Four other men were arrested in Texas in connection with a human trafficking operation that claimed the lives of 53 people on the outskirts of San Antonio last year, federal prosecutors said Tuesday.
Monday’s arrests, which came a day before the one-year anniversary of the discovery of the dead migrants, marked a significant development in the federal investigation into one of the deadliest incidents involving migrants along the U.S. southern border in recent history.
The men’s arrests bring to six the number of people facing criminal charges in the case. Two more were charged last year.
The four men arrested this week are Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, 30, Felipe Orduna-Torres, 28, Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, 37, and Armando Gonzales-Ortega, 53, according to the Western District US Attorney’s Office of Texas. All are from Mexico. They were part of a human trafficking ring that brought people to the United States from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico from December 2021 to June 2022, the federal attorney’s office in San Antonio said.
“Human traffickers who put people’s lives at risk for profit and break our laws can’t go into hiding for long,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said Tuesday. « We will find you and bring you to justice. »
The 53 men, women and children were found dead in and around an abandoned trailer on June 27, 2022, after San Antonio Police officers received calls to 911 from people concerned about the vehicle.
Temperatures reached 100 degrees that day and the truck didn’t have a working air conditioning system.
When members of the smugglers’ organization encountered the vehicle at the end of its three-hour journey to San Antonio, they opened the doors to find 48 migrants dead in the heat, and five more died after being transported to hospitals, the the prosecutor said. Eleven other migrants were injured.
The four men arrested this week worked in concert, « sharing routes, guides, hideouts, trucks, trailers and haulers to consolidate costs, minimize risk and maximize profits, » according to the US attorney’s office. They also kept more tractors and trailers for their operations, storing some in a private parking lot in San Antonio, he added.
Some of those arrested on Monday were aware that the air conditioning unit was malfunctioning and would not blow fresh air to the migrants inside, prosecutors continued.
The indictment, delivered on June 7, also accuses the four men of exchanging the names of migrants smuggled in the road train in the days leading up to June 27, 2022, and of orchestrating the recovery of an empty road train and its delivered to the driver on the day the migrants were found dead.
All four were charged with conspiracy to carry out and illegally transport migrants resulting in their death, and conspiracy to carry out and illegally transport migrants resulting in serious injury, the prosecutor’s office said.
If convicted, each could face a maximum sentence of life in prison, the office said.
Their allegations mirror those of the two Texas men who were indicted in July: Homero Zamorano Jr., 47, of Pasadena, Texas, identified as the driver, and Christian Martinez, 29, of Palestine, Texas.
The United States Attorney’s Office said at the time that the charges against Mr. Zamorano and Mr. Martinez carried a maximum sentence of life in prison or the death penalty, and that Mr. Garland would decide whether to seek the death penalty at a later date.
The six men are in federal custody. The trial of Mr. Zamorano has begun and the other defendants are awaiting trial, court records show.
Mr. Martinez’s attorney declined to comment. The US attorney’s office and attorneys for the other defendants did not immediately return phone calls or could not be reached Tuesday evening.
“Human traffickers exploit migrants’ hope for a better life,” Garland said in his statement. « But their only priority is profit. »