EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Federal prosecutors on Monday announced the arrest of four Mexican men in connection with a 2022 migrant smuggling event that left 53 people dead in San Antonio.
The four Mexican nationals were arrested on Monday in San Antonio, Houston and Marshall, Texas.
On the one-year anniversary of those migrant deaths, prosecutors identied the suspects as 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.
According to a news release, a superseding indictment returned by a San Antonio Grand Jury on June 7 charges each individual 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.
Prosecutors said all four men participated in a human smuggling organization that illegally brought adults and children from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico into the United States between December 2021 and June 2022.
They allegedly 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 organization also maintained a variety of tractors and trailers for their smuggling operations, some of which were stored at a private parking lot in San Antonio, prosecutors said.
On June 27, 2022, more than 60 were abandoned in a tractor-trailer without air conditioning in the sweltering Texas heat.
A San Antonio city worker discovered the bodies on the outskirts of town when they heard a cry for help from the truck parked on a lonely back road, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said at the time.
“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.”
Prosecutors say 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.
It had been three hours since the migrants were locked in the trailer at the border in Laredo when the suspects met the trailer and opened the doors to find 48 of the migrants either already dead or who had died on site, a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Sixteen of the migrants were transported to hospitals, where another five died.
In the days prior, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres, and others exchanged the names of undocumented noncitizens who would be smuggled in an upcoming tractor-trailer load, prosecutors said, adding that the four new defendants allegedly orchestrated the retrieval of an empty tractor-trailer and handing it 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.
“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.”