2 Wharton men among 6 sentenced in human smuggling conspiracy

Six people were sentenced Thursday for their involvement in a conspiracy to harbor and transport illegal immigrants, U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson said Thursday in a news release.

The sentences were handed down by Senior U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack in the Corpus Christi Division of federal court.

The leader of the conspiracy, Armando Olmedo-Trevino, 47, of Wharton, will be sentenced on Nov. 16.

According to testimony, he and others transported and harbored illegal immigrants from Aug. 9, 2002, until Olmedo-Trevino's arrest on Jan. 27.

He began transporting immigrants, then rose to be a leader in the group, running the operation from his home in Wharton.

Cristobal Ochoa, 48, of Falfurrias, oversaw the smuggling of illegal immigrants across ranches in Falfurrias, according to the news release.

Ochoa was sentenced to 63 months in federal prison.

Illegal immigrants would be picked up in the Edinburg area and transported north through one of the border patrol checkpoints in Falfurrias or Sarita.

In most cases, no more than five illegal immigrants would be transported, hidden underneath blankets or luggage in between the seats of a sport utility vehicle or minivan.

But in a few instances, they were transported in other ways, such as in the trunk of a car.

In June, Olmedo and others modified a trailer with a false compartment to conceal up to 15 illegal immigrants, according to the news release.

Other co-conspirators sentenced were Petronilo Sanchez-Jimenez, 42; Norma Leticia Silva-Garcia, also known as Norma Sanchez and Norma Rocha, 38; and Sandro Alvarez-Maldonado, 35, all of Edinburg.

Also sentenced were Oscar Garza-Perales, 28, of Wharton; Donna Simkins, 45, Tracy Howard, 47; and Christian Russo, 39, all of Houston, according to the news release.

Sanchez-Jimenez was responsible for getting illegal immigrants across the border and into stash houses in the Rio Grande Valley until they could be transported north. He was sentenced to 87 months, while Silva-Garcia and Alvarez-Maldonado, who assisted Sanchez-Jimenez in harboring illegal immigrants, received 67 and 51 months, respectively, according to the news release.

Simkins, Howard and Russo began transporting immigrants themselves, but later became recruiters of drivers for the organization. They were sentenced to 80, 87 and 78 months in prison, respectively, according to the news release.

Garza-Perales, a recruiter, was sentenced to 71 months.

Sentencing for the remaining 23 co-conspirators identified in the investigation is scheduled for later this year.

Over the course of the 10-year conspiracy, agents seized about 400 immigrants being transported. Officials estimated the organization transported 40 immigrants a month.

The defendants were identified through a long-term investigation conducted by Homeland Security Immigration.