Man charged with organizing smuggling event that lead to 13 dead in Holtville

Taylor Martinez

A 47-year-old man was charged in federal court Tuesday with coordinating the smuggling event that led to the deaths of 13 people on March 2, 2021 in Holtville, just east of El Centro.

Jose Cruz Noguez of Mexicali, Mexico, was charged with Conspiracy to Bring Aliens to the United States Outside a Port of Entry Causing Serious Bodily Injury/Placing a Life in Jeopardy and Bringing in Aliens Without Presentation for Financial Gain and faces up to 35 years in prison.

Cruz, a legal permanent resident of the United States who has spent time in San Jose, California, was taken into custody Monday night as he crossed into the U.S. from Mexico at the Calexico Port of Entry. He made his first appearance in federal court in El Centro Tuesday.

Cruz came to the attention of law enforcement when he was identified by another suspected smuggler who claimed to be an associate of Cruz. The associate was arrested at the Campo Border Patrol Station for an unrelated smuggling event on March 15, two weeks after the fatal crash. The associate pointed the finger at Cruz, telling authorities he had worked for Cruz in the past, and had been recruited by Cruz to be the driver of the ill-fated vehicle from that tragic day. Cruz had offered him $1,000 per passenger, but he declined, the complaint said.

According to the complaint, the events of March 2 unfolded like this:

At approximately 5:56 a.m., Border Patrol Agents from the El Centro Border Patrol Station received a report from the California Highway Patrol of more than a dozen individuals running away from a burning GMC Yukon SUV and into the desert in Holtville, California. Border Patrol Agents were asked to respond to this suspected human smuggling event. At approximately 6:10 a.m., Border Patrol Agents responded to the area and extinguished the fire. Border Patrol Agents also followed foot tracks into the desert and apprehended 19 individuals hiding in the surrounding brush.

Separately, at approximately 6:05 a.m., a Remote Video Surveillance System (RVSS) operator at the Calexico Border Patrol Station spotted multiple vehicles and approximately 20 individuals gathered in a remote area just south of the United States/Mexico border. He also noticed that the border fence in the area had been breached and an approximately 10-foot section of it had been removed and was laying on the ground in Mexico. Border Patrol Agents then reviewed video footage from the area and discovered that two vehicles had crossed through the fence at approximately 5:23 a.m.: the GMC Yukon SUV and a Ford Expedition.      

At 7:05 a.m., Border Patrol Agents at the Calexico Border Patrol Station received a request from the Calexico Police Department to assist with a mass-casualty vehicle crash in Holtville, California. Border Patrol Agents responding to the crash identified one of the vehicles involved as the Ford Expedition that recently had breached the border fence. A total of 25 individuals had been in the Ford Expedition at the time of the crash. Subsequent inspection of the Ford Expedition revealed that all but the driver and front passenger seats had been removed, presumably to fit that large number of people.

Despite the best efforts of law enforcement and medical personnel, 12 individuals – including the suspected driver – died at the scene of the crash. Another individual died on the way to the hospital. The surviving 12 individuals were transported to various hospitals far and wide, including in San Diego.  Many of the survivors were diagnosed with serious injuries.

According to the complaint, on March 26, 2021, the suspected smuggler who claimed to be an associate of Cruz participated in a secretly recorded conversation with Cruz. During the recorded call, Cruz confirmed his involvement in the March 2, 2021, event, including that his other associates cut the border fence; that the vehicles were fully loaded; and that he collected money for the event. Further, Cruz stated there were 60 “Pollos” – his term for customers – in the two vehicles and the driver was going to make $28,000. 

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 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.

Read full U.S. Department of Justice release here

Cruz remain in custody and scheduled a detention hearing for Monday, April 5, 2021 at 9 a.m. At the hearing, Cruz was advised of the charges pending against him. The matter was set for a preliminary hearing on April 13, 2021 at 9 a.m. and arraignment on April 27, 2021 at 9:00 a.m. before Judge Montenegro.  The Court appointed Federal Defenders as defense counsel in this case.

The deadly collision involved a maroon Ford Expedition traveling westbound on Norrish Road near State Route 115 when it traveled “in the direct path” of a big rig truck carrying gravel traveling northbound on the 115.

All of the back seats of the SUV were removed and 24 people were in the vehicle at the time of the collision.

“Mass casualty” car crash involving at least 26 people in Imperial County, at least 13 dead

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