Smugglers on the run pose traffic risk in South Texas

Federal sentencing expected in fatal pursuit

FALFURRIAS, Texas - Three convicted human smugglers await federal sentencing in April following a fatal overnight pursuit August 6, 2011, in Falfurrias.

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The victim’s family said a Suburban loaded with illegal immigrants being pursued by law enforcement crashed through the bedroom of 70-year-old Bertha Gonzalez as she slept.

Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman in Houston for the U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of Texas, said 21-year-old Marcos Adrian, 34-year-old Romeo Cantu, both of Falfurrias, and 18-year-old Evarardo Hernandez-Salazar, a Mexican national, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge of transporting illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury or placing in jeopardy the life of another person.

Dodge said when they are sentenced April 16, they face up to 20 years in federal prison as a result of Gonzalez’s death and for endangering the lives of the passengers that night.

Christina Gonzalez and Celina DeAses, the victim’s daughters-in-law, said the family had wanted the driver to also face state criminal charges.

“They took somebody’s life just to make an easy buck,” DeAses said.

However, Armando Barrera, the Brooks County district attorney, said it was impossible to pinpoint who was behind the wheel due to the conflicting stories from the passengers.

Barrera said investigators also were given only first names or nicknames.

The district attorney said if the smugglers get the maximum 20-year sentence, it would be equivalent to what they might have gotten if the state had pursued manslaughter charges against the driver.

The family said they also had tried to file a lawsuit against the Falfurrias Police Department.

Christina Gonzalez said they were told by various attorneys, “They can’t do anything for us.”

Capt. Stacy Holland, with DPS Aicraft, said helicopter pilots often see how desperate smugglers take dangerous risks to elude capture.                   

“This is pretty common for these guys to go the wrong way on the interstate or on the highway,” Holland said. “They have no regard for the motoring public.”

Holland described a recent aerial video in the Rio Grande Valley.

He said a smuggler in a stolen truck raced the wrong way on an access road, narrowly sideswiping a vehicle exiting the freeway, zooming past several school buses on a two-lane road, later pulling out in front of traffic before finally crashing into a building and running away.

Click here to watch the video.

Roel Bermea, the police chief in Penitas, a small town within sight of the Rio Grande near Mission, said his residents often panic when they hear sirens.

“That’s their worst fear,” Bermea said. “That’s what they complain about. Why are they speeding and why are we speeding after them?” 

One of Bermea’s officers said he was pursuing a drug smuggler on a gravel road late last year.

“Vehicle was going at a high rate of speed, so I couldn’t really catch up to it. So for my safety, I backed off,” the officer said.

As for Bertha Gonzalez’s family, Nora Salinas, the victim’s niece, said her father was among the hardest hit by her death.

She said Gilberto Perez, the victim’s brother, often is unable to sleep thinking about her.

Naomi Arredondo, the victim’s lifelong friend who lives within sight of the crash scene, said, “She’ll always be with us, but it’s not fair. There is no justice.”

Arredondo said, “Just like it happened to her, it can happen to anybody.”


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