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Woman Is Held as Leader in Deadly Smuggling Case

June 17, 2003|From Associated Press

HOUSTON — Authorities said Monday they have arrested the ringleader of the immigrant smuggling operation that ended in the deaths of 19 people crammed into a stifling trailer.

Prosecutors unsealed an indictment accusing 25-year-old Karla Patricia Chavez and 13 others of having roles in the trip that ended May 14 when the crowded trailer was found abandoned at a truck stop in Victoria, 100 miles southwest of Houston.

Seventeen immigrants died at the scene, and two others died later in what became the nation's deadliest smuggling attempt.

"People who smuggle human beings have thought that nobody really cares about this. Well, people really do care about this," said U.S. Atty. Michael Shelby. Smugglers "have got to know there are severe consequences to severe conduct and that greed carries with it a price."

Chavez, a legal resident of the United States, was arrested Friday trying to enter Guatemala from her native Honduras. She was deported to the United States on Saturday and faces a bail hearing on Thursday.

Chavez is accused of leading a smuggling cell that was in charge of three other rings involved in the operation.

Prosecutors said she set the price per immigrant at $1,500 to $1,900, organized their transport through Mexico and into the United States and arranged safe houses in Texas.

The 14 were charged with various counts of conspiracy to conceal or transport immigrants. Twelve could face the death penalty if prosecutors decide to pursue it.

Nine suspects, including the driver, were in custody Monday, while five remained at large.

The driver of the truck was arrested hours after the victims were discovered.

More than 70 immigrants from Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic were crammed into the tractor-trailer. Among the dead was a 5-year-old boy from Mexico.

Fifty-four immigrants who survived were taken into custody, and most have since been freed.

Prosecutors said those needed as witnesses will be given temporary visas to stay in the United States. The others will be returned home.

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