EL CENTRO, Calif. (AP) — A Mexican man pleaded guilty Tuesday to coordinating a smuggling effort that left 13 people dead when their overloaded SUV was struck by a big-rig after crossing the border into California two years ago.
Jose Cruz Noguez, 49, of Mexicali, entered pleas in federal court to a charge of conspiracy to bring in undocumented migrants and three counts of bringing in undocumented migrants for financial gain, the U.S. attorney’s office said in a statement. He faces at least 15 years in prison when he is sentenced in June.
Prosecutors said Cruz organized a smuggling run on March 2, 2021, in which dozens of people were crammed into two modified sport utility vehicles that were driven into the United States through a breach cut in the international boundary fence.
One SUV, a GMC Yukon carrying 19 people, caught fire for unknown reasons on a nearby interstate after entering the U.S. Everyone escaped the vehicle and all were taken into custody by the Border Patrol, authorities said.
The other vehicle, a Ford Expedition carrying 25 people, was driving through California’s agricultural Imperial Valley when it was broadsided by a tractor-trailer hauling two empty trailers at an intersection near Holtville, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of San Diego, authorities said.
The crash killed 13 people, including the driver, and left the rest with injuries, many of them major. A 15-year-old girl was among the injured.
Cruz was taken into custody after another suspected smuggler was arrested at a California border station two weeks after the crash.
Froylan Cortez Avalos, 49, of Mexicali also was charged in the case but remains a fugitive.