Two human smugglers pleaded guilty in an Arizona federal court to hauling a group of migrants into the U.S. in a nearly freezing tractor-trailer.
Jesus Lopez, a 31-year-old U.S. citizen, and Alberto Gastelum Mercado, a 47-year-old Mexican national, pleaded guilty in federal court to the transportation of illegal aliens for profit and conspiracy to transport illegal aliens for profit, Nogales International reported on Wednesday. The conviction follows their arrest in connection with the smuggling of 18 illegal aliens in a refrigerated truck in October 2018.
Border Patrol agents observed a refrigerated tractor-trailer approaching the Interstate 19 Immigration Checkpoint on October 22, 2018, Breitbart News reported. During a non-intrusive inspection with x-ray equipment, agents discovered two Guatemalan nationals and 16 Mexican nationals hiding in the trailer with the regular cargo. At least one of the migrants was a 15-year-old minor. The agents reported the temperature inside the trailer was 36 degrees.
The local newspaper reported from court documents:
Lopez transported five of the immigrants to the truck stop in Nogales. When interviewed by investigators, four described being dropped off at the truck stop in a red SUV that matched the description of Lopez’s vehicle. Two said the driver had a marijuana leaf tattooed on the back of his head – which matched a tattoo Lopez had – and they also picked him out of a photo lineup.
Gastelum admitted to being offered $500 per illegal immigrant to haul the human cargo in his trailer. He also admitted to placing a customs seal on the trailer after loading it with the 18 migrants, the newspaper reported. He was told to meet another vehicle somewhere along the route to California.
“Gastelum intentionally or recklessly created a substantial risk of death or serious bodily injury to the illegal aliens when he placed them in a trailer that was set at 36 degrees Fahrenheit,” the plea agreement stated. “Border Patrol agents had to use bolt cutters to release the illegal aliens from the trailer and found them huddled together for warmth.”
Border Patrol agents were forced to use bolt cutters to open the locked trailer. The migrants would not have been able to escape from the truck in the event of an accident or abandonment by the smugglers.
Lopez and Gastelum could face up to 33 months and 57 months respectively in sentencing hearings scheduled for March 8 and March 4.