Deaths of Immigrants Uncover Makeshift World of Smuggling

29.Jun.03,  first published by New York Times: read the original article here.

Karla Patricia Chávez left her home in Honduras when she was only 15, guided across the Mexican border by immigrant smugglers to seek a more prosperous life in the United States.

Now, a decade later, federal prosecutors say that Ms. Chávez has become a smuggler herself, the ringleader of an operation that went disastrously wrong when 19 illegal immigrants died from the oppressive heat in a truck ferrying them through South Texas ˜ the nation's deadliest smuggling incident.

Prosecutors portray Ms. Chávez's group as a sophisticated enterprise that stretched across the United States and six Latin American countries. Here in the border region where she lived, and where the fatal journey began, a different image emerges, of a small-time, often disorganized crime ring in which Ms. Chávez was barely a novice.

Law enforcement officials say that Ms. Chávez's group was typical of those that bring more than a million immigrants across the Mexican border into the United States each year. Unlike narcotics organizations, which are tightly centralized and controlled by powerful dons, immigrant smuggling networks rely on constantly shifting configurations of guides and safe houses from Honduras to Houston and beyond.

Illicit rings of coyotes, as the smugglers are known, are so common in the border area that immigrants often regard them as services rather than criminal syndicates. It is precisely their informality that makes them especially difficult for United States authorities to track, and potentially very dangerous for those who put themselves in the smugglers' hands.

Immigration officials say that women often play leading roles in smuggling rings, because the illicit business rarely sees the kind of gangland violence connected with drug dealing.

Ms. Chávez and her accused associates used technology no more advanced than their cellular telephones and sport utility vehicles, court documents show. They brought immigrants across border rivers on inner tubes, stowed them in their own apartments in low-income housing projects and met each other at welfare offices and truck stops, the documents show.

According to her indictment, Ms. Chávez packed far too many immigrants ˜ at least 77 ˜ into a tractor-trailer that had neither water nor ventilation, for a 325-mile journey in scorching desert heat. Some immigrants who survived the journey had body temperatures of 105 degrees when they were discovered.

When the trip turned to tragedy the crime ring quickly fell apart. The driver, Tyrone Williams, abandoned the trailer full of bodies, then fled to a Houston emergency room overcome with panic.

One smuggler immediately turned on Ms. Chávez, blaming her to the victims' families, who alerted immigration agents.

Ms. Chávez fled to her family home in Honduras, a refuge where American agents tracked her until her arrest on June 14, after she had left Honduras for Guatemala. She has been charged with recklessly causing the deaths of 17 of the immigrants who were immediately identified. Prosecutors have said they may seek the death penalty.

"You do not know what awaits me," Ms. Chávez wept to a relative who tried to reassure her when she called Honduras from a Houston detention center a few days after her capture. "I think they are going to kill me."

In interviews in Honduras, Ms. Chávez's relatives recalled a time when she was a sixth-grade beauty queen and devoted Sunday school student. She left home when she was a teenager, with only a sixth-grade education. But she was already a veteran on assembly lines in blue-jeans factories in Honduras.

Making Neighbors Aware

In Combes, Tex., a run-down suburb north of Harlingen, Ms. Chávez announced her presence in a neighborhood of plain-colored homes by painting her own bright pink, prompting neighbors to call it "the Barbie house."

Neighbors said they noticed a steady stream of vans and pickup trucks at the house, which Ms. Chávez had shared with Heriberto Flores Rebollar, the Mexican man she called her husband. He was the father of her three children, although law enforcement officials said they believed the couple never married.

In a neighborhood where people commonly gather out front after sunset, Ms. Chávez and Mr. Flores kept to themselves, and put up a six-foot wooden fence around their house about a year ago.

"We knew something was going on ˜ this town is too small," said the Combes chief of police, James B. Parker, "but we didn't know what."

Still, the neighbors' suspicions were softened by their view of Ms. Chávez as a working mother, watching over her young sons as they rode tricycles in the street. She sewed blue jeans at a nearby Levi's plant until it closed last August, according to neighbors and a statement she gave to her lawyers.

Neighbors recalled that on Mother's Day ˜ three days before the deadly incident ˜ a group of men gathered in front of Ms. Chávez's house to serenade her in Spanish, the only language she spoke.

"I figured if anybody was doing anything, it's the men," said Sandra Vela, who lives across the street. "She was too nice."

The authorities say it remains unclear how Ms. Chávez got into smuggling. But court documents show that Mr. Flores had been on law enforcement radar as a smuggler even before Ms. Chávez arrived in this country.

Mr. Flores had left his home village, in remote mountains in the Mexican State of Guerrero, when he was 13, dropping out of school after second grade, his sister and mother said in interviews there. After he settled in the United States, Mr. Flores was deported to Mexico three times ˜ in 1989, 1995, and 2001 ˜ after he was convicted or pleaded guilty to smuggling charges under a long list of aliases.

He kept coming back. The couple bought the house in Combes, paying $49,500, shortly after he returned from his third deportation. Apparently he felt so little concern about being caught at the border that he and Ms. Chávez made a vacation trip to visit his family in Mexico last summer.

But last October, Mr. Flores turned up in the Cameron County Jail in Brownsville, Tex., where he was caught by Border Patrol agents in a raid for illegal immigrants. He pleaded guilty in federal court to violating his deportation, and in April was sentenced to 70 months in prison.

Ms. Chávez has told relatives in Honduras and her lawyer, Jeffrey Sasser, that she and Mr. Flores had split up before he was incarcerated. Mr. Sasser said she claimed that she did not know where he was in prison.

No Criminal Record Found

So far, her lawyers have not found that she has any criminal record. Law enforcement officials said the fatal operation appeared to have been her first major smuggling run.

"It seems to me that this might have been her first big job since her boyfriend's arrest, and it went terribly wrong," one immigration official said. "Rookie hour turned deadly, and now she's facing big-time punishment."

Officials compare the smuggling rings that ply their trade across the Mexican border to drug cartels in terms of their proliferation and international reach. But a law enforcement official in Mexico said immigrant smuggling, in contrast to narcotics, was "ant's work."

The rings are loose-knit, ad hoc collaborations, with one group moving immigrants into Mexico, another taking them north towards the United States, a third taking them on the often perilous trip across the border, and no one in overall command.

The profits are big. In Mexico alone, law enforcement officials estimate that smuggling nets about $1 billion a year. But because there are so many smugglers involved in each journey, each one gets just a small piece of the pie.

The indictment against Ms. Chávez charges that she relied on a loose network of other smugglers to connect with immigrants and bring them to South Texas. Several of the 13 people who are accused of collaborating with her had been convicted or pleaded guilty to smuggling charges.

According to court papers, the Rodriguez family ˜ Víctor, his wife, Emma, and son Víctor Jesús ˜ brought immigrants across the border and held them in their two homes on a busy Brownsville street. Claudia Carrizales, a cook at a tiny taco restaurant that Ms. Chávez had rented a few weeks earlier, is said to have taken food to the safe houses. Abelardo Flores and Alfredo García are accused of recruiting Mr. Williams, whose truck was normally used to transport milk and melons.

In most cases the deals were as simple as this: in a Fiesta Mart in Houston, a shopper, Josefina González, overheard two strangers talking about relatives who were going to be smuggled, and asked them how she might do the same for her granddaughter in Mexico. They gave her the name of Norma Sánchez, part owner of a Mexican restaurant in a strip mall in North Houston.

Ms. Sánchez, according to court documents, offered the woman what she said was a discount price for a first-time customer: $1,900. She told Ms. Gonzalez to direct her granddaughter to a hotel in the Mexican border city of Reynosa.

Death Near Destination

The trailer truck was to be the final leg of the journey for the young woman and other immigrants from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic, who had reached Harlingen by a variety of routes and means. Many of the Mexicans told investigators they took buses to the border and crossed without the aid of a coyote. A guide from Ms. Chávez's hometown led a group of 10 Hondurans on buses through Guatemala and trains across Mexico, then helped them wade across the Rio Grande at night.

With heightened patrols since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the smugglers' work no longer ends once immigrants cross the border. Now they want to move clandestinely at least as far as Houston.

That was Ms. Chávez's work. Prosecutors said she made the decision that enough immigrants were assembled in at least three safe houses to proceed with the truck trip north. She is accused of working directly with the two men who recruited Mr. Williams, who said in sworn testimony that he had been offered $5,000 to transport the immigrants from Harlingen to Houston.

On the evening of May 13, at least two men loaded the immigrants ˜ who may have numbered as many as 100 ˜ onto Mr. Williams's truck in an open field and closed the door from the outside, while the driver remained in the cab.

In telephone interviews, two of the Honduran immigrants said they protested and asked for smaller vehicles. But they said the smugglers told them that the trailer was a better way to avoid detection by the border patrol.

Only three hours later, 17 of the people in the truck, including a 5-year-old Mexican boy, were dead of heat stroke and dehydration. Mr. Willia ms opened the rear door at a gas station just south of Victoria, Tex., the court documents show. An unknown number of immigrants fled into fields around the station. Immigration officials took 55 survivors into custody, including Ms. Gonzalez's granddaughter. Another two immigrants died later in hospitals.

Ms. Chávez turned up days later at the adobe home of her eldest brother, Carlos Alberto Chávez, in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula. He and his wife, Sonia, said in interviews that Ms. Chávez's homecoming was marred by sleepless nights and outbursts of weeping. For 23 days, she almost never left the house, they said.

Her father, Vicente Chávez, said his daughter spoke very little about her new life in Texas, but mostly seemed content with small talk about old times. Sonia Chávez lamented that Karla seemed to have developed a strong taste for material things.

"The more you have, the more you want," she said."And it was not important to her how she got it."

Ms. Chávez left her children in her brother's care, and was arrested when she crossed from Honduras into Guatemala by car. After they learned of her arrest, her relatives struggled to understand why she had come home to them.

"I think Karla came back to see who she was," said her father sadly, "because she did not like the person she had become."

When she was arrested, Ms. Chávez was carrying the United States birth certificates of her three sons. Her lawyer and her mother say she still wants them to finish her dream, to grow up in this country, as Americans.