A 26-year old Honduran immigrant who resided in Harlingen, TX pleaded guilty to charges alleging coordination of a human smuggling operation that resulted in the deaths of 19 illegal aliens in May 2003. The immigrants died in sweltering heat as they were transported illegally via a commercial refrigerated trailer with no ventilation or air conditioning into Southern Texas.
Karla Chávez faces a maximum penalty of life in prison at a sentence hearing set for Sept. 13. 2004.
A videotaped statement, backed by indicted and un-indicted co-conspirators, as well as surviving members of the group of illegal aliens, is set to establish Chávez as the ringleader in the operation. Chávez reportedly demanded payment of smuggling fees (approximately $1,800) and coordinated via cell phone with five other smugglers who placed the total of 74 aliens in the deadly trailer.
Tyrone Mapletoft Williams, 31, a long-haul driver formerly residing in Schenectady, NY, and Fatima Holloway, 29, transported the 74 immigrants from the Rio Grande Valley bound for Houston. Williams was promised $5,000 and now faces the death penalty if convicted.
Victoria County Sheriff Mike Ratcliff told Fleet Owner that prior to leaving, the refrigeration unit was not operational, although he doesn’t know the reason. A “few” bottles of water were purchased for the 74 passengers before leaving. Williams stopped at a gas station to buy more water but 17 of the passengers were already dead from the heat and two more died shortly afterward. Air holes were found on the trailer, created by the aliens. Williams subsequently abandoned the trailer and was later apprehended.
Chávez reportedly smuggled aliens from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and other countries on four previous occasions by the same method. Guatemalan officials arrested Chávez on June 13, 2003 upon her entry there from Honduras.
Abelardo Flores, Jr., 33, said that he worked with Chávez and another smuggler in recruiting Williams and other truck drivers to transport the aliens.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office is working to establish that based on testimonies from cooperating smugglers and surviving immigrants that the smugglers were driven purely by personal financial gain— not charity.
A total of 14 people were charged by indictment for their involvement in that human-trafficking operation.