Crime

How a simple traffic stop in Gautier turned into an immigrant smuggling case

Luis Enrique Moran-Vargaz
Luis Enrique Moran-Vargaz

Two of seven people found in a pickup that seats only five people have pleaded guilty in an immigrant smuggling case.

Luis Enrique Moran-Vargaz, 37, and his six passengers, all from Mexico, were in the U.S. without permission when a Gautier police officer conducted a traffic stop on Interstate 10.

Vargaz’ passengers included four men, a male juvenile and one woman.

One of his passengers, 50-year-old Juan Antonio Martinez-Alonso, had returned to the U.S. after being removed twice.

They had no luggage and the passengers’ clothing looked as if they’d recently crossed the Southwest Border, a region known for harsh terrain, a U.S. Border Patrol agent wrote in a criminal complaint. Vargaz didn’t know their names, the agent said.

Their guilty pleas on Monday came two days before the U.S. Department of Justice sent letters threatening to subpoena documents from Jackson and 22 other so-called sanctuary cities. The jurisdictions are accused of withholding information from federal authorities on immigrants and citizenship questions.

In this case, the police officer who stopped the 2003 Dodge Ram on Nov. 28 called the U.S. Border Patrol, court papers show. The eastbound pickup was speeding in a construction zone near mile marker 58.

A Border Patrol agent found Vargaz had a passport from Mexico and his passengers had Mexican ID cards.

Vargaz said he knew his passengers had no permission to be in the U.S., and said he was being paid $200 per person to drive them from San Antonio, Texas, to Greenville, S.C., a court paper said. Vargaz picked them up at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Antonio.

Alonso told Border Patrol he paid $30 for help to cross the border and he paid $2,300 for a ride east from Texas.

The other five in the truck were also taken into custody.

Vargaz pleaded guilty Monday to conspiracy to transport undocumented immigrants within the U.S.

Alonso pleaded guilty to unlawful re-entry by an immigrant convicted of a felony.

Alonso had been physically removed from the U.S. on March 11, 2016, from McAllen, Texas, a document said. Seven months later, he crossed the border again. He was convicted in New Mexico of illegal re-entry, a felony, and was removed from El Paso, Texas, on Dec. 6, 2016.

U.S. District Judge Sul Ozerden will sentence them April 23. They each face up to 10 years in prison. Vargaz could owe court assessments of up to $5,100. Alonso’s assessment could total $100.

U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst praised local, state and federal departments for working together to put together a criminal case.

Chief Border Patrol Agent Joseph Banco,. who leads the Border Patrol’s New Orleans Sector, said the communication between all levels of law enforcement shows that cooperation disrupts smuggling operations and “reduces the ability of criminal organizations to exploit transportation routes.”

Homeland Security also helped in the case that is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stan Harris.

Robin Fitzgerald: 228-896-2307, @robincrimenews

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