Testimony centers on smuggling as Brownsville man faces court - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Testimony centers on smuggling as Brownsville man faces court

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Posted: Wednesday, November 20, 2019 9:00 pm

Details about a human smuggling organization that operates between Matamoros and Brownsville arose this week during the trial of a local man who was found in possession of a 2-year-old boy reported missing by his undocumented mother in June.

The 21-month-old was located unharmed in a home owned by Brownsville resident Rodolfo Vento Jr. in the early hours of June 18, according to both court documents and witnesses who testified at the federal courthouse on Tuesday in Brownsville.

An indictment handed down by a grand jury on July 16 charged Vento with two separate counts involving the harboring and transportation of undocumented persons for the purpose of financial gain. He pleaded not guilty and opted to bring the case to trial.

According to the criminal complaint, the child’s mother, Maricruz Gonzalez-Gutierrez, was apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at 4:40 a.m. after she was unable to scale the border fence past the Rio Grande.

A young brush guide named James Robert Mendoza, paid by a human smuggling operation based in Matamoros known as “Piña” (referred to by CBP as “Pina ASO”), told the court that he scaled the fence with the child in his arms and took off running upon receiving warning from a lookout in a tree that Border Patrol was heading in the group’s direction.

The child’s father, Hector Omar Gutierrez-Marquez, stayed behind in an attempt to assist his wife while the group of an estimated seven undocumented people fled into Southmost with Mendoza and spent the night in a metal trailer at a home owned by Vento, according to Mendoza ’ s testimony and details from the criminal complaint.

A summary of events stated that Gonzalez and Gutierrez were apprehended shortly thereafter.

The criminal complaint signed by U.S. Magistrate Judge Ignacio Torteya III on June 19 stated that Gonzalez “made an outcry” alerting agents that her 2-year-old son had been taken by the brush guide.

The information prompted the Fort Brown Border Patrol Station to direct all of its resources into an area-wide search for the child with the assistance of the Brownsville Police Department and Homeland Security Investigations.

Vento, who appears to have resided on La Plaza Drive in Southmost with his family, was arrested after daybreak on June 18 when BPD officers and an HSI agent found the child in a rear bedroom of his home, according to court testimony.

Local and federal authorities obtained a phone number registered at Vento’s address after Gonzalez shared the number of the smuggler she paid to help the family cross, according to the criminal complaint.

On Tuesday, a responding agent testified that law enforcement discovered the child covered in blankets in the company of two female adults who were sitting on the bed with a young daughter.

Prompted by DOJ attorney Elena Llanos-Salinas, the same agent told the jury that the women did not initially inform officers that the boy was in the room.

Vento’s attorney, Brownsville-based John Russell Davis, responded by prompting the agent to clarify that the women also did not attempt to impede the search of the room.

The criminal complaint noted that Vento granted law enforcement permission to search his home, later telling officers that “a person he only knows as Juan asked him to care for the child because his wife was in trouble.”

However, testimony given to the jury by Mendoza as part of a plea deal alleged that the man worked as the “levantador, ” or the pick-up man, on at least three occasions where Mendoza was paid by an individual associated with Piña to cross a group of eight to nine undocumented people into Brownsville.

The young man detailed three events, beginning on May 27, in which he smuggled or accompanied smugglers across the Rio Grande and into Southmost. Each time, Mendoza, his colleague, and a group of undocumented people, referred to as “chivos” (Spanish for “goats”) or “cajas” (“boxes”), spent the night in a metal shed behind Vento’s home.

Mendoza, who only attended school up to the sixth grade, testified that he was recruited into working with Piña by a friend who lived in his neighborhood. The first time he crossed, a separate man who was referred to as “Gordo Morena,” for his large build and dark skin, took Mendoza with him to teach him the route.

Mendoza was accompanied by 17-year-old acquaintances on the two following trips. The two guides allegedly split 1,500 pesos per undocumented person upon the successful delivery of the group to the pick-up man and the smugglers’ return to Matamoros, Mendoza testified.

The former smuggler, who appeared for his two-day testimony in an orange jumpsuit, detailed that he and a second smuggler were picked up in Matamoros by a driver he referred to as “El Chofer la Piña” in a black Durango around 11 p.m on the night of each trip.

Inside the car, they were accompanied by another person who worked as the “swimmer. ” The driver would take them to “La Bodega, ” a warehouse or stash house where the undocumented people were waiting.

Mendoza, his colleague, and the swimmer would guide the group through the river brush. Upon arriving at the river’s edge, the group stripped down into their underwear. The swimmer then crossed the group two by two using an “inflatable wheel. ”

The swimmer would cross back to Mexico, climb a tree, and serve as the “checador, ” looking out for the movement of immigration officials. The smugglers on the U.S. side of the river turned on a borrowed cell phone.

Upon receiving a call from their colleague, they crossed through the brush. The entire group would scale the border wall using their arms and legs, cross the street nearest the fence, and would then quickly move into Southmost to meet Vento at his gate, Mendoza testified.

On one occasion, Mendoza said that Vento picked the group up in a vehicle that was identified by law enforcement during the investigation. Vento was allegedly responsible for harboring the migrants on his property before they were picked up or transported to other locations, according to court testimony.

Mendoza testified that the mother couldn’t climb the fence on June 18, slowing the pace of the group. He received a call from the lookout indicating that CBP was on its way, prompting the group to race into Southmost. Mendoza had the baby in his arms.

He informed the lookout of the separation and received a call from Piña. The individual allegedly told Mendoza to leave the baby on a street corner so that it would be picked up by immigration authorities.

His sworn testimony indicated that he said “no” and, upon their arrival at Vento’s property, handed the child to Vento, who took the child inside. He says that Piña later instructed the men to bring the child to a hospital or fire station in the morning.

Instead, police arrived at the house around 9 a.m. Vento was taken into custody. A man believed to be his son told Mendoza to leave with the group.

Mendoza, his colleague, and their undocumented group hid in a ditch near La Posada Drive for three to four hours before another individual arrived to take the group to various locations.

The two smugglers were eventually transported back to the bridge and crossed into Matamoros. A summary of events logged into court records as part of Mendoza’s plea agreement states that he was arrested on Aug. 27.

Mendoza pleaded guilty to count two of a superseding indictment, which accused him of illegally harboring or shielding an undocumented person for the purpose of financial gain.

He testified that he and Vento were initially placed in the same jail, and that Vento threatened to send people to harm him after an encounter in an elevator where Mendoza told him the location of his cell. According to Mendoza ’ s testimony, Vento accused the former smuggler of “placing all the charges on him” by cooperating with investigators.

Mendoza was moved to another unit as a result, according to testimony.

A CBP Intelligence agent testified to the jury that he found three phone numbers known to the agency to be related to human smuggling organizations in Matamoros in both a phone collected from Mendoza and call logs from Vento’s Brownsville number.

Vento’s contact in the smuggler’s phone was listed as “levantador. ”

Call logs taken from Vento’s registered phone number referenced language used in human smuggling and several names that the agent testified are known to CBP Intelligence to be involved with human smuggling.

Calls made by Vento in jail that were submitted as evidence indicated that he was collecting small amounts of money for giving undocumented people “rides” and “giving them water, ” both for humanitarian reasons and because he could not find a job.

The official testified that he was unaware of the contents of the calls and possible text messages from Vento’s personal number.

esheridan@brownsvilleherald.com

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