Final defendant in illegal cigarettes case sentenced

The final defendant in a case involving the sale and distribution of illegal cigarettes was sentenced to time served during a hearing last week.

The court handed down a time-served sentence for Luis Enrique Vázquez De La Cruz on Thursday after the man served nearly 12 months in federal custody, records show.

The sentencing guidelines state Vázquez De La Cruz was expected to receive between 10 to 16 months if convicted of smuggling goods in connection with an investigation revolving around a scheme to move illegal cigarettes from warehouses in the Rio Grande Valley into Mexico, according to the complaint filed against the man and two others, Jose Francisco Guerra, and Juan Carlos Teran Arteaga, 38, of Mexico.

Vázquez De La Cruz had been in custody since Jan. 17, 2020, records show.

Guerra, who ran the warehouse in McAllen where the cigarettes were stored, was given a one-year probation punishment during his sentencing hearing in December, while Teran, who admitted to being the person who supplied the cigarettes, was given a 12-month prison sentence in November, for their roles in the scheme, according to court records.

The case kicked off on Jan. 15, 2020, when a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper pulled over Vázquez De La Cruz, who was driving a trailer containing nearly 17,000 “foreign” cigarettes.

Vázquez De La Cruz, gave the trooper two separate bills of lading, one in English purporting the cargo was used clothes, toys and purses, and the other bill of lading, written in Spanish, stated the cargo was cotton.

During the search, the trooper found 16,800 cigarettes within the trailer.

After this incident, U.S. Homeland Securities Investigations agents received information that Teran was involved in the smuggling of cigarettes on that date.

Teran, who attempted to enter the country through the Anzalduas port of entry on Feb. 10, was held for an interview with HSI agents where he admitted to agents he had provided Vazquez De La Cruz with the fake bills of lading for the cargo he presented to the DPS trooper on Jan. 15.

“Teran stated that he knew the trailer contained contraband cigarettes and that what he was doing was illegal. Teran, stated that he had worked with Vazquez to smuggle the cigarettes from the United States to Mexico,” the court documents state.

Teran further admitted that once the nearly 17,000 cigarettes were seized, he created additional fake documents in order to legitimize the cigarettes.

On Feb. 12, 2020, federal agents were surveilling a warehouse in the 3900 block of West Ursula Avenue in McAllen, and watched as a white van sped away from the warehouse.

“The van left the area of the warehouse and began traveling at a high rate of speed as if it was trying to evade the surveillance team,” the document stated.

Agents subsequently approached Guerra, who was just arriving after leaving in a white van moments earlier.

“Guerra granted (agents) consent to conduct an inspection of the premises. Upon entering the warehouse, (agents) clearly observed 40 cases of unstamped cigarettes outside of the in-bond caged area,” the complaint stated. “(Agents) with the assistance of (task force officers) and a representative of the Government of Mexico Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT) conducted an inspection of the cigarettes in the warehouse.”

After agents arrested Guerra, he made statements admitting his involvement in a scheme to move the cigarettes into Mexico.

“Guerra stated he had been smuggling cigarettes to Mexico in increments of 40 cases (containing approximately 400,000 individual cigarettes) on a regular basis,” the complaint stated. “Guerra stated he was aware that it was illegal to smuggle cigarettes into Mexico.”

The 81-year-old Mission man also admitted he had about 800,000 pounds of cigarettes in his warehouse and stated he planned to illegally smuggle all of them into Mexico.

As part of his plea agreement, Guerra, a licensed customs broker, who ran Victor M. Guerra Inc. in Hidalgo, will forfeit his license. Authorities also seized roughly $88 million in illegal cigarettes-related equipment.