Four men arrested and charged for deadly smuggling operation that killed 53 people

U.S. authorities have announced the arrest of four individuals in connection with a human smuggling operation that resulted in the deaths of 53 migrants, including eight children, who were left in a tractor-trailer in the scorching Texas summer. The arrests were made on the anniversary of the tragic incident, which occurred on June 27, 2022. The four Mexican nationals played a planning role in the smuggling operation and were aware that the trailer’s air-conditioning unit was malfunctioning, leaving the migrants trapped inside without cool air during the three-hour journey from Laredo to San Antonio.

When the trailer was opened in San Antonio, 48 migrants were already dead, and another 16 were taken to hospitals, where five more lost their lives. This incident marks the deadliest tragedy involving migrants smuggled across the border from Mexico. The victims hailed from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The driver and another individual were arrested shortly after the discovery of the migrants. They were charged with smuggling resulting in death and conspiracy.

On Monday, four additional arrests were made in Houston, San Antonio, and Marshall, Texas. Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, Felipe Orduna-Torres, Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, and Armando Gonzales-Ortega were charged with conspiracy to transport immigrants resulting in death, serious bodily injury, and placing lives in jeopardy. If convicted, each faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. A federal grand jury indictment revealed that the smugglers had a “patchwork association” that allowed them to consolidate costs, spread out risk, and operate more profitably. They worked with human smuggling operations in Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, sharing routes, guides, stash houses, trucks, and trailers.

Migrants paid the organization up to $15,000 each to be transported across the U.S. border. The fee covered up to three attempts to enter the country. The indictment revealed that migrants were given a code word to provide at various checkpoints to prove they were “customers” of a smuggler who had made arrangements for them. The four arrested individuals exchanged the names of migrants who would be smuggled in the truck. Orduna-Torres provided the pickup address in Laredo, and Gonzalez-Ortega met them there. They coordinated the trip and exchanged messages about the truck’s progress to San Antonio.

Survivors shared harrowing accounts of the journey, with one 20-year-old migrant from Guatemala stating that the truck was already hot when it left Laredo. The trapped migrants soon started crying and pleading for water, resorting to breathing through a single hole in the wall and pounding on the walls to get the driver’s attention. Experts estimate that temperatures inside the trailer could have reached 125 degrees Fahrenheit (51 Celsius) or hotter within an hour.