A Mexican man has admitted to smuggling 85 migrants locked inside an overheated tractor-trailer across the US border into Texas to settle an $8,000 debt, federal prosecutors said.
Jose Luis Vega-Arzate, 31, pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy to transport undocumented aliens for financial gain, according to a statement from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas.
Vega-Arzate faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a possible $250,000 fine when he is sentenced on Oct. 20.
The Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, resident drove into a US Border Patrol checkpoint north of Laredo on May 11. Prosecutors said that during an inspection, Vega-Arzate displayed “nervous behavior and had trouble shifting gears.”
After a K-9 alerted their handlers to something suspicious inside the trailer, border agents opened it and discovered 85 people riding inside the hot vehicle. They were later determined to be in the US illegally.
During an interview, Vega-Arzate told authorities that he had agreed to pay $8,000 to have himself smuggled from Mexico into the US and taken to Austin.
Despite having no experience driving a tractor-trailer, or a commercial driver’s license, the 31-year-old volunteered to drive the truck with the other migrants through the checkpoint in exchange to receive a large reduction in his own transportation fee, according to the feds.
Court documents stated that Vega-Arzate was cautioned to avoid stopping on the way to San Antonio “because the undocumented individuals could die due to lack of ventilation resulting from the trailer’s lack of movement.”
Vega-Arzate’s plea came two days after a federal grand jury in Texas returned indictments against two Americans in connection with the worst smuggling incident in US history that resulted in the deaths of 53 migrants.
The deceased victims, along with 10 others who survived the journey across the border but were injured, were discovered inside a sweltering tractor-trailer that was abandoned in San Antonio on June 27.
Homero Zamorano Jr., 46, and Christian Martinez, 28, were each charged with one count of conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants resulting in death and one count of transportation of undocumented migrants resulting in death.
If convicted, Zamorano, who drove the 18-wheeler, and Martinez, who allegedly plotted the botched smuggling operation, could face the death penalty.