between Mexico and the United States near Calexico, California. In the days leading up to March 2, 2021, the defendant committed various acts for the purpose of carrying out the conspiracy, such as attempting to recruit at least one criminal associate to drive a load vehicle containing as many as 20 undocumented migrants. And during the early morning hours of March 2, 2021, before the smuggling event, Cruz Noguez used his vehicle to scout the area that the load vehicles would be traveling. After confirming there was no law enforcement in the area, defendant’s co-conspirators loaded dozens of undocumented migrants – including at least one minor who was unaccompanied by a parent or guardian – into two modified SUVs and drove them into the United States through a breach they had cut in the international boundary fence. Once successfully in the United States, the two load vehicles traveled west along Interstate 8, and as has been reported in the media, one of the vehicles – a GMC Yukon – caught fire on Interstate 8 near Highway 115. Shortly thereafter, the other vehicle – a Ford Expedition – collided with a tractor-trailer on Highway 115 near Holtville, California. Thirteen individuals in the Ford Expedition died tragically as a result of the accident. In his plea agreement, Cruz Noguez admitted that he and his co-conspirators were smuggling the undocumented migrants into the United States for financial consideration and with the intent to violate the immigration laws of the United States.

The United States Attorney’s Office (USAO) initially indicted Cruz Noguez on April 27, 2021. Following further investigation, the USAO charged him and another individual (who remains a fugitive) in a Third Superseding Indictment on July 15, 2022. Cruz Noguez’s trial had been scheduled to begin on May 15, 2023. Instead, he entered into a plea agreement and pleaded guilty to a Superseding Information charging him with one count of Conspiracy to Bring in Undocumented Migrants and three counts of Bringing In Undocumented Migrants for Financial Gain (which carry a five-year mandatory minimum sentence).

Cruz Noguez is scheduled to be sentenced on June 9, 2023 at 9:00 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo.

This case was supported by Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA). JTFA was created by the Attorney General in June 2021 in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to strengthen the Department’s overall efforts to combat these crimes based on the rise in prolific and dangerous smuggling from and through Central America and impacting our border communities. JTFA’s goal is to disrupt and dismantle those human smuggling and trafficking networks operating in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, with a focus on networks that endanger, abuse or exploit migrants, present national security risks, or engage in other types of transnational organized crime.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California helps lead JTFA, which is comprised of detailees from southwest border U.S. Attorney’s Offices, including the Southern District of Texas, the Western District of Texas, the District of New Mexico, the District of Arizona, and the Southern District of California, and dedicated support for the program is also provided by numerous components of the Criminal Division that are part of JTFA – led by the Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section (HRSP), and supported by the Office of Prosecutorial Development, Assistance, and Training (OPDAT), the Narcotic and Dangerous Drug Section (NDDS), the Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section (MLARS), the Office of Enforcement Operations (OEO), the Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs (OIA), and the Organized Crime and Gang Section (OCGS). JTFA is made possible by substantial law enforcement commitment from DHS, FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other partners.

DEFENDANTS                                                                      Case Number 21CR1277-CAB
Jose Cruz Noguez Age: 49 Mexicali, Mexico
Froylan Cortez Avalos (fugitive) Age: 49 Mexicali, Mexico

Conspiracy to Bring In Undocumented Migrants
Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(1)(A)(i) and (v)(I)
Maximum penalty: 10 years in prison and $250,000 fine

Bringing In Undocumented Migrants for Financial Gain and Aiding and Abetting
Title 8, U.S.C., Section 1324(a)(2)(B)(ii) and Title 18, U.S.C., Section 2
Maximum penalty: 15 years in prison and $250,000 fine

Homeland Security Investigations
United States Border Patrol
California Highway Patrol
Imperial County Sheriff’s Office


Assistant U.S. Attorneys C. Seth Askins (619) 546-6692 and Shauna R. Prewitt (619) 546-7937

Updated March 31, 2023

Press Release Number: CAS23-0321-Cruz Noguez, et al