Man Charged with Organizing Smuggling Event that Led to Deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan Nationals

The site of the crash of two vehicles near Holtville, California. Photo: YouTube.com

EL CENTRO, Calif. – Jose Cruz Noguez of Mexicali, Mexico, was charged in federal court today with coordinating the March 2, 2021, smuggling event that led to the deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan nationals in a crash of an overloaded vehicle near Holtville, California.

Cruz, a legal permanent resident of the United States who has spent time in San Jose, California, was taken into custody last night as he crossed into the United States from Mexico at the Calexico Port of Entry. He made his first appearance in federal court in El Centro today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Ruth Bermudez Montenegro.

Cruz was charged with Conspiracy to Bring Aliens to the United States Outside a Port of Entry Causing Serious Bodily Injury/Placing a Life in Jeopardy, and Bringing in Aliens Without Presentation for Financial Gain. Judge Montenegro ordered that Cruz remain in custody and scheduled a detention hearing for Monday, April 5, 2021, at 9 a.m.

“These smuggling networks seek maximum profit by moving as many people as possible across the border with zero regard for their safety and well-being,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman for the Southern District of California. “Cramming dozens of people into eight-passenger vehicles and driving recklessly to avoid detection shows an utter disregard for human life. We will find and prosecute smugglers who use these methods and cause such tragic and avoidable deaths.” Acting U.S. Attorney Grossman commended Assistant U. S. Attorneys Timothy Coughlin, Victor White, Shauna Prewitt, Patrick Swan and Blair Perez and agents from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Border Patrol, El Centro Sector Intelligence Unit, for their excellent work on this case.

“HSI remains steadfast in our commitment to pursue members of human smuggling networks such as the network that caused the tragic deaths in the March 2 smuggling incident,” said Special Agent in Charge Cardell T. Morant for HSI San Diego. “Our investigative efforts have led to the arrest of an individual who allegedly put those lives in danger, and this brings us another step closer to providing closure for the families. We will continue to work collaboratively with our law enforcement partners to bring the perpetrators of this heinous crime to justice.” HSI’s tip line in the Calexico area is (760) 335-5343. 

“Thirteen individuals lost their lives on March 2nd due to unscrupulous human smugglers,” said El Centro Sector Border Patrol Chief Patrol Agent Gregory K. Bovino. “The U.S. Attorney’s Office, HSI and the U.S. Border Patrol will stop at nothing to find, arrest, and prosecute smuggling organizations and this case is evidence of that.”

Cruz came to the attention of law enforcement when he was identified by another suspected smuggler who claimed to be an associate of Cruz. The associate was arrested at the Campo Border Patrol Station for an unrelated smuggling event on March 15, two weeks after the fatal crash. The associate pointed the finger at Cruz, telling authorities he had worked for Cruz in the past, and had been recruited by Cruz to be the driver of the ill-fated vehicle from that tragic day. Cruz had offered him $1,000 per passenger, but he declined, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, the events of March 2 unfolded like this:

At approximately 5:56 a.m., U.S. Border Patrol Agents from the El Centro Border Patrol Station received a report from the California Highway Patrol of more than a dozen individuals running away from a burning GMC Yukon SUV and into the desert in Holtville, California. Border Patrol Agents were asked to respond to this suspected human smuggling event. At approximately 6:10 a.m., Border Patrol Agents responded to the area and extinguished the fire. Border Patrol Agents also followed foot tracks into the desert and apprehended 19 individuals hiding in the surrounding brush.

Separately, at approximately 6:05 a.m., a Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) operator at the Calexico Border Patrol Station spotted multiple vehicles and approximately 20 individuals gathered in a remote area just south of the United States/Mexico border. He also noticed that the border fence in the area had been breached and an approximately 10-foot section of it had been removed and was laying on the ground in Mexico. Border Patrol Agents then reviewed video footage from the area and discovered that two vehicles had crossed through the fence at approximately 5:23 a.m.: the GMC Yukon SUV and a Ford Expedition.      

At 7:05 a.m., Border Patrol Agents at the Calexico Border Patrol Station received a request from the Calexico Police Department to assist with a mass-casualty vehicle crash in Holtville, California. Border Patrol Agents responding to the crash identified one of the vehicles involved as the Ford Expedition that recently had breached the border fence. A total of 25 individuals had been in the Ford Expedition at the time of the crash. Subsequent inspection of the Ford Expedition revealed that all but the driver and front passenger seats had been removed, presumably to fit that large number of people.

Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and medical personnel, 12 individuals – including the suspected driver – died at the scene of the crash. Another individual died on the way to the hospital. The surviving 12 individuals were transported to various hospitals far and wide, including in San Diego. Many of the survivors were diagnosed with serious injuries.

According to the complaint, on March 26, 2021, the suspected smuggler who claimed to be an associate of Cruz participated in a secretly recorded conversation with Cruz. During the recorded call, Cruz confirmed his involvement in the March 2, 2021, event, including that his other associates cut the border fence; that the vehicles were fully loaded; and that he collected money for the event. Further, Cruz stated there were 60 “Pollos” – his term for customers – in the two vehicles and the driver was going to make $28,000. 

The associate told authorities he had grown up in Mexicali, Mexico, and had known Cruz for several years. He said that he illegally entered the United States six months ago and started working for Cruz, who he described as a coordinator. He said Cruz paid him to drive individuals who are in the United States illegally from El Centro, California, to Los Angeles, California. He said Cruz required him to harbor an individual who was illegally in the United States at his home in El Centro, California. In addition, the associate said Cruz required that he scout areas near El Centro, California, where Cruz had groups of people illegally enter the United States. According to the associate, Cruz oversees the transportation of individuals who are in the United States illegally to stash houses; collects smuggling payments from family members or sponsors; recruits drivers; and scouts for the presence of law enforcement.  

The associate stated that two weeks prior to the March 2, 2021, smuggling event, Cruz attempted to recruit him to drive one of the smuggling vehicles north from Mexico into the United States through a section of the fence that Cruz said would be breached. Cruz told his associate there would be up to 20 people in the vehicle and that the associate would be paid $1,000 per person for the job. According to the complaint, Cruz also told the associate that Cruz would oversee the smuggling event and would arrange for the vehicles that crossed to go to a stash house in Holtville, California. The associate claimed he declined Cruz’s offer.

Federal officials wish to thank the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates for their assistance in notifying family members of those individuals who died in the crash and in identifying and contacting family members of those hospitalized as a result of this tragedy.

At the hearing, Cruz was advised of the charges pending against him. The matter was set for a preliminary hearing on April 13, 2021, at 9 a.m. and arraignment on April 27, 2021, at 9:00 a.m. before Judge Montenegro. The court appointed Federal Defenders as defense counsel in this case.

The charges and allegations contained in an indictment or complaint are merely accusations, and the defendants are considered innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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