Suspect accused of organizing the smuggling event that lead to the wreck
EL CENTRO, Calif. (KYMA, KECY) - The U.S. District Attorney's (USDA) Office announced the arrest of a Mexicali man wanted in connection with the March 2 crash that killed more than a dozen undocumented immigrants near Holtville.
Federal prosecutors say 47-year-old Jose Cruz Noguez was taken into custody Monday night as he crossed into the U.S. at the Calexico Port of Entry.
A federal judge on Tuesday charged Noguez with conspiracy to transport illegal migrants causing serious bodily harm, and with human smuggling for financial gain. The conspiracy charge, all on its own, carries a maximum 20-year sentence.
The charges stem from the March 2 crash along Highway 115 outside Holtville. Thirteen people, reported to be undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala, died after an SUV packed with 25 people collided with a fully-loaded big rig.
Related: Tragedy on Highway 115
Prosecutors say Noguez played an integral role in the planning and execution of the human smuggling event that led to the wreck. And, they say, they have recordings of the suspect himself, admitting to that role.
Organizing an ill-fated smuggling event
Shortly after the crash, U.S. Border Patrol agents revealed smugglers had cut a 10-foot hole in the border barricade near Calexico. They say two vehicles passed through the gap. The first caught fire before reaching the highway. The second sped off towards tragedy.
Noguez's complaint accuses him of coordinating virtually every aspect of the smuggling operation. Homeland Security Investigators (HSI) said he recruited both drivers and migrants, arranged for vehicles and stash houses, conducted surveillance along the border, and even secured the tools used to breach the wall.
Cracking the case
HSI says another associate turned informant after getting arrested himself. They say he provided them the information they needed to break the case and make an arrest.
The informant told investigators Noguez had tried to recruit him for smuggling operations on several occasions, including for the March 2 event.
According to the complaint:
"...two weeks prior to the March 2, 2021, smuggling event,-HSI Statement - Noguez Complaint
CRUZ attempted to recruit SOI 1 to drive one of the smuggling vehicles north from Mexico into the United States through a section of the fence that CRUZ said would be breached. CRUZ told SOI 1 that there would be up to 20 people in the vehicle and that SOI 1 would be paid $1,000 per person for the job. CRUZ also told SOI 1 that CRUZ would oversee the smuggling event and would arrange for the vehicles that crossed to go to a stash house in Holtville, California."
The complaint says the informant declined that offer, only to have Noguez ask him to deliver tools to the people in charge of breaching the border wall.
HSI says subsequent investigation confirmed many of the informant's claims, including his identification of the suspect's truck. Investigators say Border Patrol recorded a similar truck scouting the location of the border breach in the days preceding the crash. In addition, Customs and Border Protection officers confirm they have multiple images of Noguez crossing the border legally in his truck, as well as on foot.
Investigators say the critical moment in their case came three weeks after the crash, on March 26. They say that's when their informant captured a conversation with Noguez on tape. They say the recording leaves little doubt as to their suspect's pivotal role in the operation, and confirms all the informant's claims.
"...including that his associates cut the border fence; that the-HSI Statement - Noguez Complaint
vehicles were fully loaded and that he collected money for the event. Further, CRUZ stated there were 60 "Pollos" in the two vehicles and the driver was going to make $28,000."
Noguez returns to federal court Monday for a detention hearing. If convicted of all charges, he could face more than 30 years in prison.
Stay with KYMA.com, News 11, and CBS 13 for continuing coverage of this developing story.