A smuggler forced 30 illegal immigrants into a vehicle, crushing one of them to death.
The incident took place in southeastern New Mexico earlier this month, according to court documents detailing agents’ interviews with two surviving migrants.
“The group consisted of approximately 30 individuals, and they were told to get into a vehicle meant for 12 occupants. One individual was crushed and died of asphyxiation,” wrote Lucas Gates, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.
“The driver of the vehicle stated they would bring the alien to the hospital. However, the driver dumped the body at an unknown gas station,” Agent Gates wrote, recounting the story told by the surviving migrants, identified as “Material Witness 1” and “Material Witness 2.”
The surviving migrants were taken to a stash house, where some of them said they were being held until relatives paid a $5,000 ransom for their final release.
The witnesses said the smugglers threatened them with guns, too.
When HSI agents moved in on the stash house in Doña Ana County, they found nine illegal immigrants, including a mother and child, as well as three brothers they identified as the ringleaders of the operation. Agents also found a sawed-off shotgun, two military-style rifles, ammunition and body armor.
As the people were being brought out of the house, the migrants who were helping as cooperating witnesses flagged two of the group as illegal immigrants who’d been helping the smugglers, working as caretakers of the stash house.
Customs and Border Protection referred questions to HSI. The Times has asked HSI for more information on the incident and the report of the dead migrant.
The border has become increasingly deadly, with Homeland Security recording a record number of migrant deaths in 2022, according to data obtained by Fox News. Customs and Border Protection has not released those numbers publicly.
Dona Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart said she wasn’t immediately aware of the asphyxiation incident, but said another incident around the same time claimed the lives of two migrants.
She said a smuggler was driving a group of migrants packed into a sedan, with two more in the trunk. The driver crashed the vehicle, killing the two in the trunk and sending the others to the hospital.
The driver was a 15-year-old juvenile without a license.
Sheriff Stewart said juveniles are a prime target for recruitment by the smuggling cartels because the federal government won’t prosecute them and state penalties can be light to nonexistent.
In New Mexico, she said short of a homicide case, juveniles will usually walk free.
The lure of a big payday is enticing for the teens, who can make hundreds of dollars per person they smuggle. Borrowing a parent’s car and making a quick run from the New Mexico border into El Paso can net thousands of dollars.
Smugglers — adult and juvenile — are also increasingly likely to flee from the Border Patrol in high-speed escapes that end in violent crashes.
“Transnational Criminal Organizations continue to recklessly endanger the lives of the migrants they smuggle for their own financial gain and with no regard for human life,” said Peter Jaquez, acting chief patrol agent in the El Paso Sector of the Border Patrol.
Customs and Border Protection earlier this month announced new rules that limit agents’ ability to pursue fleeing migrants.
Agents will no longer be allowed to use a precision immobilization technique — known as the PIT maneuver — to derail a fleeing vehicle. Agents also are discouraged from trying to keep up with a vehicle that’s speeding.
CBP said its goal is to improve safety for agents, migrants and the public at large.
Agents worry that smugglers will use the new rules as loopholes, figuring that the riskier a flight the more likely it is that agents will be forced to give up and allow an escape.
In the smuggling context it can be tricky to track down suspects after the fact, agents said, both because smugglers often use borrowed, stolen or misregistered vehicles and because the drivers are illegal immigrants recruited to drive as part of their payment for being smuggled in.
And even if agents discontinue the pursuit it can still lead to catastrophe.
In a case in Dona Ana County last year agents spotted a smuggling suspect vehicle and tried to stop it but it sped off. Agents gave up and turned off their lights and siren, but the Chevrolet Tahoe sped on, with the driver eventually losing control and flipping the SUV.
There had been 13 migrants in the Tahoe, two of whom were killed in the rollover. All but one of the others were rushed to the hospital.
The smugglers were identified as brothers who’d come into the U.S. illegally and were driving loads of migrants to cover their own smuggling fees.
One brother told agents the smuggling organizers had ordered them not to stop if law enforcement tried to pull them over.