BROWNSVILLE, Texas — Several members of a deadly human smuggling ring have pleaded guilty to conspiring to smuggle noncitizens resulting in multiple deaths following an investigation conducted by Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) with assistance from U.S Border Patrol; the U.S. Coast Guard; U.S. Customs Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations; police departments in Port Mansfield and South Padre Island; the Texas Rangers; Texas Game Wardens; sheriff’s offices in Kenedy, Duval and Willacy counties; and the Willacy County District Attorney’s Office.
Juan Manuel Tena, 40, of Pharr, and Julia Isairis Torres, 37, Israel Torres Jr., 34, and Jose Refugio Torres, 27, all of Roma, conspired to transport noncitizens from the Rio Grande Valley to destinations within the United States. As a result of that conspiracy, eight noncitizens were killed and two others seriously injured.
The four defendants were involved in a human smuggling attempt in March 2019. They conspired to transport noncitizens by motor vehicle from the Rio Grande Valley to Houston; during the failed attempt, a vehicle rolled over and caused the deaths of four noncitizens and serious injuries to another.
Tena and others also attempted to smuggle noncitizens by watercraft in February 2022, traveling from South Padre Island to the Corpus Christi area. The watercraft capsized, resulting in the deaths of four noncitizens and serious injuries to another.
The victims included migrants from Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Ecuador, as well as a 17-year-old boy from Ecuador and a pregnant woman from Honduras.
“Not only did this human smuggler conspire to undermine our nation’s immigration laws for his own personal profit, but eight migrants lost their lives because of his callous and reckless disregard for those who entrusted him,” said HSI San Antonio Special Agent in Charge Craig Larrabee. “HSI remains committed to working with our law enforcement partners and utilizing our unique investigative authorities to bring those responsible for horrible tragedies like this to justice.”
“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. Eight people, including a pregnant mother, lost their lives due to their actions,” said U.S. Attorney Alamdar S. Hamdani. “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. Let this case be an example to anyone thinking about smuggling people in the United States, especially using dangerous means. You will be prosecuted. You will be held accountable.”
As part of his plea, Tena admitted to coordinating and recruiting co-conspirators to transport noncitizens using watercraft and vehicles in March 2019 and February 2022. Tena also agreed to forfeit several properties in Roma and Pharr that he admitted to purchasing with the proceeds he received from the conspiracy.
As part of their pleas, Julia Torres and Jose Torres both admitted to their involvement in the March 2019 failed human smuggling attempt.
On July 26, Israel Torres also pleaded guilty to his involvement in the March 2019 incident.
U.S. District Judge Roland Olvera accepted the pleas and set sentencing for Dec. 20. At that time, all four face up to life in federal prison and a possible $250,000 fine.
Tena has been and will remain in custody pending sentencing.
Julia Torres, Israel Torres and Jose Torres were permitted to remain on bond pending their hearings.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys for the Southern District of Texas Edgardo J. Rodriguez and David A. Lindenmuth are prosecuting the case.
HSI San Antonio continues to address the serious public safety threat posed by human smuggling organizations and their reckless disregard for the health and safety of the people they exploit. To report suspicious smuggling activity, call 866-347-2423.
HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’ largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.