21 of 23 Goliad wreck victims identified

Jennifer Lee Preyss By Jennifer Lee Preyss

July 30, 2012 at 2:30 a.m.
Updated July 31, 2012 at 2:31 a.m.

Mary Arredondo, Beeville resident, stayed behind to say the rosary after a memorial hosted by interfaith ministeries for the 15 immigrants who died in a one-vehicle wreck last week in Berclair.

Mary Arredondo, Beeville resident, stayed behind to say the rosary after a memorial hosted by interfaith ministeries for the 15 immigrants who died in a one-vehicle wreck last week in Berclair.   Carolina Astrain for The Victoria Advocate

Twenty-one of the 23 illegal immigrants who were involved in a one-vehicle wreck eight days ago near Berclair have been identified, officials said Monday.

The crash killed 15 and injured eight.

Of the two who have yet to be identified, one is a man in his late teens or early 20s, and the other is a woman in her mid to late teens, Department of Public Safety Trooper Gerald Bryant said.

The unidentified man remains hospitalized in San Antonio and the woman is among the 15 deceased, Bryant said.

None of the identities of those involved in the accident have been released, except the driver of the 2000 Ford F-250, Ricardo Mendoza-Pineda, 22, of Mexico, who died at the scene. The remaining 22 passengers were from Honduras and Guatemala.

The wreck occurred about 6:30 p.m. July 22, when the pickup truck's right front tire de-treaded, causing the vehicle to strike a tree about three miles south of Farm-to-Market Road 1351 on U.S. Highway 59.

Gregory Palmore, of the Office of Public Affairs-U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, confirmed Thursday that a Guatemalan man was taken into custody by ICE officials after being released from DeTar Hospital Navarro. He will be required to go through a lengthy administrative process to determine whether he's attempted to enter the country illegally in the past, before his case is seen by a judge from the Executive Office for Immigration Review, a branch of the U. S. Department of Justice, to determine if he qualifies to be deported.

A Guatemalan boy was also released from a San Antonio hospital and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Sean McElroy, deputy special agent in charge for Homeland Security Investigations, said human smuggling in white pickup trucks and other pedestrian vehicles is not uncommon because of their ability to blend in on the highways.

The coyotes, or human smugglers, "look at these people as cargo, they don't look at them as people. They operate like a company," he said, mentioning how the smuggling cartels will often choose to keep their overhead costs down before considering the safe travel of its passengers.

"A panel van is more expensive, and law enforcement looks for them ... and they'll do anything to not get detected."

DPS officials have determined Mendoza-Pineda was bound for Houston the night of the crash, which McElroy confirmed has become a hub in recent years for human smuggling activity.

U.S. Highways 59 and 77 run north from Mexico, and intersect near Victoria. They both eventually intersect with Interstate 10, allowing smugglers to go into Houston and east toward Georgia. From Houston, they also travel north on I-45 toward Dallas.

The loose-knit crime organizations, or loose-knit confederacies, as McElroy calls them, often have points of contact in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and other countries, who can negotiate preliminary travel plans for those interested in crossing the border illegally into the United States. Those who choose to flee their home countries and chance crossing the border, are often ill-prepared for the dangers they may encounter on the journey, McElroy said.

"They understand what they're coming to. They understand it's a difficult journey, but they believe that this is the land of opportunity," he said.

After paying sizable sums to travel from Central America to the United States - Central American natives may spend between $1,200 and $8,000 to cross the Mexico-United States border, depending on their home country - the passengers may encounter unexpected "surcharge" fees by the coyotes once they land in Houston. If they cannot afford the additional fees, which may be as much as $6,000, the immigrants may be sold into human trafficking rings as laborers.

But they are worked 12 to 14 hours a day, every day, with no human rights, trying to pay off the fine. They may be locked up, or have no access to call their relatives. They essentially become slaves - slaves working in the United States.

Others, including children, who cannot afford the fees may be held hostage in stash houses, which are often in blue collar neighborhoods with no furniture, electricity, little food and water.

McElroy said he's encountered stash houses where illegal immigrants are bound with zip ties and garbage bags on their heads, guarded by men with guns.

"It's a very profitable business. There's definitely money in it and they're going to get those profits however they can," he said. "It's very sad, especially when children are involved."

In recent years, smuggling organizations have become more sophisticated in their operations, and are laundering their money differently than in years past.

"And because they're more organized, they're more apt to run from law enforcement," McElroy said.

Even though human smuggling is becoming more common and occurring throughout the year, McElroy is hopeful it can be curtailed if law enforcement can continue to dismantle the smuggling operations and take down its leaders - those behind the scenes making the decisions.

When caught, they are tried in federal court and jailed in the United States rather than deported.

"The focus is to get them in jail because when they're in jail," they can't be involved in smuggling humans across the border," McElroy said.



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