EL CENTRO, Calif. – A Mexican man was charged Tuesday with coordinating a smuggling effort that left 13 people dead when their overloaded SUV was struck by a big-rig after crossing the border into California.
Jose Cruz Noguez, 47, of Mexicali, was arrested Monday night as he crossed into the United States at the Calexico Port of Entry. He appeared Tuesday in federal court in El Centro and faces conspiracy and smuggling charges involving serious injury or placing lives in danger, according to a statement from the U.S. attorney's office.
He was assigned federal public defenders and ordered held in custody, the statement said.
Prosecutors say Cruz organized a smuggling run in which 25 people were crammed into a 1997 Ford Expedition that drove through a hole cut in a border fence on March 2.
The vehicle was driving through California’s agricultural Imperial Valley when it was broadsided at an intersection near Holtville by a tractor-trailer hauling two empty trailers, authorities said.
The crash site was about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of San Diego.
Seventeen occupants were Mexican — 10 who died, including the driver, and seven who were injured. Nine had major injuries, including two Guatemalans, authorities said.
The youngest victim was a 15-year-old girl who was treated for major injuries.
The Border Patrol has said surveillance video taken about 90 minutes before the accident showed the Expedition and a Chevrolet Suburban drive through an opening in the border wall about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of the crash site. The Suburban carried 19 people, and it caught fire for unknown reasons on a nearby interstate after entering the U.S. All escaped the vehicle and were taken into custody by the Border Patrol, which said it was not pursuing either SUV.
Cruz was taken into custody after another suspected smuggler was arrested at a California border station two weeks after the crash. That man said Cruz had offered him $1,000 per passenger to drive the sport utility vehicle that crashed, but he declined, according to the criminal complaint.
The alleged smuggler claimed he had known Cruz for several years, had crossed the border illegally six months ago, was living in El Centro and had started working for Cruz by driving immigrants from El Centro to Los Angeles, according to the criminal complaint cited in the U.S. attorney’s office statement.
“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 statement said.
Last Friday, the suspected smuggler made a phone call to Cruz that was secretly recorded by law enforcement agents during which Cruz confirmed he was involved in the March 2 smuggling operation and had collected money, according to the criminal complaint.
“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 statement said, citing the complaint.
“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,” acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said in the statement. “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.”
Cruz didn't enter a plea at Tuesday's hearing. His arraignment is scheduled for April 27. He could face 20 years or more in federal prison if convicted.