Four more men have been arrested in Texas in connection with a human smuggling operation that left 53 people dead on the outskirts of San Antonio last year, federal prosecutors said on Tuesday.
The arrests on Monday, which came one day shy of the first anniversary of the discovery of the dead migrants, marked a significant development in the federal investigation into one of the deadliest episodes involving migrants along the southern border of the United States in recent history.
The arrests of the men brings to six the number of people facing criminal charges in the case. Two others 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 U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Western District of Texas. All are from Mexico. They were part of a human smuggling organization that brought people into the United States from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico from December 2021 to June 2022, the federal prosecutor’s office in San Antonio said.
“Human smugglers who put peoples’ lives at risk for profit and break our laws cannot hide for long,” Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement on Tuesday. “We will find you and bring you to justice.”
The 53 men, women and children were found dead in and around an abandoned tractor-trailer on June 27, 2022, after San Antonio police officers received 911 calls from people concerned about the vehicle.
Temperatures reached 100 degrees that day, and the truck did not have a working air conditioning system.
When the members of the smuggling organization met the vehicle at the end of its three-hour journey to San Antonio, they opened the doors to find 48 of the migrants dead from the heat, and five more died after they were transported to hospitals, the prosecutor’s office said. Eleven other migrants were injured.
The four men arrested this week worked in concert, “sharing routes, guides, stash houses, trucks, trailers, and transporters in order to consolidate costs, minimize risks, and maximize profit,” according to the U.S. attorney’s office. They also maintained multiple tractors and trailers for their operations, storing some at a private parking lot in San Antonio, it added.
Some of those arrested on Monday were aware that the air conditioning unit was not working and would not blow any cool air to the migrants inside, prosecutors continued.
The indictment, which was handed up on June 7, also accuses the four men of exchanging the names of the migrants who were smuggled in the tractor-trailer in the days leading to June 27, 2022, and that they had orchestrated the retrieval of an empty tractor-trailer and its handoff to the driver on the day the migrants were found dead.
All four were charged with counts of conspiracy to transport and transportation of migrants illegally resulting in death, and of conspiracy to transport and transportation of migrants illegally resulting in serious injury, the prosecutor’s office said.
If convicted, each could face a maximum penalty of life in prison, the office said.
Their charges mirror those of the two men from Texas who were indicted in July: Homero Zamorano Jr., 47, of Pasadena, Texas, identified as the driver, and Christian Martinez, 29, of Palestine, Texas.
The U.S. attorney’s office said at the time that the charges against Mr. Zamorano and Mr. Martinez carried a maximum penalty of life in prison or the death penalty, and that Mr. Garland would decide whether to seek the death penalty at a later time.
The six men are in federal custody. Mr. Zamorano’s trial has begun, and the other defendants are awaiting trial, court documents show.
Mr. Martinez’s lawyer declined to comment. The U.S. attorney’s office and the lawyers for the other defendants did not immediately respond to phone calls or could not be reached on Tuesday evening.
“Human smugglers prey on migrants’ hope for a better life,” Mr. Garland said in his statement. “But their only priority is profit.”