Suspected migrant smuggler arrested in deadly El Centro crash

Investigators look over the scene of a deadly crash
Investigators look over the scene of a deadly crash March 2 on State Highway 115 near the U.S.-Mexico border. The SUV, overloaded with undocumented immigrants, crashed into a big rig. Thirteen people died, and 12 were injured.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A man suspected of orchestrating the cross-border breach that ended in a mass-casualty car crash earlier this month near El Centro has been arrested on charges of human smuggling.

The arrest Monday night of Jose Cruz Noguez, a 47-year-old resident of Mexicali, Mexico, is the first linked to the March 2 crash that killed 13 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants and injured 12. The suspected driver of the overloaded Ford Expedition was among those killed.

Cruz, a legal permanent U.S. resident, was arrested as he crossed into the U.S. from Mexico at the Calexico port of entry. He pleaded not guilty Thursday in El Centro federal court to charges related to human smuggling.


The investigative trail leading to Cruz began with another smuggler, who was arrested by Border Patrol two weeks after the crash in an unrelated incident, according to the probable-cause statement filed with the criminal complaint. The unnamed smuggler, who grew up in Mexicali, told agents he had known Cruz for years and began smuggling for him in the past six months, the court records state.

He identified Cruz as an organizer behind the March 2 breach and told agents that Cruz had repeatedly recruited him to be involved in the operation in various ways, according to the affidavit.

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The smuggling involved two vehicles: the Expedition and a GMC Yukon, both of which were seen by Border Patrol cameras entering the U.S. through a breach in the fence at 5:23 a.m., near the Gordons Well exit off Interstate 8. A 10-foot section of the fence was on the ground nearby.

By 6 a.m., the Yukon had caught on fire, forcing its 19 occupants to flee into nearby brush. Border Patrol agents put out the fire and apprehended the 19 people.

At 7 a.m., the Expedition collided with a big rig in the farming community of Holtville. The large SUV had all but the front seats removed, apparently to crowd in as many people as possible.

The unnamed smuggler told investigators that two weeks before the crash, Cruz had tried to recruit him to drive one of the vehicles, which would be loaded with up to 20 migrants and would earn him $1,000 per person, according to the affidavit. Cruz also allegedly asked the smuggler to obtain cutting tools to deliver to another associate in Mexico. The smuggler said he declined the offer.


Cruz tried again the day before the smuggling was to happen, going to the smuggler’s home in El Centro to ask if he would meet up with the vehicles once they’d crossed and take them to a drop house in Holtville. The smuggler said he would think about it.

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The next morning, Cruz was seen on a video doorbell going to the smuggler’s home. The two men didn’t meet, but Cruz called a few hours later asking for help scouting the vehicles on the U.S. side, since he’d lost track of them. The smuggler agreed, but news of the crash broke before he left home.

Agents with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations confirmed Cruz’s involvement through other means, including identifying his truck in the U.S., possibly scouting the location of the breach and via a phone number associated with a wire transfer linked to the smuggling, according to court records.

On Friday, the cooperating smuggler made a recorded call to Cruz, who confirmed that his associates had cut the border fence and that he’d collected money for the smuggling effort, according to the affidavit.

In the call, which Cruz did not know was being recorded by law enforcement, Cruz stated that there were 60 “pollos” — a Spanish slang term for undocumented immigrants paying to be smuggled — in the two vehicles and that the driver had been set to make $28,000 from the job, the affidavit states.

“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,” Randy Grossman, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California, said in a statement Tuesday. “Cramming dozens of people into eight-passenger vehicles and driving recklessly to avoid detection shows an utter disregard for human life.”


The cause of the crash remains under investigation.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.