Imperial County

Man Charged With Smuggling After California Crash Kills 13

Thirteen people were killed in the crash near El Centro, California, while 13 others were hospitalized with major and moderate injuries

Authorities respond to the scene of a deadly crash involving an SUV and a big rig in Imperial County on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
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Charges were filed Tuesday against a Mexicali, Mexico, man accused of coordinating a smuggling run that ended with the deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan nationals crammed in an SUV with more than a dozen others.

Jose Cruz Noguez, 47, is facing federal charges for his role in the smuggling attempt that came to a deadly end on State Route 115 in the town of Holtville, just east of El Centro, California, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. The attempt involved two SUVs with more than 43 passengers, one of which crashed with a semi-truck.

Details of Cruz Noguez's plan for the March 2 smuggling run were laid out in a secretly-recorded conversation Cruz had with an associate on March 26.

NBC 7's Dave Summers has the latest details from law enforcement and medical officials.

Cruz Noguez allegedly tried to recruit the associate to drive one of the SUVs weeks prior, offering him $1,000 per passenger. He also told his associate his plan was to bring the passengers to a stash house in Holtville, meaning the SUV may not have been far from its destination when it collided with the semi-truck.

Prosecutors also said Cruz Noguez, in other instances, organized transport for people in the U.S. illegally to and from stash houses, collected smuggling payments from family members or sponsors, and recruited drivers.

Cruz Noguez was taken into custody Monday night as he crossed into the U.S. at the Calexico Port of Entry.

His associate was arrested at the Campo Border Patrol Station after an unrelated smuggling incident on March 15, two weeks after the deadly crash, according to the U.S. Attorney's office.

Cruz Noguez has permanent resident status in the U.S. and has spent some time in San Jose, the U.S. Attorney's office said.

Cruz Noguez is facing Conspiracy to Bring Aliens to the United States Outside a Port of Entry Causing Serious Bodily Injury, and Bringing Aliens Without Presentation for Financial Gain. The first charge carries a 20-year maximum sentence, while the second carries anywhere from three to 15 years. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for April 13, followed by an arraignment on April 27.

“These smuggling networks seek maximum profit by moving as many people as possible across the border with zero regard for their safety and well-being,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “Cramming dozens of people into eight-passenger vehicles and driving recklessly to avoid detection shows an utter disregard for human life. We will find and prosecute smugglers who use these methods and cause such tragic and avoidable deaths.”

Imperial County confirmed the identities of 13 SUV passengers killed in the crash a few days after the CHP identified others who were injured.

Deceased

  • Yesenia Cardona, 23, of Guatemala City, Guatemala.
  • Jairo Dueñas, 28, of Mexicali, Mexico.
  • Carolina Ramirez Perez, 32.
  • Jesus Gilberto Romero Rojas, 19.
  • Raquel Aparicio Martinez, 39.
  • Maria Isabel Boyzo Patino, 34.
  • Rosalia Garcia Gonzalez, 32.
  • Magdalena Elizabeth Lopez Escobar, 20.
  • Maria Guadalupe Mendez Vargas, 49.
  • Felix Josefino Medina Rodriguez, 53.
  • Jose Rogelio Orozco Mendez, 51.
  • Gumaro Samuel Ramirez Cortez, 39.
  • Arnulfo Talavera Mora, 42.

Injured

  • Rene Zelando, 30, of Nayarit, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • Berti Orozco, 21, of Guatemala City, Guatemala. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • Zeterina Mendoza, 33, Guerrero, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • Camillo Rodriguez, 44, of Santa Maria Del Oro, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at UC San Diego Medical Center.
  • A 16-year-old from Guerrero, Mexico. Treated for major injuries at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego County.
  • Berlin Cardona , 46, of Guatemala City, Guatemala. Treated for major injuries at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego County.
  • Darlin Liliana Robledo, 20, of Tapachula, Mexico. Treated for moderate injuries at El Centro Regional Medical Center in El Centro, California.
  • Avelardo Nava, 18, of Guerrero, Mexico. Treated for moderate injuries at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California.
  • Manuel Rufino, 39, of Oaxaca, Mexico. Treated for moderate injuries at Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California.
  • Jorge Gutierrez Martinez, 24. Treated for major injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California.
  • Esteban Montiel, 22. Treated for major injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California.
  • "Jane Doe," 15. Treated for major injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, California.

The driver of the big rig, 68-year-old Joe Beltran from El Centro, was treated for moderate injuries at Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs.

After the crash, the Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation to determine if the SUV was tied to a human smuggling operation. The next day, U.S. Border Patrol confirmed via surveillance footage that the SUV that the Ford Expedition, the SUV that eventually crashed, and a Chevy Suburban SUV carrying 19 people breached the border through a gap in the fence about 30 miles east of the crash site.

The Suburban broke down on a nearby highway and all of its passengers were taken into custody by Border Patrol.

The Crash

The CHP and National Transportation Safety Board have yet to determine what caused the Expedition to cross into the path of the semi-truck on Route 115 in Holtville, California, about 100 miles east of Downtown San Diego.

A 1997 Ford Expedition can carry a maximum payload of 2,000 pounds. If it had 25 people inside, that would easily exceed the payload limit, taxing the brakes and making it tougher to steer the vehicle, Frank Borris, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Office of Defects Investigation, told the Associated Press.

The Expedition had a driver and front passenger seat but no rear seats, leaving most of the passengers unrestrained in the back, according to CHP Chief Omar Watson.

Several of the SUV's passengers were ejected from the SUV at impact and thrown onto the highway.

Several of the injured passengers were rushed to area hospitals and later life-flighted to UC San Diego Medical Center in San Diego and Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla.

Authorities said the surviving patients' injuries ranged from fractures to life-threatening head injuries.

Authorities respond to the scene of a deadly crash involving an SUV and a big rig in Imperial County on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.
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Authorities respond to the scene of a deadly crash involving an SUV and a big rig in Imperial County on Tuesday, March 2, 2021.

What We Know About the Victims

Yesenia Cardona
Rudy Dominguez told NBC 7 his sister Berlin Cardona, 47, and her daughter Yesenia Cardona, 22, risked their lives leaving Guatemala for the chance of a better life in the U.S.

His sister survived the crash but his niece didn't make it.

"We don’t want to die in our country," Dominguez said. "That’s why we take this type of risk."

The injured woman was taken to Scripps Mercy Hospital, where NBC 7's Melissa Adan spoke to her heartbroken brother.

Dominguez had last heard from his loved ones the day before the crash when they were in Mexicali, Mexico, the town across the border from Calexico.

He realizes his sister and niece entered the U.S. illegally, but he said they did so due to the desperation they were living with in their daily lives in Guatemala.

"We take a chance," Dominguez said. "We don’t want to die over there. We take a chance to come here and see our dream come true."

Jairo Dueñas
Sofia Castañeda had a terrible feeling her husband Jairo Dueñas, 28, was involved in the crash, and on Thursday her worst fear was realized.

"This is something I don't wish on anyone," Catsañeda told Telemundo 20.

Until she heard the news officially, Castañeda had been calling her husband's phone, hoping he'd pick up.

The couple was excited to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in June, and Dueñas was traveling to California so they could have a grand ceremony in a church. He had also set his sites on the U.S. with the hopes of chasing the American Dream and providing a better life for his family.

The father of two worked as a baker in Mexicali. His 9-year-old son Jairo said his dad's bread is one of the things he'll miss most.

Castañeda said she has to wait longer than normal for her husband's body to be brought back to Mexicali because of the Homeland Security investigation.

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