March 22 (Reuters) – A Mexican national has pleaded guilty to federal charges of organizing a human-smuggling operation that led to the deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants in a highway crash near the border in Southern California two years ago.
Jose Cruz Noguez, 49, a legal permanent U.S. resident from Mexicali, Mexico, entered his plea on Tuesday in a U.S. District Court for Southern California, the Justice Department said in a statement.
Noguez entered a plea agreement on one count of conspiracy to bring in undocumented migrants and three counts of bringing in undocumented migrants for financial gain. He is scheduled to be sentenced in June, the department said.
Prosecutors accused Cruz of overseeing the ill-fated smuggling operation on March 2, 2021. He recruited drivers, collected payments and arranged for associates to cut a hole in the border fence through which two sport utility vehicles crammed with migrants slipped into California, the department said.
One of those vehicles, packed with 25 people, collided with a tractor-trailer at a highway junction outside the farming community of Holtsville, California, about 125 miles (201 km) east of San Diego.
Thirteen individuals, including the SUV driver, perished in the crash and the 12 survivors were hospitalized, authorities said.
Border patrol agents separately found 19 other migrants from the second SUV huddled in nearby brush after their vehicle inexplicably caught fire. Prosecutors said both eight-passenger SUVs, stripped of all but two seats to allow more people to be crammed inside, were part of the same smuggling operation.
Prosecutors said authorities were led to Cruz by another suspected smuggler arrested in an unrelated incident two weeks after the deadly crash.
An alleged co-conspirator, identified as Froylan Cortez Avalos, 49, also from Mexicali, remains a fugitive, the U.S. Justice Department said.