SAN ANTONIO – Four Mexican nationals were arrested Monday in San Antonio, Houston and Marshall, Texas, for their alleged connection to the 2022 tractor-trailer smuggling incident, which resulted in the death of 53 and injury of 11 undocumented noncitizens.
A superseding indictment returned by a San Antonio Grand Jury on June 7, alleges that Riley Covarrubias-Ponce aka Rrili aka Rilay, 30; Felipe Orduna-Torres aka Cholo aka Chuequito/Chuekito aka Negro, 28; Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal aka Cowboy, 37; and Armando Gonzales-Ortega aka El Don aka Don Gon, 53, participated in a human smuggling organization (HSO) which illegally brought adults and children from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico into the United States between December 2021 and June 2022. The superseding indictment alleges that the smugglers worked in concert to transport and facilitate the transportation of the migrants, sharing routes, guides, stash houses, trucks, trailers, and transporters in order to consolidate costs, minimize risks, and maximize profit. The HSO maintained a variety of tractors and trailers for their smuggling operations, some of which were stored at a private parking lot in San Antonio.
The indictment alleges that in the days leading up to June 27, 2022, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres, and others exchanged the names of undocumented noncitizens who would be smuggled in an upcoming tractor-trailer load. The four new defendants charged in the superseding indictment allegedly orchestrated the retrieval of an empty tractor-trailer and its corresponding hand-off to the driver on June 27. The driver, Homero Zamorano, Jr. of Elkhart, Texas, was previously charged in a July 2022 indictment along with Christian Martinez, of Palestine, Texas. Orduna-Torres allegedly provided the Laredo address at which Zamorano loaded the migrants into the tractor trailer. The indictment also alleges that Gonzalez-Ortega traveled to Laredo to meet the tractor-trailer, where at least 66 undocumented individuals, including eight children and one pregnant woman, were loaded for smuggling. According to the superseding indictment, Martinez, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres, Rivera-Leal, and Gonzales-Ortega then coordinated, facilitated, passed messages, and made each other aware of the tractor-trailer’s progress.
The superseding indictment alleges that some of the defendants were aware that the trailer’s air-conditioning unit was malfunctioning and would not blow any cool air to the migrants inside. When members of the organization met the tractor-trailer at the end of its approximately three-hour journey to San Antonio, they opened the doors to find 48 of the migrants were either already dead or had died on site, including the pregnant woman. 16 of the undocumented individuals were transported to hospitals—five of whom died.
Each defendant is charged with one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death; one count of conspiracy to transport of illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy; one count of transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death; and one count of transportation of illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy. If convicted, they each face a maximum penalty of life in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
“Human smugglers prey on migrants’ hope for a better life – but their only priority is profit,” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “Tragically, 53 people who had been loaded into a tractor-trailer in Texas and endured hours of unimaginable cruelty lost their lives because of this heartless scheme. Human smugglers who put peoples’ lives at risk for profit and break our laws cannot hide for long: We will find you and bring you to justice.”
“One year ago today, an unthinkable crime perpetrated by human smugglers at our southern border caused the death of 53 human beings,” said Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco. “But today’s arrests demonstrate that those who seek to profit from desperation will be brought to justice. Working with international partners, the Department of Justice is striking back at international organized crime and sending a clear message that there is no safe haven for trafficking in firearms, deadly narcotics, or human beings.”
“The allegations in the indictment are horrifying,” said U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza for the Western District of Texas. “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. Thanks to our law enforcement partners at the local, state, and federal levels—with Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio Division leading the investigation—we are one step closer to delivering justice for those migrants and their families.”
“This horrific tragedy underscores the callous disregard criminal smuggling organizations have for human life, including the lives of children,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. for the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “These indictments and arrests are another step forward in obtaining justice and accountability for these senseless deaths. Joint Task Force Alpha will remain steadfast in its efforts to thwart these deadly schemes driven by greed at the expense of safety and security.”
“These additional arrests are a result of the hard work and determination displayed by our agents and prosecutors in their efforts to identify those who were responsible for deadliest human smuggling event in U.S. history,” said Special Agent in Charge Craig Larrabee for the Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio Division. “HSI will continue investigating all leads to ensure that justice will be served for the deceased, the injured, and their families. We will remain committed to leveraging our broad range of authorities to dismantle all transnational criminal organizations engaged in human smuggling around the globe.”
HSI is investigating the case with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and has received tremendous support from Customs and Border Protection; Border Patrol; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations; the San Antonio Police Department; the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office; the San Antonio Fire Department; the Marshall Police Department; and the Palestine Police Department.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Fuchs, Sarah Spears and Amanda Brown are prosecuting the case.
An indictment is merely an allegation and all defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.
These charges resulted from the coordinated efforts of Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA). The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas is part of the JTFA, which was established by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in June 2021 to marshal the investigative and prosecutorial resources of the Department of Justice, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to enhance U.S. enforcement efforts against the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Task Force focuses on disrupting and dismantling smuggling and trafficking networks that abuse, exploit, or endanger migrants, pose national security threats, and are involved in organized crime. JTFA consists of federal prosecutors and attorneys from U.S. Attorneys’ Offices along the Southwest Border (District of Arizona, Southern District of California, Southern District of Texas, and Western District of Texas), from the Criminal Division and the Civil Rights Division, along with law enforcement agents and analysts from DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection’s U.S. Border Patrol, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.