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Man charged with smuggling in deadly Imperial County crash

California Highway Crash Imperial County Holtville SUV
Posted at 4:03 PM, Mar 30, 2021

HOLTVILLE, Calif. (KGTV) -- A man has been charged for smuggling-related offenses after a crash killed 13 Mexican and Guatemalan nationals in Holtville in early March.

Jose Cruz Noguez of Mexicali, Mexico, was charged in federal court Tuesday with coordinating the March 2 smuggling event, according to the office of acting U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of California Randy Grossman.

Cruz was charged with "conspiracy to bring aliens to the United States outside a port of entry causing serious bodily injury/placing life in jeopardy" and "bringing in aliens without presentation for financial gains," a release from Grossman's office said.

Cruz made his first appearance in a federal courtroom in El Centro on Tuesday. He's next scheduled for a detention hearing on April 5.

Authorities say Cruz came to the attention of law enforcement when he was identified by another suspected smuggler. That associate was arrested at the Campo Border Patrol Station on an unrelated smuggling incident on March 15, weeks after the tragic crash in Imperial County.

According to Grossman's office:

"The associate stated that two weeks prior to the March 2, 2021, smuggling event, Cruz attempted to recruit him to drive one of the smuggling vehicles north from Mexico into the United States through a section of the fence that Cruz said would be breached. Cruz told his associate there would be up to 20 people in the vehicle and that the associate would be paid $1,000 per person for the job. According to the complaint, Cruz also told the associate that Cruz would oversee the smuggling event and would arrange for the vehicles that crossed to go to a stash house in Holtville, California. The associate claimed he declined Cruz’s offer."

The release went on to further detail Cruz's alleged involvement in human smuggling:

"The associate told authorities he had grown up in Mexicali, Mexico, and had known Cruz for several years. He said that he illegally entered the United States six months ago and started working for Cruz, who he described as a coordinator. He said Cruz paid him to drive individuals who are in the United States illegally from El Centro, California, to Los Angeles, California. He said Cruz required him to harbor an individual who was illegally in the United States at his home in El Centro, California. In addition, the associate said Cruz required that he scout areas near El Centro, California, where Cruz had groups of people illegally enter the United States. According to the associate, Cruz oversees the transportation of individuals who are in the United States illegally to stash houses; collects smuggling payments from family members or sponsors; recruits drivers; and scouts for the presence of law enforcement."

The March 2 crash happened around 6:15 a.m. when a 1997 Ford Expedition SUV collided with a big rig along State Route 115 at Norrish Road. In total, 25 people had been in the Expedition at the time of the crash.

Twelve people – including the suspected driver – died in the crash. Another passenger died on the way to the hospital. Another 12 people were taken to various hospitals, including in San Diego, to be treated for a range of injuries.

"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," Grossman said in a release. "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."