Smugglers arrested in death of 19 immigrants

| 6/17/2003

Authorities arrested the suspected leader of a smuggling operation that killed 19 and trapped dozens of immigrants in a stifling truck trailer last month, federal prosecutors said Monday, The Associated Press reported.

In announcing the arrest, U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby also unsealed a 58-count indictment accusing Karla Patricia Chavez, 25, and 13 others of having roles in the smuggling mission that ended May 14 when a truckload of immigrants was discovered in a trailer abandoned at a truckstop in Victoria, TX, 100 miles southwest of Houston.

Seventeen immigrants died at the scene, and two others died later.

A group of more than 70 immigrants from Mexico, Central American and the Dominican Republic were being transported in a tractor-trailer from South Texas to Houston when they died. The truckdriver, Tyrone Williams, left the trailer in the early morning hours of May 14.

The victims died from dehydration, hypothermia and suffocation. Among the victims was a 5-year-old boy from Mexico.

Federal prosecutors said June 16 Chavez was arrested trying to enter her native Honduras from Guatemala. Authorities in Guatemala deported her to the United States Saturday, and U.S. immigration agents arrested her in Houston hours later.

Also arrested was Claudia Carrizales de Villa, 34, a Mexican citizen who lives in Harlingen, TX. Prosecutors said she was to appear in a Brownsville, TX, federal courtroom Monday afternoon.

The indictment accuses 12 people of being members of four smuggling rings. They are charged with various counts of conspiracy to conceal or transport immigrants.

In addition to the 12, two others, Victor Sanchez Rodriguez, 55, and his wife, Emma Rodriguez, 57, of Brownsville, are charged with crimes related to the operation but are not considered ring members. They are accused of allowing some immigrants to sleep at their home the night before the truck trip.

Nine of the 14, including Williams, are in federal custody. Rodriguez and his wife are fugitives, as are Alfredo Garcia, 23, a Guatemalan citizen who lives in Harlingen; Octavio Torres Ortega, 37, of Mexico; and Rosa Sarrata Gonzalez, 48, of San Benito, TX.

Fifty-four of the immigrants who survived the ordeal in the trailer were taken into custody by federal authorities, and most have since been freed on bond. Prosecutors have said those determined to be key witnesses in subsequent trials probably would be given temporary visas to stay in the United States. The others would be sent back to their home countries.