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3 More Arrested in Deaths of 19 Immigrants in Texas

May 20, 2003|Scott Gold | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Calling it the "worst smuggling-related tragedy in the United States," federal authorities said Monday that they have arrested three more people in connection with the deaths of 19 immigrants who were crammed into a tractor-trailer with as many as 80 others.

Fatima Holloway, 28, was arrested and accused of accompanying the rig's driver from the Rio Grande Valley to Victoria, Texas, said the U.S. attorney's office in Houston. Holloway, who was captured on surveillance video buying water for the immigrants at a truck stop early Wednesday, turned herself in in Cleveland, officials said.

Juan Cisneros, 22, and Erica Cardenas, 23, are in federal custody and are accused of delivering the 3-year-old son of one of the immigrants to an undercover agent during a weekend meeting at a mall in McAllen, Texas.

Officials are also searching for Victor Rodriguez, 55, and Emma Rodriguez, 57. A warrant was issued charging the two with harboring at least some of the immigrants at safe houses in Brownsville, Texas, before they boarded the truck.

"This tragic event represents the worst in human behavior," said Michael J. Garcia, acting assistant secretary of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Smugglers are interested in one thing and one thing only, and that is money."

As many as 100 people from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, most seeking work, sneaked across the border and gathered last week in Harlingen, Texas, near the Mexican border. At the instruction of smugglers, officials said, they climbed into the back of a rig for transport to Houston last Tuesday.

Early Wednesday, about 125 miles southwest of Houston, the driver, Tyrone Williams, discovered that many of the immigrants were dying because of the heat and a lack of air. A refrigeration system was either broken or turned off, and the immigrants grew so desperate for air that they ripped through the truck's metal shell.

Williams told officials that he panicked, left the trailer at a truck stop near Victoria and drove to Houston, where he was arrested. Sheriff's deputies found 13 people dead inside the trailer, including a 5-year-old boy, and four others dead on the ground nearby. Two more men died after being taken to hospitals.

Williams, 32, of Schenectady, N.Y., has been charged with transporting immigrants "for the purpose of commercial advantage" and conspiracy to transport immigrants. He faces a life prison term if convicted. Williams' attorney, Craig Washington, could not be reached for comment Monday. Holloway was charged with the same crimes.

Authorities said Monday that they have identified 13 of the 19 victims. Seventeen were from Mexico, one from the Dominican Republic and one from Honduras. They have also confirmed, so far, that 54 people survived -- 40 from Mexico, five from El Salvador and nine from Honduras. Officials said they will never know how many people were aboard the truck because many disappeared into nearby woods when the doors were opened.

The 3-year-old's father is apparently one of the survivors, officials said; the two were trying to reunite with the boy's mother. The father apparently did not want the boy to ride in the truck and paid to have him transported separately, officials said.

An undercover agent, after learning about the boy, made contact with Victor Rodriguez, who allegedly demanded at least $1,300 for the child's release, authorities said. Cisneros was sent to meet with the undercover agent, deliver the boy and collect part of the pay, authorities said, leading to his arrest. The child is now in Houston with his mother.

Charges against Cisneros, Cardenas and the Rodriguezes are expected soon, authorities said. Also, officials are searching for at least three others believed to be involved in the scheme.

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Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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