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Homeland Security

Washington File

17 June 2003

U.S. Indicts Accused Smugglers of Aliens from Mexico, Central America

(Major smuggling operation resulted in deaths of 19 people) (810)
By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- The U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston, Texas, has
indicted the alleged ringleader of a major smuggling operation, which
resulted in the deaths of 19 undocumented aliens.
The aliens were found dead in a trailer after it had been abandoned
May 14 in Victoria, Texas, by a driver bound for Houston. A total of
55 undocumented aliens are known to have survived the ill-fated
journey. The undocumented aliens -- who were from Mexico, El Salvador,
Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala -- had each been charged about
$1,800 for the trip.
At a June 16 press conference in Houston, U.S. Attorney Michael Shelby
said Karla Patricia Chavez Joya -- the alleged ringleader -- and 13
others have been charged in a 58-count federal indictment for
conspiracy, smuggling, endangering the lives of the immigrants, and
causing the deaths of the 17 people whose bodies have been identified
so far.
Shelby said that "from the beginning, our objective has been to
identify and hold accountable all those responsible for this tragedy,
wherever they might be found."
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston said the
smugglers are charged with offenses which are "death penalty
eligible." A decision to seek the death penalty would be made by the
U.S. Attorney General "after a careful review of the evidence in the
case," said the spokesperson.
Chavez, a native of Honduras who had a residence in the border town of
Harlingen, Texas, was accused of concealing and harboring aliens upon
their arrival in the United States at drop houses in Harlingen. She
was said to recruit drivers to transport the aliens to points within
the United States, and is further alleged to be responsible for
coordinating and providing for the transportation within this country
of undocumented aliens smuggled and harbored by other traffickers.
The 25-year-old Chavez was taken into custody by Guatemala officials
June 13 as she entered Guatemala from Honduras, where she had fled
following the events in May. Chavez was deported by Guatemalan
authorities the next day and arrested by agents of the U.S. Bureau of
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as her flight touched down
in Houston.
Shelby said the arrest of Chavez in Guatemala "and the return of this
indictment are proof of our continued commitment" to apprehending
those responsible for the Harlingen tragedy.
Michael Garcia, ICE's acting assistant secretary, said that "this
senseless loss of life in Victoria serves as a grim reminder of the
horrific conditions people experience at the hands of smugglers."
Garcia said his agency "will continue to vigorously pursue all
smugglers and bring them to justice."
The spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office said greed, not
charity, is the motivation for smuggling aliens into the United
"We emphasize the fact that (the smugglers) are not engaged in this
criminal enterprise for ... altruistic reasons to help someone find an
American dream. They're in it for the money," said the spokesperson.
Shelby, the U.S. attorney, said he wanted to send a message to
smugglers that they couldn't get away with their alleged crimes.
"These people have to realize that there are consequences, that greed
carries with it a price," Shelby said.
The danger of using smugglers is continually being broadcast on
English- and Spanish-language stations along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Just recently, the United States and Mexico launched a new bi-national
campaign to dramatically reduce migrant deaths on their common border.
The plan, announced June 3, called for the two countries to accelerate
mutual collaboration to safeguard migrants by placing additional
personnel and life-saving equipment along the border, paying special
attention to the "high-risk" corridor between the U.S. state of
Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.
The plan includes new U.S. Border Patrol Spanish-language public
service announcements that warn potential migrants about the risks of
trusting smugglers to bring them into the United States, and the
dangers and consequences of illegal crossings.
A 2002 U.S. government report said that threats from terrorists, alien
smugglers, and organized criminals are serious international problems
affecting democratic societies everywhere. The report said the volume
and sophistication of alien-smuggling organizations have increased
dramatically in recent years, threatening U.S. national security.
The report, by the former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service
(now part of the Department of Homeland Security), said that
"simultaneous, coordinated efforts" between the United States and
other countries are "key" to the U.S. overseas deterrence strategy,
and send "a clear message to those who would traffic in human beings."
The United States and its partners are committed "to pursuing
smugglers wherever they operate," the report concluded.
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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