A federal judge on Thursday sentenced a man to 15 years in prison for coordinating a smuggling trip in which two dozen migrants were stacked into a Ford Expedition that crashed into a tractor-trailer, killing 13 people outside a California desert town.
Jose Cruz Noguez pleaded guilty earlier this year to charges stemming from the March 2, 2021, crash near Holtville, about 125 miles east of San Diego. It was one of the deadliest highway crashes involving migrants smuggled into the United States.
Cruz Noguez also admitted to trying to still get payment for the smuggling trip from the survivors, prosecutors said. Neither Cruz Noguez nor his attorney could be reached for comment.
"Cruz Noguez organized one of the most callous and inhumane smuggling attempts that law enforcement has responded to in this district," U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman said. "He and his co-conspirators treated these individuals like a worthless commodity."
Cruz Noguez arranged for the Ford Expedition and a GMC Yukon to be modified by removing the passenger seats so people could be stacked on top of each other, prosecutors said. He then drove the route north of the border to ensure no law enforcement were in the area.
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At least 24 people were crammed into the Ford Expedition and another 19 were put in the GMC Yukon. A section of the border fence was then removed so the vehicles could drive across the Mexican border into California, prosecutors said.
Shortly after crossing the border, the Yukon caught fire and the driver fled, while the Ford Expedition continued on Interstate 8 towards Holtville. Just outside the town, it slammed into a tractor-trailer, killing 13 people.
When crews arrived at the scene, some passengers were trying to crawl out of the crumpled SUV. Others were wandering around the nearby fields. The big rig’s front end was pushed into the SUV’s left side, and two empty trailers were jackknifed behind it.
The passengers ranged in age from 15 to 53, and those who survived had injuries that were minor to severe, including fractures and head trauma, officials said. The driver was from Mexicali, Mexico, just across the border, and was among those killed.
The 68-year-old driver of the big rig, who is from the nearby California community of El Centro, suffered moderate injuries.
The crash occurred around 6:15 a.m. under a clear, sunny sky at an intersection just outside the community of Holtville, about 11 miles (18 kilometers) north of the border. Authorities said the tractor-trailer was heading north on a highway when the SUV pulled in front of it from a road with a stop sign.
The crash happened in an area that became a major route for illegal border crossings in the late 1990s after heightened enforcement in San Diego pushed migrants to more remote areas.
Barely a mile from the crash, there is a cemetery with rows of unmarked bricks that is a burial ground for migrants who died crossing the border.