Valley suspects plead guilty to deadly human smuggling conspiracy

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Seen is a slide during a press conference at the federal courthouse in Brownsville. (Monitor photo)

Four suspects — three from Roma and one from Pharr — have pleaded guilty for their roles in a deadly human smuggling conspiracy that led to several deaths, including that of a pregnant woman.

U.S. Attorney Alamdar S. Hamdani said in a news release Thursday that the suspects — Pharr resident Juan Manuel Tena, 40, and Roma residents Julia Isairis Torres, 37, Israel Torres Jr., 34, and Jose Refugio Torres, 27 — conspired to smuggle people who were in the country illegally from the Valley to other locations in the country.

One such case occurred in March 2019, when a vehicle the four were using to smuggle people from the Valley to Houston rolled over and led to four of those persons being killed and another suffering “serious injuries.”

Another four migrants died in February 2022, when a watercraft that “Tena and others” used to try smuggling them from South Padre Island to Corpus Christi capsized. Among those killed were a pregnant woman from Honduras and a 17-year-old male from Ecuador.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in the release that Tena admitted — as part of his plea agreement — to recruiting co-conspirators and using motor vehicles and a watercraft in the March 2019 and February 2022 deadly smuggling attempts which he coordinated.

He also had to forfeit property in Roma and Pharr that he had purchased from the money he made in the conspiracy. The USAO did not identify those items.

Julia and Jose Torres said they were involved in the March 2019 smuggling attempt, an admittal that was part of their plea agreement, with Israel Torres pleading guilty in that case on July 26.

State District Judge Roland Olvera has set all four suspects’ sentencing for Dec. 20. They could face up to life in a federal prison and a $250,000 fine.

While Tena is in custody until the sentencing, Julia, Jose and Israel Torres are out on bond until their sentencing hearing.

In a statement, Hamdani painted a bleak picture of the consequences of their actions.

“From the shores of Corpus Christi to the backroads of the Rio Grande Valley, Tena and his associates left a dark path strewn with dead migrants,” Hamdani said in the release. “Eight people, including a pregnant mother, lost their lives due to their actions.

“Like so many others, the victims in this case wanted to come to America for a better life, but Tena and his associates took advantage of them for profit. Now they are going to federal prison.”

Special Agent in Charge Craig Larrabee of Homeland Security Investigations called Tena’s actions and those of his co-conspirators “callous” and that they showed “reckless disregard” for the migrants killed.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Edgardo J. Rodriguez and David A. Lindenmuth are prosecuting the case and Homeland Security Investigations led the investigation.