CALEXICO — A man who allegedly coordinated a human smuggling operation that led to a deadly Imperial County traffic crash that killed 13 people and injured several others made his initial court appearance Tuesday, March 30, on federal charges, according to prosecutors in San Diego.
Jose Cruz Noguez, 47, of Mexicali, Mexico, was arrested Monday night as he crossed into the United States at the Calexico Port of Entry, according to the US Attorney's Office. He appeared Tuesday before a federal judge in El Centro on charges of conspiracy to bring aliens to the United States outside a port of entry causing serious bodily injury, placing a life in jeopardy, and bringing in aliens without presentation for financial gain.
The March 2 crash near Holtville killed 13 Mexican and Guatemalan nationals when an SUV carrying the victims crashed into a tractor trailer at the intersection of Norrish Road and Highway 115.
The US Attorney's Office said that following a review of border surveillance camera footage, it appeared two SUVs drove through a cut-open portion of border fence that fell into Mexico sometime prior to the crash.
One of the SUVs broke down on Interstate 8 near Holtville and 19 undocumented immigrants hid in surrounding vegetation but were found and arrested by US Border Patrol agents, according to the US Attorney's Office. The other SUV was involved in the fatal wreck, with a dozen victims dying at the crash scene and another who died at a hospital. Several others were airlifted to hospitals with "significant injuries," the US Attorney's Office said.
In total, 25 people were inside the SUV at the time of the crash, as a subsequent inspection showed that all but the driver and front passenger seats had been removed to accommodate the extra occupancy, prosecutors said.
Six of the survivors were transported to San Diego trauma centers. Assistant US Attorney Timothy Coughlin says some are still hospitalized and humanitarian parole was granted so their family could be with them during this time.
Cruz was allegedly identified by another suspected smuggler who was arrested at the Campo Border Patrol Station for an unrelated smuggling event on March 15, the US Attorney's Office said. That person told investigators that Cruz offered him $1,000 per passenger to be the driver of the vehicle that was ultimately involved in the crash, but he declined, according to the US. Attorney's Office.
Prosecutors said that person later took part in a secretly recorded conversation with Cruz, in which the defendant admitted that his associates cut the border fence and that he received money for the March 2 smuggling event.
"These smuggling networks seek maximum profit by moving as many people as possible across the border with zero regard for their safety and well-being," said Acting US Attorney Randy Grossman. "Cramming dozens of people into eight-passenger vehicles and driving recklessly to avoid detection shows an utter disregard for human life. We will find and prosecute smugglers who use these methods and cause such tragic and avoidable deaths."
The judge ordered Cruz to remain in custody. A detention hearing is scheduled for April 5. A preliminary hearing is set for April 13 and arraignment on April 27.