4 more people arrested in connection with smuggling tragedy that killed 53 in San Antonio

Tuesday marks one year since trailer was found on Quintana Road on Southwest Side

SAN ANTONIO – Four Mexican nationals have been arrested in connection with a human smuggling operation that killed 53 people one year ago in San Antonio.

U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza announced the arrests during a news conference Tuesday in San Antonio.

Riley Covarrubias-Ponce, 30; Felipe Orduna-Torres, 28; Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal, 37; and Armando Gonzales-Ortega, 53, are charged with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death, conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy, transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death and transportation of illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy, Esparza said. The suspects could face life in prison.

Two other men already charged in the case, Homero Zamorano and Christian Martinez, are scheduled to go on trial on Sept. 11, Esparza said.

According to a federal superseding indictment, the six suspects worked together to transport men, women and children from Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras into the U.S.

Each of the immigrants paid up to $15,000 to the smugglers to be transported, the indictment said. The fee normally included at least three “attempts” to smuggle the immigrants into the U.S. If the immigrant was caught by U.S. law enforcement at or near the border and deported, the organization would smuggle them into the U.S. again for no additional fee.

The smugglers worked together by using each other’s routes, guides, stash houses, trucks, trailers, and transporters, the indictment said. The team work enabled the smugglers to consolidate costs, spread out risk, and operate more profitably.

The indictment alleges that the immigrants were each given a “clave,” or code word, to provide at various points along their journey that proved that the immigrant was a “customer” of a smuggler who had arranged access for that portion of the journey.

The organization maintained a variety of tractors and trailers that it used to transport immigrants from near the border to San Antonio. Some of the tractors and trailers were stored at a private parking lot in San Antonio, the indictment said.

In the days leading up to the mass fatal discovery, Covarrubias-Ponce, Orduna-Torres and others exchanged the names of the immigrants who would be transported in an upcoming tractor-trailer load. On that fateful day, the suspects secured an empty tractor-trailer and had it ready for Zamorano to pick up, the indictment alleges.

Martinez drove Zamorano from Palestine to a gas station in San Antonio, where Zamorano picked up the empty tractor-trailer, the indictment said.

Zamorano then drove to Laredo, where groups of immigrants were transported in box trucks from stash houses to the location of the tractor-trailer.

Orduna-Torres and Gonzales-Ortega traveled to Laredo to meet the tractor-trailer at the load-up location. At least 66 immigrants were loaded into the back of the 53-foot trailer, including eight children and one pregnant woman.

The immigrants were forced to give up their cellphones prior to entering the trailer. In an effort to mask the smell of human cargo from detection of K-9s at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints, an unknown powder was dispensed in the back of the trailer, the indictment said.

Once the trailer was loaded with immigrants, Zamorano drove on Interstate 35 to San Antonio, where he would unload the human cargo on Quintana Road on the Southwest Side.

Throughout the transport, the suspects coordinated, facilitated, passed messages, and made each other aware of the tractor-trailer’s progress. Some of them knew that the trailer’s air-conditioning unit was not working properly and did not blow any cool air to the immigrants inside, the indictment said.

The indictment also detailed the horrifying and chaotic situation that unfolded inside the trailer. As the temperature inside the trailer rose, some immigrants screamed and banged on the walls for help. Some passed out. Others clawed at the sides of the trailer attempting to escape. They also had no water, authorities previously said.

When the doors to the trailer were opened after the nearly 3-hour trip, 48 of the immigrants were either already dead or died on site, including the pregnant woman. At least two surviving immigrants were immediately transported away by members of the organization, the indictment alleges. Other members fled the location after discovering so many of the immigrants had died. Zamorano was found hiding in the nearby brush by law enforcement.

Sixteen victims were transported to hospitals, where five died. Of the 53 victims, 26 were citizens of Mexico, 21 were citizens of Guatemala, and six were citizens of Honduras, according to the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office. The victims’ ages ranged from 13 to 55 years old.

“The allegations in the indictment are horrifying,” Esparza said. “Dozens of desperate, vulnerable men, women and children put their trust in smugglers who abandoned them in a locked trailer to perish in the merciless south Texas summer. Thanks to our law enforcement partners at the local, state, and federal levels—with Homeland Security Investigations San Antonio Division leading the investigation—we are one step closer to delivering justice for those migrants and their families.”

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite and HSI Special Agent in Charge Craig Larrabee were among several law enforcement officials joining Esparza at the news conference.

You can read the indictment below:

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About the Authors

Rebecca Salinas is an award-winning digital journalist who joined KSAT in 2019. She reports on a variety of topics for KSAT 12 News.

David Ibañez has been managing editor of KSAT.com since the website's launch in October 2000.

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