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Another Defendant Pleads Guilty to Multiple Charges in Fatal Tractor Trailer Smuggling Case

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A Mexican national pleaded guilty in a federal court in San Antonio to four counts related to his involvement in the smuggling of at least 66 migrants in June 2022, which resulted in the deaths of 47 adults and six children. Image for illustration purposes
A Mexican national pleaded guilty in a federal court in San Antonio to four counts related to his involvement in the smuggling of at least 66 migrants in June 2022, which resulted in the deaths of 47 adults and six children. Image for illustration purposes
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U.S. Attorney’s Office, Western District of Texas

SAN ANTONIO – A Mexican national pleaded guilty in a federal court in San Antonio to four counts related to his involvement in the smuggling of at least 66 migrants in June 2022, which resulted in the deaths of 47 adults and six children.

According to court documents, Riley Covarrubias-Ponce aka Rrili aka Rilay, 31, was a member of the human smuggling organization responsible for the failed smuggling attempt that illegally brought adults and children from Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico into the U.S. In the days leading up to June 27, 2022, Covarrubias-Ponce coordinated with other members of the organization regarding the migrants who were being smuggled to Laredo for further transport to San Antonio. Additionally, he traveled from Houston to accompany the loaded tractor trailer as it transported the migrants north on Interstate Highway 35, ultimately ending up at the unloading location on Quintana Road in San Antonio, where it was discovered that many of the smuggled migrants had died.

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Covarrubias-Ponce pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens resulting in death; one count of conspiracy to transport aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy; one count of transportation of illegal aliens resulting in death; and one count of transportation of illegal aliens resulting in serious bodily injury and placing lives in jeopardy. He faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.

Another defendant in the case, Christian Martinez, 29, pleaded guilty to the same charges in September 2023. Other co-defendants whose cases are still pending include Homero Zamorano Jr., 47, who served as the driver of the tractor trailer; Felipe Orduna-Torres aka Cholo aka Chuequito/Chuekito aka Negro, 29; Luis Alberto Rivera-Leal aka Cowboy, 38; and Armando Gonzales-Ortega aka El Don aka Don Gon, 54. Relatedly, Juan Francisco D’Luna Bilbao pleaded guilty to the same charges as Martinez and Covarrubias-Ponce in addition to a firearms charge in June 2023.

U.S. Attorney Jaime Esparza of the Western District of Texas and Special Agent in Charge Craig Larrabee for the HSI San Antonio Division made the announcement.

HSI is investigating the case with the assistance of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and has received tremendous support from Customs and Border Protection; Border Patrol; Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations; the San Antonio Police Department; the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office; the San Antonio Fire Department; the Marshall Police Department; and the Palestine Police Department.

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Assistant U.S. Attorneys Eric Fuchs, Sarah Spears and Amanda Brown are prosecuting the case.

These charges resulted in coordination with Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA). The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas is part of the JTFA, which was established by Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in June 2021 to marshal the investigative and prosecutorial resources of the Department of Justice, in partnership with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to enhance U.S. enforcement efforts against the most prolific and dangerous human smuggling and trafficking groups operating in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Task Force focuses on disrupting and dismantling smuggling and trafficking networks that abuse, exploit, or endanger migrants, pose national security threats, and are involved in organized crime. JTFA consists of federal prosecutors and attorneys from U.S. Attorneys’ Offices along the Southwest Border (District of Arizona, Southern District of California, Southern District of Texas, and Western District of Texas), from the Criminal Division and the Civil Rights Division, along with law enforcement agents and analysts from DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection’s U.S. Border Patrol, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

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