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LOS ANGELES - A Mexican national has been arrested and charged by U.S. authorities with organizing a human smuggling operation that led to the deaths of 13 Mexican and Guatemalan migrants in a highway crash near the border in Southern California last month.
Jose Cruz Noguez, 47, a legal permanent U.S. resident from Mexicali, Mexico, was taken into custody on Monday as he crossed into the United States at the Calexico port of entry, federal prosecutors said in a statement.
He made his first court appearance Tuesday on human smuggling charges carrying a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.
According to criminal complaint against him, Cruz oversaw the ill-fated March 2 smuggling attempt, recruiting drivers, collecting payments and arranging for associates to cut a hole in the border fence through which two sport utility vehicles crammed with migrants slipped into California that day.
One of those vehicles, packed with 25 people, collided with a tractor-trailer at a highway junction outside the farming community of Holtsville, California.
Thirteen individuals, including the SUV driver, perished in the crash, and the 12 survivors were all hospitalized, authorities said.
Border patrol agents separately found 19 other migrants from the second SUV huddled in nearby brush after their vehicle inexplicably caught fire. Prosecutors said both eight-passenger SUV's, stripped of all but two seats to allow more people to be crammed inside, were part of the same smuggling operation.
Prosecutors said authorities were led to Cruz by another suspected smuggler arrested two weeks after the deadly crash in an unrelated incident.
At investigators' behest, the associate recorded a phone conversation with Cruz in which, according to prosecutors, Cruz confirmed his involvement in the deadly smuggling event, referring to his migrant customers as "pollos" - the Spanish word for chickens - and saying the driver would earn $28,000. REUTERS