Saturday, May 18, 2024

Prosecutors charge men with smuggling 22 people in tank of water truck

Federal prosecutors have charged two men with smuggling 22 people in the tank of a water truck. 

Prosecutors charged Antonio Varela-Verdugo, a U.S. citizen, and Gilberto Villalva, a citizen of Mexico, with conspiracy to transport illegal aliens. A conviction on that charge carries up to 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, or both, and a term of up to three years supervised release.

The complaint alleges that Varela-Verdugo and Villalva conspired to smuggle 22 undocumented noncitizens in the tank of a water truck. 

The truck attracted attention long before the arrests on Oct. 23. 

For several weeks, Yuma Sector Border Agents had suspected that the white water truck with a California license plate was involved in smuggling people. They saw it often in and around Yuma and the surrounding area. The water truck did not have signage indicating its owner or company affiliation.

On the day of the arrests, Yuma agents followed the water truck with a drone, among other means of surveillance, from California into Yuma, Arizona, where the water truck stopped at a local house, according to the federal complaint.

Across the street, a Honda Civic, driven by Villalva, was suspected of waiting to guide the water truck to a local stash-house, according to prosecutors.

Agents stopped both vehicles after leaving the stash-house and discovered 22 people, all citizens of Mexico, in the tank of the water truck.

Varela-Verdugo told agents that he had been living in Mexicali, Mexico, for more than a year and had attempted to enter the U.S. without success. He said he was approached by an unknown man in Mexicali about crossing the border. 

He said that before entering the U.S., the group was asked by three armed men if any of them knew how to drive a large truck. When Varela-Verdugo said that he did, the men told him that he would be driving the water truck that would eventually pick up the entire group and take them further into the United States. Varela-Verdugo claimed that he was essentially forced to drive the water truck at gunpoint.